Readers may not readily associate Edgar Allan Poe with a tempestuous love triangle, but Lynn Cullen’s Mrs. Poe (Gallery Books, 336 pages) could change that.
The Atlanta author is famous for bringing half-forgotten historical figures, such as Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissoula in Creation of Eve, into the limelight through her fiction. Her latest novel follows Frances Osgood, a real-life 19th-century poet and children’s book author, who may have had an affair with Edgar Allan Poe. In Cullen’s telling, previously raised suspicions about the two are given full validity as Osgood and Poe embark upon a passionate relationship. Virginia, Poe’s young, sickly wife, appears at first to sanction it, but as the two writers’ connection intensifies, her feelings change.
Set in the energetic New York of the 1840s, amid the city’s shining literati, the atmosphere of the novel is transportive. Fans of 19-century American literature will enjoy Cullen’s depictions of famous literary figures; Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott and, briefly, Herman Melville make appearances.
Poe sparkles in his dark brilliance. His pensive quietness, passion, anger and literary genius counter Frances’ poise and Virginia’s jealousy. In contrast, the female protagonists’ character development is unfocused and their motivations unclear. The plot, too, is unsatisfying, pulsing with promise only to resolve in a disappointing whimper. But despite these shortcomings, Cullen’s vibrant prose, lush setting and insight into the lives of fascinating historical figures make this a compelling read.
At the center of the novel is Frances Osgood, and it is from her perspective that the story is told. Her painter husband has abandoned her for a wealthy patroness, and Frances must support herself and two daughters on her writer’s income. She knows that her reputation is important and realizes that she imperils her writing prospects and social position if she forms a romantic attachment with Poe. She already feels the fallout from one scandalous relationship. But despite her better judgment, she begins an affair with Poe. Yet there is little to justify a connection with him. Their shared commitment to poetry and Poe’s insistence that their coincidental meetings signify a deep bond are not convincing.
But if their relationship feels foundationless to the reader, it does not seem that way to Virginia. Cullen’s depiction of her transformation from approval to suspicion is brilliant, and chilling. Her initial acceptance of Frances turns murderous as she observes the romantic attraction between her husband and her friend. The tension builds as Virginia becomes more possessive and jealous. Her actions, in their creepy and persistent aim to unseat the master’s lover, are resonant of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
The arc of the novel pivots the reader toward a macabre tale in the vein of Poe’s own shivery stories as the question arises of who is the real “Mrs. Poe,” the woman married to him or the one who inspires him? As the climax approaches, the plot takes a sharp turn, divorcing Virginia from the path for which the story line prepares her. What could have been a dark tale of vengeance and envy devolves into one of mere misunderstanding.
But ultimately, and despite the unsatisfying ending, Mrs. Poe is a captivating novel. Cullen’s attention to historical detail, lush prose and enlightening evocation of an interesting moment in American literary history make this story a fascinating read.
Lynn Cullen will speak at the Decatur Library at 7:15 p.m. Monday, September 30.