Mrs. Poe

Mrs. Poe - Lynn Cullen

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Opening with several of Poe’s poems, To F--, To F——s S. O——d, and A Valentine, Lynn Cullen certainly makes a case that Edgar Allen Poe and Frances Osgood indeed had a romantic affair in the summer of 1845. Unfortunately, what I don’t think the author makes a case for is why.

Frances Osgood is a writer of some success, particularly with children’s stories and poems about flowers. Unfortunately, none of that seems to be selling at the beginning of 1845, as New York City is overtaken by Raven-fever. Her publisher advises her to spook up her image, become a “Mrs. Poe”, if she wants to make any money. Abandoned by her horndog husband, she reluctantly agrees, though she thinks the Raven is crap and isn’t really shy about saying so. 

That is, until she meets the author and proceeds to lose her scruples along with her livelihood, reputation, common sense, and personality as she trails after Poe like a puppy. Likewise, Poe’s distinctive bite is mostly missing from the story. Together they brood, then declare undying love, and then brood some more. Then write poorly disguised love poems. Then brood. I’m told the couple share a deep, intellectual connection, but it’s never on display. Frances loves the cardboard, Poe-shaped, cutout because he flattered her once.

The love triangle ends up a love sextagon as Frances’ husband, Samuel; noted Poe-rival, Rufus Griswold; and Elizabeth Ellet all throw their hats in the ring. Although, again, why any of them want Frances and Edgar is beyond me. It’s kind of like the line in the Josie and the Pussycat’s movie, “I’m here because I was in the comic book.” They want them because their real counterparts did.

If Poe and Frances have too little personality, Virginia has an overabundance. I described her as a manic pixie arsonist. Early on, Sissy flits about, pushing dour old Eddie to try exciting new experiences like touring PT Barnum’s American Museum and visiting a young Mathew Brady for daguerreotyping. Even as her illness worsens, she still tries to be the fun, exciting kid Eddie knew in his youth, reminiscing on the times she defaced property or ruined Eddie’s personal relationships. So wacky. 

(An aside, this book name drops like you wouldn’t believe. If a famous person lived in 1845, they’re not only mentioned, they’re probably visiting New York and will stop our couple at an inopportune moment! The most egregious is a scene in which Frances is walking with Griswold, who waves away a young man with the words, “Not now, Hawthorne! I’ll read your draft of The Scarlet-whatever soon.” Really? I was shocked out of the story with laughter at how forced that reference is.)

When Virginia isn’t making inappropriate comments or acting like a child, she’s at the center of the gothic “mystery”. You see, Frances is the victim of a few “accidents”. She falls off a boat and is almost run over by a carriage, Her children are almost exploded by a malfunctioning gas lamp. Sissy happens to be at each of the scenes. Coincidence, or (duh duh duh!) MURDER?!

Well MURDER, but with a twist! That relies on the main character being a complete idiot, going into an abandoned church alone, running from her twue wuv, and almost falling off a clock tower. As you do. I didn’t find it tense or interesting, and in a book that claims to be about real people, kind of...libelous? I know it’s fiction and everyone involved is 150 years dead, but it’s supposed to be based on true events and it rubs me the wrong way to detour into The Pit and the Pendulum. Especially since there can be no justice, since we know none of the Poe family did life in prison for killing a famous poet.

The book doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it ends up not being anything. It’s not sexy or scary or an interesting portrait of the Literati. I had the same issue with the last Poe book I read. May be his life just doesn’t lend itself to novelization.