Published by Gallery Books
Publication date: October 1st 2013
Mrs. Poe is author Lynn Cullen’s fictional look at the relationship between American poet Frances Osgood and Edgar Allen Poe, told from Osgood’s point of view. The novel opens in Manhattan with Osgood trying to sell some of her poetry, as her portrait painter husband has abandoned her and their two daughters for a wealthy divorcée. Despite her husband’s disappearance (which is not discussed in polite society) Osgood still moves in literary circles, thanks to friends like the Bartletts (he wrote Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations) with whom she and her daughters are living.
Cullen carefully combines historical facts with the charged emotions of the Osgood/Poe relationship to create a novel that satisfies on many levels. Through her we hear of New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant’s belief in a green space in New York before it is all gone, a “central park” as it were. It is like looking through a peephole in time to see the greatness of Manhattan that is taken for granted (Central Park, Greenwich Village) as the ideas they were in the mid-1800s. Also fascinating is to read of people and news of the time—a Mr. Graham who wanted people to eat largely vegetables and whole grains, including his homemade (graham) crackers. Or to see the elderly Mr. Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America, being carried outside on a blanket and being unceremoniously tossed in the air four times. “Good for the blood” explains the doorman.
At the same time Osgood’s situation highlights the less-than-equitable relationship between men and women. Men could leave and take up with others but if the woman filed for divorce she would lose her children. There was no way to compel a wayward husband to support his children or to force his return. Even within these confines Cullen manages to give women a voice, from the outspoken Mrs. Fuller who champions the rights of everyone from native Americans to the criminally insane to the real Mrs. Poe. Mrs. Virginia Poe, a cousin of Edgar’s who he married when he was twenty-three and she was thirteen (what is it with these guys?!). When the Poes make their debut in New York society ten years later she is a lovely but sickly young woman in the care of a much older husband. Yet, despite her frailty, upon meeting her Osgood thinks
Her skin, I noticed, was nearly as translucent and white as the cup itself. One could just make out the tracery of blue veins beneath it, giving one the odd sense that another creature altogether lurked just inside her flesh.
What she lacks in physicality Virginia makes up for in temperament. In some ways she is still a child, delighting in meeting famous people and having a well-known husband, but in others, she is wise beyond her years with a devious mind and no intention of losing her husband’s affection. This juxtaposition of mental strength (even if slightly off-balance) against a body with “no more substance than a sparrow” is a marvelous addition to the plot.
Mrs. Poe brings to life people we may all have heard of, including Edgar Allen Poe himself. Previously, he has been portrayed as a drunkard and drug addict but that truth is a bit clouded by the fact that much of it was written by one of Poe’s greatest enemies. Instead, Cullen shows a passionate man of great intelligence and little interest in kowtowing to society for society’s sake. At the same time, she creates doubt similar to what one feels when reading his stories. Is he a man trying to fulfill his obligation to his dying wife with kindness and attention or is he truly a sociopath, with no thought for anyone but himself and a tendency towards violence? These textured layers infuse a historical love story with a macabre mystery in the style of Poe. Unexpected circumstances, guilt, and danger flicker in and out of the novel until its very end.