Putting the “Interest” in “Love Interest” in Mrs. Poe
What makes a love interest interesting? That question was a particular challenge for me while writing my novel, Mrs. Poe. In the minds of most people around the world, my romantic male lead, Edgar Allan Poe, automatically conjures the image of a gloomy, shifty-eyed madman--not exactly a sexy beast. No matter that this image, cemented in our consciousness by his photographs, poems, and tales, doesn’t represent the man who wrote ‘The Raven’ in 1845, the year of my story. We are stuck with it. My mission while penning Mrs. Poe became to bring Poe’s image in line with the actual man. Because truth be told, in 1845, our Edgar was a hunk.
In 1845, Poe was 36 years old and, by all accounts, good-looking, intelligent, polite, and well-groomed. As one contemporary put it, “He was every inch a gentleman.” Poe thrilled the ladies with his charisma and sexy reading voice; they swooned when he recited ‘The Raven.’ If they had worn panties back then, they probably would have thrown them at him.
This watercolor done from life by John A. McDougall in around 1845 is said to be an accurate portrayal of Poe. It’s a far cry from the pictures we are so familiar with—pictures which are from the last year of his life, when he was ill, not exactly a good time for one’s close-up.
Unfortunately, that while Poe’s attractiveness in his prime, combined with his talent as a writer, made him a magnet for the ladies, it also earned him enemies. In one of the most bizarre twists in literary history, his bitter rival, Rufus Griswold, became the executor of Poe’s papers. It is Rufus Griswold who is responsible for the image we have of Poe today.
Griswold’s doctoring of Poe’s reputation began the moment he got his hands on Poe’s effects. He changed Poe’s letters. He made up stories about Poe’s insanity, saying Poe staggered down the street waving his arms and flying at strangers. He wrote a largely fanciful biography, painting an ugly picture of the poet. Poe’s own scary works only gave credence to Griswold’s slander, although Poe wrote his dark stories because he desperately needed the money, not because he was a grim guy. Throw in Poe’s portraits from his sickly last year of life, and voila! Poe the wild madman was born.
My task, therefore, was to restore Poe as the sort of matinee idol (pre-matinee) that he was in his brief (one year!) prime. I assembled accounts and portraits of Poe from 1845-1846 and then did what novelists do: filled in the blanks with my imagination.
So what became the main ingredient of making my Poe compelling? His unattainability. Not only did I want my narrator, the poet (and his purported lover) Frances Osgood, to always be striving to understand him, but to not easily possess his affection. Because if there is one thing most of us humans have in common, it’s our yearning for what we can’t have. There’s a reason that soap operas keep viewers tuned in day after day even though very little action may happen—viewers are waiting for the girl to get the guy or vice versa. Once the lovers do get together, viewer interest quickly wanes.
With this in mind, I made my Poe a mysterious man who holds his emotional cards close to his chest. I kept his passion simmering just below the surface and gave him both a dry sense of humor and wonderfully wide kind streak, as well as keen intelligence. Come to think of it, I just described my ideal man. I hope my Edgar Allan Poe will be yours, too.
About the book:
Title: Mrs. Poe
Author: Lynn Cullen
Genre: Historical Fiction/Woman’s Fiction
Publish Date: April 1, 2013 (Paperback Release)
Publisher: Gallery Books
Event organized by: Literati Author Services, Inc.
~ Book Synopsis ~
In the nationally bestselling MRS. POE (Gallery Books; April 1, 2014; Trade Paperback; $16.00), award-nominated author Lynn Cullen uses meticulously researched historical details to deliver a pitch-perfect rendering of Edgar Allen Poe, his mistress’s tantalizing confession, and his wife’s frightening obsession, all inspired by literature’s most haunting love triangle.
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 Allen 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 fledging 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 its elf.
Much like T he Paris Wife, MRS. POE combines literary fiction with reimagined historical drama; much like Poe himself, Lynn Cullen captures his mysterious and macabre tone. While providing a voyeuristic peek into the heart and mind one of the history’s most fascinating literary figures, Cullen explores the themes of artistic expression, social standing in the 1800s, and the self-ownership of women.
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Two weeks later, I was tucked beneath a thick buffalo robe, riding downtown in Miss Fuller’s carriage. I had been too nervous to enjoy the trip or to appreciate Miss Fuller’s carriage, pulled by a clopping bay. That Miss Fuller was the only woman in New York to support herself by writing, let alone to have enough leftover to buy her own buggy, mattered little to me at that moment. Why had I agreed to meet Poe? And why would he want to meet me? He had already made and broken an appointment the previous week. I had been relieved by the cancellation, only to become agitated once more when he set up a different date. As suddenly and inexplicably as he had championed my poetry at the New York Society Library, he could withdraw his support if I said something wrong. Who knew what triggered the man’s tomahawk?
Miss Fuller jerked on the reins. “Here we are.” She looked at me expectantly, as if I should climb out of her trim little gig without her.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the doormen to take your reins?” I asked.
“Take my reins? Oh—did you think I was coming with you? No, no, dear, I’m off to investigate a slum on Hester Street. You really thought I was coming with you? I only meant that I would take you
here. I thought your husband would appreciate my escorting you since he is, as you say, out of town.”
“Would you rather I came with you to the slum?” I asked.
“And have you jilt Mr. Poe? I wouldn’t dare.” Miss Fuller steadied her horse, then waved me toward the hotel. “Go on. It will be good for your books.”
Reluctantly, I climbed out from under the heavy robe. I held my breath as the carriage rattled away.
I found myself on the sidewalk before the hotel, contemplating an immediate about-face up Broadway when I felt someone’s presence behind me. Before I could move, a man said, “Lord help the poor bears and beavers.”
I turned to find Mr. Poe, his black-lashed eyes trained upon the building before us. Without a hello he said, “Davy Crockett’s words, upon first seeing this pile.”
I hesitated. “Because of Mr. Astor’s fur trade?”
He continued as if I had not spoken. “But Crockett was mistaken. It wasn’t the bears and the beavers that made Astor’s fortune. It was the opium he bought from the Chinese.”
I looked at him in surprise. “Mr. Astor deals in opium?”
He kept his gaze upon the hotel. “Whenever you see this much wealth, assume that someone dirtied his hands. Fortunes don’t come to saints.”
“I’ve never thought of that.”
He gave me a sharp glance. “Really?”
I drew back, chastened.
“Mr. Astor prefers to be known for the slaughter of animals rather than for his association with opiates. I wonder why that is.” He lowered his sights to me. “Shall we enter, Mrs. Osgood?”
So he did recognize me. I preceded him inside, into the hot maw of the lobby. As we walked past impressive people dressed in beautiful clothes, I felt low and insignificant, a ne’er-do-well’s abandoned wife, although my gown was as fine as anyone’s. What a sham I was.
I stopped to face him. “Congratulations on the success of ‘The Raven.’ ”
He frowned as if insulted.
“People love it. I hear talk of it everywhere I go.”
“‘People’ have no taste. Don’t tell me that you think it’s a work of genius.”
Was this a trick? I scanned his dark-rimmed eyes for clues.
When I did not answer he said, “Thank you, Mrs. Osgood. You’re the first honest woman I have met in New York.” He shook his head.
“It is my luck that I will become famous for that piece.”
Still not sure that I shouldn’t be gushing, I switched to safer ground. “May I ask what you are working on now?”
“A book on the material and spiritual universe.”
He watched me coolly.
“I’m sorry. I thought you were joking.”
“I never joke.”
“Of course not. Excuse me.”
“Although I wish I were. It will never sell.”
“Your work always sells,” I said lightly.
“Not any of my works with a true idea in them. People want to be titillated or frightened. They don’t want to think.”
I smiled hesitantly. What did he want with me?
“This is why I singled out your poems in my lecture,” he said. “They have real feeling in them, if one reads between the lines.”
I could not help but be disarmed. “Thank you. I find that the thoughts spoken between the lines are the most important parts of a poem or story.”
“As in life.”
I reluctantly met his intense gaze. “Yes.”
“I am particularly taken with your poem, ‘Lenore’:
So when Love poured through thy pure heart his lightning,
On thy pale cheek the soft rose-hues awoke—
So when wild Passion, that timid heart frightening,
Poisoned the treasure, it trembled and broke!
I swallowed my surprise. “You memorized it.”
An elegant couple drifted by, he in succulent wool and she in layers of costly lace. Mr. Poe frowned. “It spoke to me somehow, and not just because I had written a poem with the same title and had used the name in ‘The Raven.’ ”
He stared at me.
I looked away. Why had Mr. Poe called this meeting? Surely he had better things to do than to raise the hopes of an unknown writer.
“You are probably wondering why I wished to meet you.”
I drew in a breath.
“Actually, it is on behalf of my wife.”
He frowned slightly at my unnecessary question. “She is a great reader. I have taught her all of the classics. I like to encourage her when she shows interest in good work, and your poems, Mrs. Osgood,
I pictured the pretty woman-child I had seen at Miss Lynch’s conversazione. I wondered if it was my poems for adults or for children that she admired.
“Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Poe. I wish she were here so that I could thank her, too.”
His expression hardened. “She has had bronchitis. Her recovery has been long and difficult. There was no question of her going out today.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“The few times she has ventured beyond our home have only served to set her back.”
“I am truly very sorry.”
He glanced away, then glared as if I’d offended him. “You will not hear her complain. She’s a brave, good girl. If I could only take her to Jamaica or Bermuda or some such hot clime, I’m certain she would become well.”
Why did they not go, then? With his success, surely he had the money.
“I hope she gets well soon.”
His expression settled back into cool civility. “It is bold of me to ask—we are perfect strangers, and you have obligations to your husband and family—but might you come visit her someday? I know
from looking into your eyes that you are a good person, and kind, and that your gentle association might help her.”
That was why he wished to meet with me? Ashamed of my disappointment, I exclaimed, “I should like very much to meet her! Might I have the pleasure of visiting her at your home?”
“Mrs. Osgood, you are too kind. Yes. Yes, we’d like that very much.”
“When would you like me to come?”
“At your convenience.”
“Would next week suit you?”
“Name your day. Any day. I will arrange my schedule around you.”
“Monday? In the afternoon?” I saved my morning hours for writing . . . writing, that is, what I hoped would be my imitation of his work.
He bowed, as stiffly formal as if in a royal court. “We would be so grateful.”
He gave me directions to his home on 154 Greenwich Street, then bowing again, left me in Astor’s parlor with all the frippery that bears and beavers and opium could buy.
About the Author
Lynn Cullen is the author of T he Creation of Eve, named one of the best fiction books of the year by The Atlanta Journal- Constitution; and Reign of Madness, nominated for the Townsend Prize for fiction. She is also the author of numerous award-winning children’s books, including I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter. An avid traveler and historian, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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