Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
Pub. Date: October 1, 2013
Summary: 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…
Genre: Historical fiction
To say I’m a fan of Poe is a bit of an understatement. At the risk of sounding extremely pompous, I think of myself as an amateur (VERY amateur!) Poe scholar – and even typing that has me cringing. I’ve traveled to his gravesite multiple times, visited his home on numerous occasions, and basically try to read everything about him I can get my hands on. Mrs. Poe naturally caught my eye when it first came out last year, but it wasn’t until my recent vacation (bless you, book jar!), that I finally had the chance to sit down and read it.
As much as I love Biographical Fiction, I was a little hesitant going into this one; that blurb is terrible and makes Poe out to be some sleezy sex god who goes up and down the coast wooing women. While there’s no evidence to support the two had an affair, they wrote multiple poems to each other (both through subtle hints and on full display) and Frances received quite a few letters from her friends (namely Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet who went so far as to insinuate Poe was the father of Frances’s third child) urging her to break contact with the entire Poe family. There was even an instance where Mrs. Sarah Whitman wrote, simply asking about Poe’s health and Frances refused to reply (if you’re curious about any of these letters and would love to read an incredibly in-depth account of Poe’s life, hunt down a copy of The Poe Log by Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson – it’s so worth it!).
I can easily see why a writer would be intrigued and latch onto these two, putting a romantic spin on their friendship. I actually enjoyed Mrs. Poe! Unfortunately, it’s received a LOT of hateful comments and I think people are forgetting the fiction aspect of historical fiction.
The novel opens with a newly-abandoned Frances Osgood attempting to pick up the pieces of her life and find a way to get back on her feet. Her husband Samuel, a well-known painter, has left her for someone far younger and richer and will remain gone until he gets bored. Frances is taken in by her friends, providing both Fanny and her daughters with a place to stay. Fanny’s first collection of poetry did reasonably well and she’s trying to recreate that success – unfortunately, these days, the public would rather read frightening tales like Mr. Poe’s than her love poems and flowery prose.
Mrs. Poe reads like a Who’s Who of the 1840s. Every single get-together and lecture is bursting to the brim with name-dropping (from Walt Whitman to Mathew Brady to the inventor of Graham crackers). Personally I enjoyed this and thought it was fun to see just who would show up. It’s at one of these conversaziones that Fanny and Poe are introduced, kickstarting a friendship that would soon lead to something more. Because the two are both married, any public display of affection would not only be frowned upon, but would utterly ruin their reputations. As such, they keep their feelings hidden, passing letters back and forth, publishing poetry, etc. Fanny even makes it a point of becoming friends with Mrs. Poe!
Once the two meet and the affair begins, the rest of the plot falls to the side and the novel turns into scenes where the two are put into situations where they can interact, be it a societal meeting, an innocent calling at the Bartletts’ home where Fanny is staying, or an invitation for a picnic with the Poe family. There seriously isn’t much in the way of plot, but I was okay with that. I don’t know if it was because I was on vacation when I read this and more open to a carefree read, but I truly didn’t mind the book’s focus on getting the two together. There were multiple chapters where Poe simply appears out of nowhere – Fanny’s walking down the streets in New York (not a tiny little village!) and Poe somehow always knows where to find her.
The one thing I didn’t like about the novel was Mrs. Poe herself. Virginia is made out to be a horrible, vindictive, selfish child. She all but throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way and has no problem seeking revenge on those she feels have wronged her. Admittedly she’s a mere 23 to the others’ mid-30s, but this characterization rubbed me the wrong way. In reality Edgar and Virginia were very much in love – here, however, Poe mentions he can’t wait for her to succumb to her illness (“I’ll get rid of her,” and “But when she dies-,” are just two examples) and spurs her every move.
One other minor detail I noticed was a character that might have been Teddy Roosevelt..?
A mustachioed youth sauntered past, twirling a cane and arranging his face in a superior sneer, a task made difficult by the squint that was necessary to keep a monocle to his eye.
“Oh dear,” I said, “Does young Mr. Roosevelt realize what a ridiculous figure he cuts?”
My first thought was that this was meant to be Teddy. However, that can’t possibly be the case – he wasn’t born until 1858 – nearly ten years after Poe died. His father was also named Theodore and grew up in New York where this novel is set. This ‘young Mr. Roosevelt’ could possibly by Theodore Sr., but he would have only been 14 in this scene. Just who is this person?? Was it all an author error?
Apart from those grievances, I had a fun time reading Mrs. Poe – and that’s high praise coming from a Poe fan. The characters the reader is supposed to root for simply aren’t likable and the villains are completely maligned in their characterization. I suppose it’s odd that sentence comes right after my praise of the novel, but so be it. I feel that as long as you understand this is a work of fiction rather this historical fact, you should have no problem reading – and enjoying – Mrs. Poe.
One final annoyance that has nothing to do with the actual story: at the end of the novel there’s a Reader’s Guide complete with an author interview. While Poe’s name (Edgar Allan) was spelled correctly throughout the book, Simon & Schuster spelled it as Allen MULTIPLE TIMES in their interview questions. Oh dear..