Book Review: Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Category: Historical Fiction
Author: Lynn Cullen
Format: Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC), 322 pages
Publisher: Gallery Books (imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Pub Date: September 24, 2013
Summary from Publisher:
Inspired by literature’s most haunting love triangle, award-winning author Lynn Cullen delivers a pitch-perfect rendering of Edgar Allan Poe, his mistress’s tantalizing confession, and his wife’s frightening obsession . . . in this “intelligent, sexy, and utterly addictive” (M. J. Rose) new masterpiece of historical fiction.
1845: New York City is a sprawling warren of gas lit streets and crowded avenues, bustling with new immigrants and old money, optimism and opportunity, poverty and crime. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is all the rage-the success of which a struggling poet like Frances Osgood can only dream. As a mother trying to support two young children after her husband’s cruel betrayal, Frances jumps at the chance to meet the illustrious Mr. Poe at a small literary gathering, if only to help her fledgling career. Although not a great fan of Poe’s writing, she is nonetheless overwhelmed by his magnetic presence and the surprising revelation that he admires her work.
What follows is a flirtation, then a seduction, then an illicit affair . . . and with each clandestine encounter, Frances finds herself falling slowly and inexorably under the spell of her mysterious, complicated lover. But when Edgar’s frail wife Virginia insists on befriending Frances as well, the relationship becomes as dark and twisted as one of Poe’s tales. And like those gothic heroines whose fates are forever sealed, Frances begins to fear that deceiving Mrs. Poe may be as impossible as cheating death itself. . . .
– From Chapters Indigo website.
Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet
Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen is a deliciously romantic and eerie novel; a historical fiction that closely follows the thread of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and his rumoured love affair with married poet and writer, Frances Osgood.
While the novel is historically placed, its readability is engaging and easy to read without the weight of heavy language usually associated with the Romanticism era.
The margin between the socially privileged and the destitute is vividly portrayed by the novel’s setting found in its frequent double-parlour literary parties called “conversaziones” meant to house artistic discussions, but instead serves to encourage social appearances and juicy community gossip—while Poe’s impoverished shack appears as neglected and devastated as ash and its gaunt and emaciated residents who don’t have enough firewood to burn for heat.
But, the book is not as meager as it is hopeful, while its plot in the first-person narrative of Frances Osgood suffers a great deal of tension; an internal and jarring tug-of-war between morality, obligation, and open desire.
It’s this tug-of-war that compels modern readers (especially its feminists) to cringe with impatience and gratefully enjoy the social freedoms allowed today.
While the story’s narrative is one that works hard at repressing desire, it’s the haunting description of Poe’s wife, Virginia, that dangerously lurks and creates conflict in the novel.
She is, as opposite to her rival, Frances Osgood, a child bride with a pouty temperament to match. Virginia is narcissistic, needy, deceptive, and passionately possessive—all dangerous traits of a wife whose husband is in love with another woman.
The other characters in the book are just as vivid, if not caricatures of values upheld at that time:
Eliza and John Russell Bartlett – Frances’ close friends who not only provide her with a place to stay because her husband abandoned her and her three children; they also try to discourage her relationship with Poe in fear of tarnishing her reputation as a married woman.
Samuel Stillman Osgood – Frances’ absent and philandering husband whose good looks, charm, and ability to paint doesn’t commit him to loyalty to his wife, nor his family.
Anne Charlotte Lynch – wealthy host of literary “conversaziones.”
Margaret Fuller – literary critic for the New York Tribune, who at first appears to be a gossip, but becomes a true supporter of Frances’ ambition for literary success and her relationship with Poe.
Reverend Griswold – A sour competitor against Poe in writing and publishing, and his rival for the love interest of Frances Osgood.
Mrs. Clemm – Virgina’s mother and Poe’s aunt, an overly anxious woman who dotes on Virginia and her needs throughout the book.
The plot will move you easily from page to page, its tension eerily turn into a suspenseful, almost haunting novel, and then effectively surprise you.
And the title, too, is duplicative. Mrs. Poe refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virgina Poe, while Mrs. Poe can also refer to Mr. Poe’s female, literary twin, or rather his soul mate as alluded to by Frances Osgood:
He frowned. “A beautiful woman like you shouldn’t have to trouble your head with this sort of thing, but what if you came up with something as fresh and exciting as ‘The Raven,’ only from a lady’s point of view?”
“Do you mean something dark?”
“Yes,” he said, warming to the idea. “Yes. Exactly so—dark. Very dark. I think there might be a market for that. Shivery tales for ladies.”
“You’d like me to be a sort of Mrs. Poe?”
“Ha! Yes. That’s the ticket.” – pp.5-6.
The rumoured romance between Poe and Osgood seems as ruined as it is forbidden, and the novel itself, a testimony or perhaps a coincidental homage to Poe’s own writing style—a dark and sombre tale filled with mystery.
It is as much about Poe’s life as it is also a comment on a time when social dogma meant propriety over passion, and women were property, rather than persons of equal rights and privileges as men.
For anyone who enjoys reading haunting tales, romance, and/or historical fiction, as well is interested in the lives of literature’s best, in particular Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, this book is an excellent and compulsive read.
Characters: 3.5 stars
Pacing: 4 stars
Cover Design: 4 stars
Plot: 3.5 stars
A special thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada on behalf of Gallery Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.
About the Author:
Lynn Cullen is the author of The Creation of Eve and Reign of Madness, as well as several award-winning young adult novels including I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter. A traveller and historian, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
– From back cover.
Have you read any of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works? Which one(s) do you like the best? The least?
Were you aware of Edgar Allan Poe’s rumoured romance with writer, Frances Osgood?
Do you agree about their relationship?
Do you think marriage should be about security and obligation or about love?
What is your favourite dark tale?