Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Mrs. Poe.
Mrs. Poe is both revelatory and fascinating: a novel of Frances Osgood, poet and mistress of Edgar Allen Poe in mid-19th-century New York City. Married to a portraitist who loves his subjects as much as his art, Samuel Osgood is a known philanderer who has left his wife and two daughters to pursue his fortune in the arms of his wealthy subjects/current paramours. Without funds, Frances is taken in by her friend, Mrs. Eliza Bartlett, whose husband, Russell (renowned for Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations), is part of a thriving literary community. As a published poet, Frances is invited, along with the Bartletts, to a new salon frequented by both writers and publishers. Desperate for funds to care for her daughters, Vinnie and Ellen, Frances is eager to attend the salon.
It is a momentous occasion for both Frances and Poe, though for unexpected reasons. Enjoying a wave of popularity since the publication of “The Raven,” Poe is in demand for such events, even though his harsh criticisms of fellow poets is not looked upon kindly by the all-male literary community. Poe arrives with his lovely but consumptive wife on his arm—his cousin, Virginia. Too shy to approach Poe, Frances is nevertheless captivated by the intensity of his dark-lashed eyes and his refusal to pander to those he disagrees with. Poe has a reputation as a genius of unpredictable temperament, his writing both titillating and repulsing readers who keep clamoring for more. From a background of poverty and tragedy, the poet is all the more irresistible to women who strive to be his muse.
That role is claimed by his wife, the young cousin he married at thirteen, thereby cementing his reputation as an outlier. It is not Frances’s intention to intrude on Poe’s notoriety nor even make his acquaintance, but when he seeks her out, the attraction is unmistakable. Both parties refuse to acknowledge it: “I knew…I should keep my distance at all costs. I knew that I would not.” When Virginia Poe requests that Frances visit their home, it is impossible to resist. While the salon habitués clamor for a report from Frances, she is torn between the need to make friends and sell her work and her instinct for privacy. The visit is a shock, their home not as she expected and the relationship between husband, wife and mother-in-law complicated by Virginia’s waning health. Frances is pulled into an uncomfortable situation as Virginia demands more opportunities for them to get to know one another, making the attraction between poet and poetess more difficult to navigate.
The lovers are doomed, by circumstances, by society and by fate. But the enchantment is in the telling, the exquisite tension of the chase between lovers, the agony of certain consequences. Frances is helpless to resist the pull of Poe’s magnetism, with everything to lose. Poe is inflamed with the passion of a lover finally matched with an equal, regretting the hasty marriage to a woman who has remained a child. Each action has consequences in 1845, a woman’s fall from grace leading to poverty and despair, children snatched from parents by random disease, a rigid society with no place for outcasts and no tolerance for rebellion. Made vulnerable by a husband who treats her with little regard and no resources, Frances is a woman adrift in a world ruled by the whims of men. Her love for Poe affronts society, those who people her literary circle not averse to nursing hopes of their own with Mr. Osgood busy elsewhere. Cullen renders this tale beautifully, balancing of the inevitability of the outcome and the irresistible force that draws the pair together, the poisonous jealousy of Poe’s wife and his contemporaries, the tragedy of their short period of happiness.
I must confess to an ignorance of the facts. I drank the Kool-Aid, swallowing whole the Poe mythology—addict, monster, the twisted mind of an evil man. In her Author’s Notes, Cullen reveals that Poe’s biographer, Rev. Rufus Griswold, created the Poe of his own image, consumed with jealousy of the man and with Frances Osgood, whom he coveted for himself. Like the Tudor histories of Richard III, Griswold tortured the truth in order to besmirch his nemesis. Thanks to Cullen, I have a different perspective on Poe and an interest in the tragic Frances Osgood: out of place, out of time, and doomed to love the master of the macabre.