Thursday, January 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

It was inevitable that I would read Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. I’ve been a fan of Poe since I was a kid and I love historical novels about literary figures. While I knew that Poe’s life had been difficult and ended in a tragic and mysterious way, and was also aware of the odd tidbit that he had married his thirteen-year-old cousin, I was not aware that for a brief time rumors swirled that he was involved with a married woman. This book is told from the point of view of that woman, Frances (Fanny) Osgood.

The book opens in 1845, in New York City. The recently published poem, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, has taken the city, in fact the whole country, by storm. Fanny Osgood, a struggling poet, a young mother abandoned by her philandering portrait-painting husband, cannot understand the poem’s appeal. It’s wordplay, not true poetry. It has no emotional depth.

Fanny and her two young daughters have been taken in by an old friend, Eliza Bartlett, and her husband. If not for their kindness, Fanny doesn’t know how she would survive. Although she has successfully published poems in the past, currently all anyone is interested in is more in the macabre vein of Mr. Poe’s The Raven.

Fanny runs in literary circles, thanks to her friend’s support and her own reputation. It isn’t long before her path crosses that of Edgar Allan Poe. To her surprise, he publicly compliments her work, though he is known for being ruthlessly critical of the poetry of others. Although he is generally antisocial and protective of his young (and frail) wife, Virginia, he invites Frances to his home, hoping that she and Virginia will become friends. At least, that is the excuse.

Virginia is consumptive and, although it isn’t spoken of outright, she is dying. She is also jealous, manipulative, and strange. Fanny is very uncomfortable around her. However, Edgar and Fanny are drawn to one another and a friendship between Fanny and the couple is more socially acceptable than a relationship between Fanny and Edgar alone. And yet, a relationship does develop between them. They write flirtatious poetry to each other that is published in the literary journal Poe edits. They imagine themselves to be getting away with their emotional affair but no one is fooled. Least of all, Mrs. Poe.

This is a fascinating look at New York literary society in the mid 1800s and a disturbing love triangle. Lynn Cullen does a wonderful job of drawing New York and of making the people come alive. Even if you are not so much a fan of Poe, this is wonderful historical fiction.