Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen is a fictionalized account of the speculated and oft-rumored love affair between Frances Sargent Osgood and Edgar Allan Poe. While far more rumor than fact it did create an enticing premise for this mysterious and romantic work of fiction. Living in New York City in the mid 1840’s, after being abandoned by her husband Samuel Osgood, Frances (Fanny) is raising her two daughters and trying to earn a living as a poet and writer; Edgar Allan Poe is at the height of his fame with the recent publication of “The Raven” and the two meet at a conversazione of New York literati. After Poe praises her work during a public appearance and later invites her to meet his wife, Virginia, who claims to be an admirer of Osgood’s work the two quickly become friends and confidantes. According to rumors and Cullen’s novel this friendship quickly becomes a torrid love affair resulting in the birth of Osgood’s third daughter.
Cullen takes a lot of liberties with the factual history of the relationship between Poe and Osgood. While this is indeed a work of fiction it would have perhaps been better served if the author had held to traditionally accepted fact and taken liberties only by describing how those events occurred. To speculate on flirtation and/or attraction between Poe and Osgood is acceptable however to describe a full affair between the two which resulted in a child may be pushing too far especially when the characters involved are two of literary history’s most beloved authors. The portrayal of Mrs. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s first cousin and young wife, was a disappointment especially considering the book description describes her as, “more manipulative and threatening than she appears.” While she isn’t the child-like and innocent young woman she appears to be she is far from threatening; instead she merely gossips, fuels scandal and makes a few foolish attempts at revenge. She is a fool and hardly a terrifying villain.
The literary parties or “conversaziones” hosted by Margaret Fuller were enjoyable moments in the story. A few of the authors depicted at these events appeared to be written as caricatures of themselves rather than portraying their true selves but I speculate that was to condense the novel. To delve into the personality and life of each author in attendance would have required a massive text. The novel did read, at times, like a who’s who of New York literati and became a bit overwhelming. Throughout the novel I believe Cullen may have mentioned every author living in New York during the 1840’s - Margaret Fuller, Rufus Griswold, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne (in a rather abrupt and forced brush-off by Griswold), William Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, etc. It was too much.
In the second half of the book it took a deep turn into the absurdity and, in what felt like a forced attempt to increase the drama in the novel, accident upon accident befalls Fanny Osgood and her children. Set amidst the fascinating world of New York’s literati Mrs. Poe offered a unique view into the life of one of history’s most unforgettable literary figures but it doesn’t deliver. Cullen simply tries to fictionalize too much of the history surrounding two beloved literary icons. As far as Cullen’s writing, it’s beautiful and intoxicating. I fell deeply in love with her style and phrasing; she is a talented wordsmith and I suspect will find much success as an author.
Review by Ashley LaMarClosed the Cover