Catnip for Classic Lit Lovers
By Lynn Cullen
Gallery Books, 2014
The triumphant success of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” compels fledgling poet Frances Osgood to meet her literary idol, a mysterious, complicated man who soon has her under his seductive spell in an all-consuming affair. And when Edgar’s frail young wife breaks into their idyll to befriend her rival, Frances fears that deceiving Mrs. Poe may be as impossible as cheating death itself. . . .
In her novel, Mrs. Poe, author Lynn Cullen describes Edgar Allan Poe as “catnip” to female members of the New York literati circa 1845. I’m happy to say her historical fiction novel had the same effect on me.
Long have I been a fan of Poe and his macabre tales and reading Cullen’s book sent me straight to my copy of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, not to revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but instead in search of his love poems to Frances Sargent Osgood. Their flirtations on paper and in public caused quite a scandal back in the day. And they intrigued Cullen enough to write Mrs. Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe’s writing career was very up and down, a sad fact that unfortunately can be said about his life as well. Tragedy seemed to haunt Poe at every stage. Born to actor parents in Boston, MA, he was abandoned by his father and orphaned at age two when his mother died. John and Frances Allan took him in as a foster child but never formally adopted him. Poe stayed with the Allans until attending the University of Virginia. A notoriously cheap man, John Allan sent Poe to university with only enough money to pay for tuition, nothing for living expenses. Poe gambled what meager pittance he could scrape up in hopes of doubling his money, but instead lost it all and eventually dropped out of college.
Poe and John Allan had a difficult relationship, but they reconciled briefly when Allan purchased him a commission at West Point, which was, of course, a terrible fit for young Edgar, who had been writing since his pre-teen years.
Lost and destitute, Poe got himself court martialed so he could leave West Point and went back to Richmond, Virginia, to live with his mother’s relatives, where he was robbed by one cousin before being taken in by his mother’s sister, Mary Clemm, who had a daughter, Virginia. Finally with comfortable shelter, Poe began writing and sold various pieces here and there. He married his cousin Virginia when she was 13. He was 26. Maybe it was a marriage borne out of loneliness? Or perhaps Poe wanted to provide for his aunt and cousin? Many Poe scholars believe he very much cared for his young wife, but it has been speculated the marriage was never consummated.
Professionally, Poe made a name for himself as a literary critic, and a harsh one at that. Known as “The Tomahawk Man,” his words and struck down many of his contemporaries, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was only Frances Sargent Osgood whom he praised.
|Edgar Allan Poe|
And that’s where Cullen’s story begins.
Frances’ husband, the painter Samuel Stillman Osgood, had abandoned his wife and two girls in pursuit of a wealthy socialite who had once sat for a portrait, very typical behavior for Samuel, so it seemed. Frances and her daughters were taken in by the publisher John Russell Bartlett and his wife, Eliza, after being kicked out of the luxurious Astor House hotel unable to pay the large bill Samuel ran up before he left. Already a fairly established writer, Frances sets out to further build her career at a time when no woman but Margaret Fuller had yet to support herself with her writing, save perhaps, Louisa May Alcott who shows up later in the book.
At the same time, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has just been published, and he is the literary toast of the town. Everyone is clamoring to meet the original mind behind the stories, particularly Frances who has been told by her editor to write something more like Poe, something to scare women readers.
They meet at one of the many “conversaziones” held at the home of Anne Lynch, monthly literary salons whose attendees included many of the New York literary circle, including Margaret Fuller and Poe nemesis Rufus Griswold.
I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling the book for you. Suffice to say, it is a tale worthy of Poe himself. Cullen recreated New York in the mid-1800s with great attention to detail. I looked forward to every one of Lynch’s conversaziones, eager to see who would show up next. Herman Melville? Samuel Morse? Walt Whitman? James Audubon? Matthew Brady? This was a well-written, thoroughly researched piece, my friends. And the love triangle was thrilling!
Fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, Mrs. Poe was definitely a bibliophile’s delight.
Reading Mrs. Poe sent me in search of the real events in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood. I’ll discuss the formidable Mr. Poe.