Over the past year I’ve had a few opportunities to revisit the genius that was Edgar Allan Poe, a main character in the thoroughly engaging new novel Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. Poe’s literary work has inspired every dark fiction writer who succeeded him as well as an inconceivable number of other twisted, creative minds. Late last autumn I watched The Raven, an interesting but flawed graphic crime thriller about a madman committing murders in the mid 1800s inspired by Poe’s writing, starring John Cusack and directed by James McTeigue. Earlier in 2013, I became addicted to a brilliant new television series called The Following starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. It’s about a charismatic, yet psychotic serial killer who engages with other killers and psychologically disturbed individuals to create a cult who follows his every, Poe-inspired command. I’ve had a volume of Edgar Allan Poe Stories (published by Platt & Munk in 1961) on my book shelf for years and was compelled to start reading it after I finished reading Mrs. Poe so that I’d be more familiar with his most popular work. I’m not the only one who is captivated by the mythology of Poe and if you’re equally interested, I’d recommend adding Lynn Cullen’s novel to your reading list.
Based on the true story of Edgar Allan Poe’s obsessive liaison with Frances “Fanny” Sargent Osgood, Mrs. Poe begins in the winter of 1845 and concludes in the winter of 1847. During that period we’re transfixed, like peeping Toms gazing through a forbidden window, by Cullen’s spin on the mythology of Poe. In her story, he’s at the height of his literary fame in New York City following the publication and astounding success of “The Raven.” He’s married to his much younger cousin Virginia Clemm who is slowly dying from tuberculosis and they live in poverty with Virginia’s mother, Maria (“Muddy”) who runs their household while subversively trying to rule their lives. Poe is constantly writing and attending literary conferences as well as a weekly gathering of New York’s literary crowd hosted by Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch, where he meets and is captivated by the writer Frances Osgood. Unfulfilled in his mainly chaste marriage, Poe cannot help but be drawn to lovely, yet lonely, Mrs. Osgood but is soon surprised to discover that his wife is also interested in getting to know her better.
Mrs. Poe is narrated by Fanny, whose no-good, cheating, artist husband, Samuel, is usually nowhere to be found, leaving his wife and two daughters to subsist on the charity of her dearest friends, Eliza and John Bartlett. We care about Fanny, an intelligent, attractive woman of 33 whose talent as a writer has impressed Mr. Poe. Although he’s a man appreciated by the ladies, his image is that of a moody alcoholic who doesn’t seem to have many friends and who no one really knows, although that doesn’t stop them from speculating about his character. In particular, critic Reverend Rufus Griswold, loathes him because he has an obvious crush on Fanny. Griswold encourages her to stop writing the flowery poetry and children’s stories that she’s known for and start to contribute stories of the macabre to The Evening Mirror. Fanny finds that too difficult a task but agrees to interview the Poes for an insider’s look into their personal lives for a payment that she can’t afford to turn down.
In the meantime, Mrs. Poe asks Edgar to bring Fanny home to meet her, not realizing at first that he already has feelings for her. Although her mind is sharp, Virginia is a small, pretty, fragile woman who depends on both Edgar and her mother for everything. Fanny’s visits continue for over a year and steadily become more unpleasant for her as she becomes more deeply embroiled in a secret affair with Edgar, with whom she has been exchanging public love poems that incite gossip among their readers. Edgar makes every effort he can to be in Fanny’s presence without revealing his motive, but she can’t help but notice that Virginia is becoming very suspicious. Strange mishaps and accidents occur involving Fanny, who worries more and more for her own safety as she pieces together evidence that points directly at Mrs. Poe.
Lynn Cullen infuses her historical novel about unfortunate love with equal parts mystery and sensuality and does an excellent job of creating a backdrop for the New York literary society, on which she paints a vivid cast of characters. Poe is depicted as the complex man that he undoubtedly was…someone who took his writing very seriously but who was largely insecure about his talent despite the public’s reaction to it. A man who marched to the beat of his own drum, he cared little for what people thought of him personally and was ready to leave his wife for Osgood.
An essential supporting cast assists in setting up opportunities for Edgar & Fanny to meet while peppering the background with references to famous people of the time (Walt Whitman, Audubon, the Astors). Although the cover is lame in my humble opinion, the prose is well written and easy to read while suspense builds with a slow burn that ultimately leads to the final explosive denouement.
This tale is not unlike a Merchant Ivory film: slow moving, filled with dialogue, gorgeously depicted and ultimately rewarding to those who watch the whole thing. If you read Mrs. Poe to the very end, you’ll be satisfied that it was worth the effort. Now that I’ve read it and Poe’s most celebrated stories, I want to go back and re-watch Season 1 of The Following all over again.