Hauntingly Beautiful: Mrs. Poe

Mrs PoeThere’s nothing quite like the heartache of an illicit love affair. The clandestine meetings, the stolen kisses, the longing that lovers have for one another whenever they’re apart. Throw in 19th century societal restrictions and the most famous writer of the time and you’ve got the makings for one heck of a book. Enter, Mrs. Poe.

To be clear, whether the love affair that’s the basis for the story ever actually existed is a subject of debate, and there seems to be more evidence supporting its falsity than its fact. But, whatever. The book isn’t claiming to be a scholarly discourse and shouldn’t be treated as such.  What is known for certain is this:  poet Frances Osgood met Edgar Allan Poe in the spring of 1845. Poe’s poem, The Raven, had come out in January to instant success and Poe was, at that time, the talk of the town. Frances was a married woman; Poe was a married man. They engaged in a “literary flirtation” in the pages of the Broadway Journal. But as far as any actual affair goes, that is a matter of speculation. Oh, but what fun speculation it is in the pages of Mrs. Poe.

Author Lynn Cullen immerses us in an authentic feel of old New York. The detail she brings to the story adds a depth to the pages that just sucks you right in and doesn’t let go. The story is beautifully atmospheric; you feel like you’re walking along those energetic, smelly, crowded, vibrant New York streets right along with Frances Osgood. You see the pigs and chickens rooting around 14th street. You see the shocking poverty in the city juxtaposed with frequent references to John Jacob Astor. You meet the literary characters of the time: Louisa Alcott, P.T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, Samuel Morse, Ralph Waldo Emerson. There are many others introduced as well, and we feel like a time traveler being allowed to drop in on the great poets, writers, and thinkers of that time.

Along with the atmosphere, of course, is the focus of the book, which is the affair between Frances Osgood and Edgar Allan Poe. Who knows if they were actually lovers, if they actually had the intense, emotional, aching affair that Ms. Cullen imagines. But they could have, and that’s really the point. If they’d had an affair, here’s what it would have been like, Ms. Cullen tells us. Poe was known for his temper, his scathing criticisms, his excessive drinking. That’s all part of the story. But what really makes this book interesting – the element that grabs you by the jugular and hangs on tight –  is the triangular relationship among Poe, Frances Osgood, and Poe’s young wife, Virginia, his first cousin whom he married when she was just thirteen. (yikes!)

The relationship between Frances and Virginia starts out pleasantly enough but devolves into intrigue and revenge when Virginia suspects that her husband and Frances have become lovers. Despite being stricken with tuberculosis that would eventually kill her, young Virginia’s not going down without a fight.  She’s like foxglove – beautiful on the surface but poisonous beneath. I really enjoy how author Cullen weaves together so many intriguing elements into one seamless story. The fierce yet secret love between Poe and Frances just tears at your heart, and Frances is terribly conflicted about it throughout the book. She doesn’t want to destroy Poe’s marriage or her own, for that matter (her husband, at least in the book, is a relentless philanderer who regularly abandons his wife and children for months at a time). She and Poe are soul mates but destined to love that which they cannot have.

Yes, there are elements of the story that I had trouble with, but not enough to have taken away from this beautiful, romantic, heartbreakingly wonderful story. Mrs. Poe is out on October 1. Let yourself get swept away.

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