Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Mrs. Poe.
The heart of Cullen’s intensely grand Victorian novel is the notion of forbidden desire. Mrs. Poe purports to be all about choices, although there’s something fatalistic about writer Francis “Fanny” Osgood’s scandalous affair with Edgar Allan Poe. The inevitability of Poe and Fanny’s choices are beyond frustrating and yet completely irresistible, ultimately bringing utter heartbreak to everyone involved—especially to Poe’s consumptive wife, Virginia, who seems to resent Fanny at every turn.
In 1845 Manhattan, hooped skirts flounce and hooves crash against cobblestones, as loud as the huge-wheeled phaetons always drumming past. Cullen’s city teems with men of vision and artistic sensibilities, all anxious to see their dreams become reality. Transportation, indoor plumbing and the invention of Morse code are just some of the factors pushing New York’s inhabitants from starvation to wealth as fortunes are made and lost. This is especially true for Fanny, who has had some luck with her story collections for children but is increasingly under pressure from her publisher to come up with something dark in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
Recently abandoned by her husband, Samuel, Fanny is well-versed in a world where few females of any sort have ventured into the hallowed business precincts of New York. Despite this isolation, however, Fanny loves her best friend, Eliza Bartlett, who has taken in Fanny and her two children after Astor House turned her out. Having once had an idealistic vision of a future in a house full of love, Fanny must now face the realities of her situation, aware that all she has are two pennies in the expensive reticule on her arm.
Gaslight flickers in the sconces of the double parlor at Waverly Place, the home of Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch. The usual members of the New York literary establishment are present amid a humble scene of intellectual earnestness, untainted by the crass influence of money. Prior to “The Raven,” Poe was best known in literary circles for his “poisoned pen,” yet all now present have come face to face with the sheer malice of his dark side that seems so inured to the suffering of others. Catching Edgar’s discomfiting, beautiful and terrible gaze (“I caught a glimmer of sorrow behind her brave smile”), Fanny recognizes firsthand Poe’s anguish, despair, and his blackening artistic fury.
As poor, sickly Virginia begins to cough—a “little bride with a handkerchief constantly pressed to her mouth” —Poe turns his charm and good looks on Fanny. Slim, immaculately dressed and with a broad forehead emphasizing “dark-lashed gray eyes” from which he stares with a cold, clear intelligence, Edgar believes—or perhaps tries to convince himself—that because his wife is ill, she will not care for his dalliances. But as Virginia’s incessant blood-splattered coughing gets worse and worse (presided over by her mother, Mrs. Clemm, who spoons out doses of medicine like candy), Mrs. Poe proves to be a formidable adversary, cleverly calibrating her revenge on Fanny.
While the machinations of Mrs. Poe keep us constantly turning the pages, the romance between Fanny and Edgar is most beautiful and engrossing. Wild and untamable, Poe’s words are “currency” while Fanny knows full well what her own poetry could unleash in him. Recognizing a kindred spirit of sorts, Fanny sees the wildness leaping from Edgar’s eyes, receding back “as if whipped into submission.” But is Edgar a plain and simple predator, a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” a callous, cruel philanderer unthinking of the health of his consumptive wife? Poe’s raw yearning thrills and terrifies Fanny, his voice thick with furious urgency: “You’re all I’ve ever wanted, I have waited for you my while life.”
Gravitating between hate and fear, Fanny soon determines to possess her new lover no matter if it kills her. But when her dreams are tragically shattered over and over again in a place where they have no one but each other, Fanny’s vision of herself as a “pathetic love-starved married woman, perhaps overreacting to some kisses and a few longing looks” produces the hot wave of anguish that makes her go weak at the knees and transforms her from a passive observer into a scandalous, shamed adulteress.
Cullen makes it easy to imagine and even sympathize with Fanny’s state of mind as she attempts to rise above the indignity breaking around her. Frustrated by convention, Poe struggles to restrain himself within the rules of civility as his soul searches Fanny, becoming like an aphrodisiac more powerful than forbidden fruit. Poe’s lust and loyalty to his art is as justifiable as his ultimate choice to stand by his wife, even when he’s swept away by the cool, hard river of passion running underneath.