“Mrs. Poe: A Novel”
Author: Lynn Cullen
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Price: $16.00 (Paperback)
There used to be popular fiction and literary fiction. Now we have popular fiction about literary fiction and literary figures. “Mrs. Poe” joins the stream that had its source in “The Paris Wife.”
Lynn Cullen, now living in Atlanta, is the author of numerous novels, including “The Creation of Eve,” “Reign of Madness” and the young adult novel “I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter.”
This novel is set in New York City in the 1840s. Edgar Allen Poe is the literary star of the moment, has been married to his cousin Virginia for 10 years, so she is now 23, and the couple live together with Mrs. Clemm, his aunt, her mother. Many think this to be scandalous, but Poe’s stories and his recent poem, “The Raven,” have made him a rock star, except that he is still extremely poor and Virginia is dying of tuberculosis.
A minor figure in the New York scene is Frances Osgood, poet and translator of children’s stories such as “Puss in Boots” by Charles Perrault. Frances has been deserted by her no-good husband, the portrait painter Samuel Osgood, and is living with friends, the Bartletts. Mr. Bartlett owns a bookstore and is compiling a book of familiar American quotations.
Earning a living writing poetry has always been tough, and Frances usually writes poems about flowers. Editors advise her to get darker, imitate Poe.
On Saturdays Frances goes to a salon, called here a conversazione, where not only Poe appears, but unbelievably, Walt Whitman, transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, publisher Horace Greeley, John James Audubon, photographer Mathew Brady, William Cullen Bryant, editor Nathaniel Willis, and novelist Louisa May Alcott. We also run into the actress Fanny Kemble, the millionaire John Jacob Astor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Clement Clark Moore, who wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” and a young Mr. Roosevelt with a monocle.
Frances and “Eddie” meet and fall in love.
How could they not? How could she resist “the unspoken current of communication between us”? Poe has a “silky mustache”; his “broad forehead” emphasizes his “dark-lashed gray eyes.” They stand so close she can “smell his masculine musk.” Poe’s mouth is “delicate,” yet “hard and disdainful.”
The couple exchange anonymous love poems in Poe’s magazine.
Poe and Frances are soul-mates. She feels herself to be “Mrs. Poe.” Much of this novel is about souls. Poe believes in souls and has written in several stories of souls moving from one person to another, living on or coming back after death or being saved from death by hypnosis at the moment of death. In fact, there is brief discussion of whether the painter or the daguerreotypist—both appear in the novel—best captures the soul.
As the story moves along, it becomes more and more like a macabre Poe tale. Someone is repeatedly trying to kill Frances. Is it Virginia, the dying wife, trying to get her soul into someone else? Frances seems increasingly to resemble Virginia; once they show up in the same dress. Are they doppelgangers?
“Mrs. Poe” evokes 19th century New York City streets and interiors, slums and big houses. With appropriately scary scenes in a graveyard and an abandoned church, Cullen pulls off a decent horror/adventure story.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”