About ten years ago I was given a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works for Christmas and spent the next few months slowly working through his stories and poems. I was already familiar with the more famous ones, but I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer he actually was and I enjoyed discovering the rest of his work, from the wonderful creepiness of Ligeia and the mystery of The Gold Bug to the satire of The Angel of the Odd and the eerie beauty of Silence: A Fable. By all accounts Poe’s private life was almost as interesting as his fiction, so I was naturally drawn to this new novel by Lynn Cullen with the title Mrs Poe.
I had assumed that the Mrs Poe of the title was Poe’s cousin Virginia Clemm who became his wife at the age of thirteen, but while Virginia does play a big part in the story, the title also refers to another woman – the poet Frances Sargent Osgood, with whom Poe may have had an affair. As the story begins in 1845, Frances is separated from her husband, the portrait painter Samuel Stillman Osgood, and is struggling to earn enough money through her writing to support herself and her young children. Her editor suggests that perhaps the type of poems and stories she writes (children’s stories like Puss in Boots and poetry about love and flowers) are not what people want to read and she should try something darker, becoming “a sort of Mrs Poe”.
However, Frances’ work has already brought her to the attention of Poe himself and when the two are introduced, a friendship begins to form. After this, Cullen’s novel starts to deviate away from the known facts. Poe and Osgood certainly had a relationship of some sort and exchanged romantic poems but it is not known whether they were any more than just platonic friends. In Mrs Poe there’s no doubt that Frances is in love with Edgar, so when she is befriended by his young wife Virginia, who is suffering from tuberculosis, Frances doesn’t know what to think – especially when she starts to experience a series of accidents and misfortunes whenever she’s with Virginia. Does Virginia really want to be her friend or does she have a more sinister reason for wanting to spend so much time with Frances?
The story of the two Mrs Poes is set within the world of nineteenth century American literature, which means there are lots of descriptions of meetings with publishers, salons attended by authors and literary critics, and even some brief mentions and appearances from Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers and poets. This does help to give us a feel for what life was like in the literary world of 1800s New York, but when P.T. Barnum, Samuel Morse and other historical characters began to appear as well, I thought it started to feel too overwhelming.
I have tried two of Lynn Cullen’s books now – this one and The Creation of Eve, the story of female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola – and while they are both entertaining enough, I’m not sure she is really an author for me. I love the fact that she chooses such interesting subjects for her novels, but neither of the two I’ve read have the depth I look for in historical fiction. This one had the potential to be a great story but the focus on gossip, scandal and the social lives of the characters started to bore me. I think with a title like Mrs Poe I had also expected something more gothic and mysterious and was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t – although the story did become a lot more compelling halfway through when Frances began to feel threatened by Virginia.
This book wasn’t a great success for me, but I would still recommend it to other readers who are interested in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood.
I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley