I wouldn’t call myself a great fan of Edgar Allen Poe. I read the requisite stories and poetry in high school. You know the drill. It’s Halloween and your English teacher pulls out “The Raven” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” and they try to be all spooky. As a modern teenager you think “um, what?” and your teacher is all “think about the mind who made this up and how freaky he is.” My teenage daughter gets his darkness much more than I did when I was her age.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school and my college English classes that I figured out just how unusual Poe was. It’s all about context. It’s all about understanding him in his element. It’s also about understanding death and darkness.
Lynn Cullen’s “Mrs. Poe” does a wonderful job setting the scene of Poe’s world right after “The Raven” was published. It was a world being drawn into the Industrial Revolution and Poe’s world is full of people pushing the boundaries of the acceptable.
Mrs. Francis Osgood, a poet in her own right, has been left by a philandering portrait painter and needs to make a living to raise her two girls. Francis is struggling with her creative muse and is told by a publisher to try her hand at the frightening like Mr. Edgar Poe’s work. Poe’s poem “The Raven” has become such a smashing hit that even the children on the street are quoting it. Francis jokes with the publisher that she should write like Poe and be known as Mrs. Poe.
Francis, a periphery member of creative society, rubs shoulders with people like Louisa Alcott, Matthew Brady and Walt Whitman. Many of these people would find great fame later, but in 1854 they are all trying to push forth new ideas like transcendentalism and abolitionist thought.
It is in this setting that Edgar and Francis meet. Poe becomes a great supporter of Francis and asks her to meet the real Mrs. Poe, his cousin ten years his junior, who is either immature or mentally troubled. Edgar and Francis’ attraction moves from mere creative appreciation to passion. The real Mrs. Poe watches all of this with a cunning you do not expect.
Cullen plays out for the reader what might have happened that year they met. It is historically recorded that Francis Osgood was Poe’s mistress and Cullen brings to life a frightening tale of how it might have happened.
I read this book in a 24 hour period. When I finally turned the last page, I reflected on my surprise at how dark it was. It should not have surprised me one bit and, yet, after reading Francis account of her affair I was left with a chill. There could be no happy ending, for we all know Poe’s life was anything but happy.
One of the interesting opinions Cullen shares through her story is that Poe brought the darkness of his childhood with him into his adult life by marrying Virginia, his cousin. Not only did he marry a child, she was a mere 13 year-old, but he strapped himself to a person who was not yet able to mature. Every day Virginia served to remind Poe of the death that followed his family and the loss he’d experienced.
At one point, Poe talks about the soul.
“If by a soul one means the creature who lives within each of us, a creature born loving, born joyful, but who with each wordly blow shrinks more deeply into its shell until at last, the poor desiccated thing is unrecognizable, even to its own self, yes. I do.”
His world was dark. I believe, based on Cullen’s tale, Francis brought a lightness to his world that he desired. More than a light, she brought a normalcy he lacked. Francis could absorb his dark and shine light in his life.
Yet, having said all of that, he chose the one person he could never truly have. He chose a path which would inevitably end in loss and pain.
This leads me to the other thoughts floating in my mind as I finished the book. This book is not merely about a love affair ending in pain. It is also about the intersection of creativity and the mind. Now, many years after high school, I understand why Poe’s tales were so shocking. He brought to life questions of morality, death and pain. When you compare him with his peers of the time, Whitman or Thoreau, it is shocking that he would so reveal the inner workings of the human mind.
Cullen’s “Mrs. Poe” is a superb read whether you’re looking for a story about human desire or just a frightening read about madness.