When I saw Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, I couldn’t resist. I volunteer at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore every now and again. One of the things I usually have to explain is how this is the house where he fell in love with the teenager who later became his wife. Virginia, his younger first cousin, lived in the same house, a tiny little place on a corner in west Baltimore.
So I’ve thought a lot of about her. Poor thing was married to Edgar Allan Poe at 13 and dead by 24. As a volunteer in their house, I’ve wondered what Virginia was like and what made Edgar marry her.
Mrs. Poe takes place in New York in Virginia’s final days. Poe is trying to make a go of his publication while “The Raven” has made already him famous. The story is written through the eyes of poet Frances Sargent Osgood. Here’s a story I’d never heard. Fanny, as she was called, befriended Mrs. Poe and was close to Mr. Poe. How close? Well, that’s one of the reasons to keep reading, isn’t it?
Lynn Cullen’s story begins with plenty of name-dropping social scenes: literary salons, lectures and the like. Louisa May Alcott appears and Samuel Morse and Mathew Brady. New York City is crawling with literary celebrities and other creative folk. There are terrific glimpses of mid-19th Century New York. Most of the city hadn’t yet been developed. Central Park is only a topic for debate.
The story turns into a romance as the forbidden passion between Edgar and Fanny heats up. And then, it takes a turn to the dark side. Someone, perhaps Virginia, is trying to kill Fanny. There are strange accidents and fearful scenes. I wouldn’t dare give away the ending.
It’s a captivating read. Well drawn characters, especially Edgar. Ms. Cullen presents him as a popular man about town, a man of passion and romance — as the author of “Annabel Lee” and other poems must be. There are so many interesting characters to meet, from Eliza and Russell Bartlett (known for his book of quotations) to the Rev. Griswold (who had gloves in every color). And I loved seeing New York as it must have been a century and a half ago.
I have my reservations but they are the reservations of a Baltimorean. I scoffed as a hint of improper romance. I sniffed at the depictions of Mrs. Clemm, Virginia’s mother and Edgar’s aunt, and Virginia. But in the end, I think perhaps she did them justice especially in her imagining of such a story.
Ultimately, it’s a book I had to read cover to cover as the story grew romantic one moment and turned dark the next.