Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen is historical fiction about a consuming affair between Edgar Allan Poe and the poet Frances Sargent Osgood (available October 1, 2013).
It’s 1845 and Edgar Allan Poe is basking in the success of “The Raven,” his most popular work to date.
In February of that year, Poe gave a lecture in New York in which he criticized American poetry but singled out Frances Sargent Osgood for praise, saying she had a “a rosy future” in literature. This is perhaps what inspired Cullen to write this novel, told from Osgood’s perspective, which fictionalizes the seriousness of a relationship between the two poets.
There isn’t much to the plot. The story has them both unhappy in their marriages and attracted to each other through their loneliness and art. Frances Osgood is trying to sell some poetry, and Poe, as an editor, attempts to help her. And that’s enough of a link, apparently, on which to hang a romance. The title is meant to, I think, suggest something of a puzzle.
Virginia Clemm is Mrs. Poe, but will Frances Osgood be the next Mrs. Poe or even pretend to be the current Mrs. Poe? The reader is also meant to wonder if Virginia has set some sinister force to work at splitting Poe from Osgood. But not only does history not support such a theory, the single extant photo of Virginia shows a beautiful, angelic looking woman, not the vampire the author would like us to see.
Overwrought at not being together, Poe says to Osgood:
'Damn it, I don’t care. I have acted the gentleman for far too long . . . I’m tired of it. I’m tired of these charades. I need you, Frances. I love you. It’s dishonest for us to be apart.'
In another exchange between the star-crossed lovers, Osgood is running after Poe to return a pair of gloves; she finds Poe standing outside a graveyard.
He caught my wrist.
‘I need you.’
‘This cannot be.’
‘Then why did you come?’
‘We’ll be outcasts.’
‘I don’t give a damn.’ He crushed me to him. In the dim glow of a gas lit street lamp, I could see the wildness in his eyes. His raw yearning thrilled and terrified me. His voice was thick with furious urgency.
‘You are all I ever wanted. I have waited for you my whole life.’
If these two poets weren’t so forgetful, there would probably be no love affair. Soon after the lost gloves are returned, Osgood forgets her bag, and Poe returns it.
His face was anguished and furious and resolute. I glanced away. When I looked back, he grasped me to him. He gazed down upon me as if to devour me, then, with a groan, seized me to his lips.
Oh, brother. Poe fans have recently had to suffer through The Raven with John Cusack and The Following with Kevin Bacon, but this novel hits a new low with Poe as the haunting hero in a bodice-ripper.
When he spoke, his voice was thick with desire. ‘Woman.’ Slowly he lifted my veil, then taking my face tenderly in his hands, brought his lips to mine. I melted into his kiss.
I gasped from the pain of his withdrawal when, in time, he broke from my mouth. He swept me up and carried me to the bed, and careful, as if I were something precious, he lowered me to the velvet counterpane. He opened my bodice, first gently, and caressed my swollen flesh, until driven by need, roughly, tremulously, he pushed back my skirts. I seeped with desperate fullness as he gazed upon me freeing himself from his clothing. I guided him to me, and crying out as I was raked with excruciating pleasure, I received him, fully, at last.
There’s a bit of an ick factor working here; however, I couldn’t help but laugh trying to picture Poe “thick with desire” saying “Woman.”
Margaret Fuller describes Poe to Rufus Griswold in the novel as “cool and hard and smart, with a river of passion running underneath. Women just want to dig down to the river. And he’s wild, somehow. Untamable. We can’t resist that in a man.”
I just can’t picture it. Poe was very popular at New York literary salons; he was brilliant, a raconteur and literatus. Not because, as the author suggests, he was “known to be sexual catnip to the ladies in his time.”
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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.
Read all posts by Susan Amper on Criminal Element.