My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Edgar Allen Poe, in the eyes of modern readers, is many things, including enigmatic, gothic, talented, and a bit crazy. As author Lynn Cullen imagines him, he’s talented, enigmatic, and romantic. Yes, romantic. He fell madly “in love” with his young cousin, Virginia, ten years before this novel begins, but the marriage hasn’t developed as he might have wished. Instead, Virginia is still childlike and very sickly, and while Edgar does love her, any eroticism that he felt originally has long since dissipated. The constant presence of Edgar’s mother in law doesn’t help matters. Now he’s the toast of New York, and while attending an intellectual salon, meets Francis Osgood, a minor poet trying to eke out a living, as her profligate husband has deserted her and their two daughters. Edgar and Fanny are instantly attracted to one another, and a love affair, first platonic, then increasingly sensual, blooms. But Mrs. Poe, though frequently bedridden, isn’t blind, and as her suspicions grow, so does the tension, and, Fanny learns, danger.
Ms. Cullen has skillfully used the few existing grains of factual information about this relationship to pieced together a consuming romance which, in the pages of this novel, obsesses both Edgar and Fanny. Her attention to detail, her ability to bring the gas lit streets and mansions of the city to life, and her very human character portrayals, especially of Poe himself, are enthralling. Cameo appearances are made by the literati of the era, and Fanny encounters one famous personage after another. Imagine meeting Louisa May Alcott, Mathew Brady, and Walt Whitman as you sashay down Fifth Avenue. Actually, there’s a bit too much celebrity sighting, leading the reader to wonder if anyone ordinary lives in the city, but it’s a fun situation to picture. One of the personages in the book, the editor Rufus Griswold, did a thorough character assassination of Poe after his death, and Ms. Cullen has done a service by providing a more sympathetic image of the man, who had to be more complex than the one presented by Griswold. Mrs. Poe is intelligently written, and while it is historical fiction, it’s refreshing to shake up one’s notions and consider alternative possibilities to biographies believed to have been set in stone.
Edgar Allen Poe
Virginia Clemm Poe
Frances Sargent Osgood