Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen

I came to the conclusion in the last couple of years that I don’t like poetry.  When I was younger, I used to be able to slog through it and pretend to care, but my patience with the art-form seems to have been used up and is no longer present in my matrix.  When I see verses of poetry in the books that I read, I’ll often skip over them – if the author really wants to make an important point with it, they’ll usually reinforce what they’re getting at in the next paragraph.  There is, however, one major exception to this rule, and that’s Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.  There is just something so dynamic and enthralling about that poem that I can read it over and over again, and I usually do when I drag out my omnibus volume of Poe’s works around Halloween.  When I saw my latest read at the book store, Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen, I was intrigued, and thought this would be an excellent opportunity to learn something about Poe’s private life.

 Mrs. Poe is actually the story of Frances Osgood, who was a poet in her own right in 1840s New York.  When Frances’ husband deserts her and their children, she is forced to find ways to support her family herself.  To do so, Frances tries to publish her poetry, but the market and public tastes have recently changed because of the wide-spread popularity of Poe’s The Raven.  In order to keep her foot in the door of the publishing world, Frances attends social events where the literati of New York are present, and it’s in these settings that she meets Edgar Allan Poe himself, and starts a love affair with him.  The rest of the story is about Frances’ attempts to spark her creativity, her love for Edgar, and her anxiety over how she is perceived within the Victorian world-view of those around her.

What I so enjoyed about this work was the world that Cullen created to base her story in.  It’s clear that Mrs. Poe is a highly-researched story; Cullen was able to craft her plot set in a world of Victorian values, within the increased growth and dynamism of New York, and it’s coupled with a veritable who’s who of the era’s luminaries.  Frances and Edgar rub shoulders with Mr. Bryant, the founder of New York’s Central Park, Dr. Graham, famous for his nutritional crackers, and Samuel Morse, creator of the famous code used for telegraph communications, amongst others.  Every social opportunity was a chance for Cullen to illustrate to her readers how dynamic the era was, and how important it was in the foundation of American culture.  It was incredibly well done, and really enjoyable to read.

The characters that Cullen created were also a treat to read about.  It can be hard when an author is working with characters based on real people to make them believable and engaging, but Cullen was able to do so.  Frances is presented as a middle-aged mother of two who is desperate to be self-sufficient but also self-fulfilled, something all women can empathize with.  Edgar is presented, not as his reputation has become over the years as a frightening maniac, but as a man living with the scars of a difficult childhood and an extremely sick wife; he’s been humanized by Cullen beyond just being the creator of some of the best ‘shivery’ tales in American literature.  While the other characters in the story fade into the background against these two main characters, it’s hard to miss having a vibrant secondary cast, given how dynamic Frances and Edgar are.

The problem with the story of Frances and Edgar is that the historical record leaves much to be desired.  As I mentioned, they were living in an era when Victorian values influenced daily life, but it’s known that they trade love poems back and forth, that Frances got pregnant around that time (while she was estranged from her husband), and that several poem after they would appear to have broke off their affair implies they had one.  But, because we can’t know for certain when, where or why they broke-up, Cullen has had to extrapolate and create a reason; I think one of the only flaws this book has is the reason why Frances broke off with Edgar – it seems way over the top and unbelievable, even for the master of the mysterious that Poe was.  However, this one plot point is minor (the writing was on the proverbial wall before it occurs), and doesn’t really detract for the larger whole of the book.

So, final verdict?  I would definitely recommend this book.  I found it to be engaging, interesting and dynamic in terms of the characters, the history, and (for the most part) the plot.  I think if you’re a fan of Poe, you’ll be a fan of this work which proposes a back-story for the man behind the stories.  If you’re new to Poe, I still think you’ll enjoy this book for the way that it’s written and its plot.  So, pull your chair up under your pallid bust of Pallas (which should be found just above your chamber door), and dive into this one – it’s a great read!

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