I wanted to love this book, I really did. The promise it held was enormous: historical fiction in old-time New York, the colorful life of the artists and those who followed them, and, of course, the mystery of Edgar Allen Poe. The idea that Poe had an affair with one of his contemporaries was new to me, so the book reminded me a little of Loving Frank. Unlike that book, though, there are mixed opinions on whether the affair actually occurred. For me, the idea that Poe, at 26, had married his 13 year-old first cousin, Virginia, was scandal enough. I mean, really, Francis Sargent Osgood, at 35 (to Poe’s then 36) was a cougar, comparatively speaking.
The book is written beautifully; the details of the young city and the glimpses of so many recognizable people are all that I love about historical fiction. What brought this book down for me was not the writing, but the main character. Francis Osgood, by all accounts, was a respected writer. Even Poe, famous for ripping other writers to shreds, spoke out in favor of her work. Here again I was reminded of Mamah Borthwick, who virtually gave up her family in pursuit of her affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Osgood is in a precarious position in New York Society — a reputable author in her own right, but also the wife left behind by the philanderer husband. The fact that she pursues Poe, despite the position it puts her children in and the friends who are supporting her, is bold for her time, but extremely selfish. The fact that she continues to pursue Poe despite evidence of his wife’s illness, extreme jealousy, and possible madness, seems almost ludicrous.
The other reason I did not love the book was that it just didn’t seem to end. When I finished reading it, I was almost shocked to discover that Poe only lived in New York for about a year. For some reason, this affair seemed to last a decade. Once I finished reading, I did a little online research to see how historically accurate the novel was. Now I understand that it’s a novel, but when you are dealing with actual people, there are some things you have to respect. For one thing, Poe’s wife and her mother, are pretty much presented as lunatics throughout most of the book. This is a little contradictory to Virginia’s depiction in other books as his muse, his devoted wife, etc. who died too young and inspired some of his best writing. For another thing, Rufus Griswold is a character that Francis purports to despise, and yet, when I read more about her, it came up that she dedicated a book to him. Huh? Thought you hated that guy?
Now I must also admit that the picture Cullen paints of Poe makes him quite the romantic hero. If you read this and you want to maintain that idea, don’t look at an actual photo of him, because trust me on this, he does not look like what you are thinking, unless you are picturing Peter Sellers, as Inspector Clouseau. So, I did not love the book, as I had hoped. I enjoyed it, but after a while, I just wanted everyone to stop coughing and let the consumption take them already.