“1845: New York City is a sprawling warren of gaslit 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…”
Thoughts: The most fascinating aspect of Mrs. Poe is the fact that it is based on fact. Poe really was something of a ladies’ man, and his wife was sick. There are documented links between Frances Osgood and him, and Virginia did accuse him of straying. Any poetic license Ms. Cullen took with history fits so seamlessly into the narrative that the entire story becomes distinctly possible.
However, the idea of Poe as an Objet de l’amour is difficult to fathom and something Ms. Cullen does not explain very well. Unfortunately, one’s entire enjoyment of the novel hinges on the believability of Poe as a love interest. Without it, one finds it difficult to understand how Frances would be willing to throw caution to the wind and enter into an affair with a married man. The image modern readers have of Poe as a depressed drunkard with other mental issues does not fit with the dashing man of the hour portrayed in the novel. It is not to say that Poe wasn’t highly attractive and charming; it is just that his reputation has evolved to be the antithesis of how he appears in Mrs. Poe.
Speaking of Mrs. Poe, she is quite the passive-aggressive she-devil. Scenes in which she plays a role are the most cringe-worthy but also the most interesting, as readers and Frances are left wondering just how much Virginia knows about the direction of her husband’s affections. With her illness, it is easy to categorize Virginia as a victim, but Ms. Cullen does a brilliant job of hinting at her lack of inaction towards her failing marriage.
As for Frances, she is only a mediocre character at best. Her situation with her husband is tragic and unfair, and her unwillingness to put up with his cheating is admirable given how few options she really has. Still, Frances spends much of the novel waffling about her feelings for Poe, which is a large contrast to how decisive she is in other aspects of her life. She is not unlikeable, but she is just not quite as interesting as Virginia’s insidiousness.
Mrs. Poe is an interesting novel insofar as it presents Edgar Allan Poe in a completely different light. The fact that the story does have a factual basis behind it makes it even more fascinating. One cannot call it anything but light-hearted fare however, although that is not always a bad thing. Those looking to obtain more insight into the mysterious Mr. Poe may be disappointed by how little insight one really gets. However, the twisted ways in which the two women battle it out for Edgar’s regards do make for an intriguing story, while the insight into the social norms of the mid-1800s is quite intriguing. In all, Mrs. Poe is a decent hypothetical glimpse into one of literature’s more shadowy and famous authors.