In the early 1980s, in a sixth-grade classroom in rural Ontario, a teacher used Edgar Allan Poe’s stories to supplement the assigned reader for that year’s English studies: a bitter experience for me as a young reader.
I loved books – they were my best friends at that time – but Poe’s language and structure were foreign to me. The ideas in the stories were deliciously satisfying, but they seem buried beneath a mass of unintelligible words.
Now when I look at “The Tell-Tale Heart”, I’m unsure which elements of the vocabulary seemed so overwhelming, but I recall long lists of words on the blackboard for which we had to write definitions.
Well, ‘dissimulation’, sure: I’d have to look that one up today. And I suppose that words like ‘presently’ would not have been immediately understood. (Perhaps not all that far from young Ramona the Pest being disappointed on her first day of kindergarten, having been asked to sit still for the ‘present’ and later being bitterly disappointed to not have received a wrapped gift.)
But, even more than that, I believe it was the plethora of phrases that could comprise a single sentence which overwhelmed me: it would have felt old-fashioned to a reader accustomed to Trixie Belden and Enid Blyton stories. Sometimes the action in the sentence did not appear until the very end, and often four words were used where one might have done: it was convoluted and exhausting.
And, yet, this is exactly what I hoped to find in Lynn Cullen’s novel, Mrs. Poe. Throughout my reading, I craved a more Poe-like style.
Perhaps this is partly my personal inclination, but the novel is solidly rooted in literary history, in the history of New York City. (You can hear/read an excerpt here.)
It is a pleasure to see parts of the past appear on the page, fact knitted with fiction. When characters dine at Delmonico’s, it’s easy to imagine, with the help of archival photos from a few decades later displayed online.
(In the novel, for example, E.A. Poe eats there with Margaret Fuller. The Poes and the Osgoods rub proverbial elbows with all sorts of literary personages, meeting Clement Moore at the corner of Amity and Broadway one afternoon, just in passing.)
And, of course, the characters at the heart of the novel are not fictional: Edgar Allan Poe, his young wife, and Frances Osgood.
Scholars are divided as to whether E.A. Poe and Frances Osgood were lovers, but Lynn Cullen posits a scenario which affords that opportunity; she displays a series of events which, as she states in the note at the end of the novel, “could have actually happened”.
She researched substantially. In the process, she was surprised to find a pervasive darkness in Poe’s life; she expected the darkness in his fiction but, in fact, his personal life was suffused with loss and sorrow to a startling degree.
What one finds in Frances Osgood’s writing is rather different. “But to rediscover Frances Sargent Osgood, one need only read her poetry. There, between the pages, her wit and passion gleams, as does her everlasting love for Edgar Allan Poe.”
Yet this is not an uncomplicated literary pairing. Frances Osgood also has a relationship with E.A. Poe’s young wife. In Lynn Cullen’s novel, they become friendly when Frances Osgood is invited to the Poe family’s home.
Mrs. Poe inquires as to how Frances Osgood came to write her translation of Perrault’s “Puss in Boots” and exclaims with enthusiasm when she learns that Osgood has two daughters. “Oh, how lovely! Eddie and I are dying to have children! I want to fill a house with them.”
(I realize that many readers will find this style and tone inviting, accessible, and perhaps even working to narrow the gap in years between now and then; nonetheless, I yearned for the complicated Poe-like language that I recalled from years past.)
The tension in the novel resides in the adulterous passions. “I was not his ‘Mrs.’ His real wife was sick and helpless. And I had a husband, whom I had once loved with all of me, and I had his daughters, the lights of my life who depended on me to behave, even if their father was a scoundrel.”
The complications which ensue are predictable, but the emphasis on the impact on creative endeavors is an interesting layer to the story. The excerpts from the works of both writers, which seem to hint at their intimate involvement are intriguing. And, of course, there is a direct impact in the wake of the affair.
“I had been a writer, before becoming consumed by my love for Mr. Poe. If I were to become known again as a serious poet, and not just for the gossip spun around Mr. Poe and me, I must produce something of worth soon. Now, more than ever, it was important for me to make my bread at it.”
Fictionalizing biography is a divisive matter: some readers love it and others feel that it betrays a fundamental truth that cannot be unearthed honestly.
For my part, I share Carol Shields’ view: “This seems to me to be fiction’s magic, that it attempts to be an account of all that cannot be documented but is, nevertheless, true.”
I’m intrigued by the thought of this relationship being imagined in fiction, on the pages of Mrs. Poe, even though I would have preferred a different tone for its telling.