Even if you are not an English major like I am, you have probably heard of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most well-known American poets. If you have no idea who Mr. Poe is, then you should probably go to the library, pick up a collection of his short stories, read them and then come back. For those of you who do know who I’m talking about, this book might strike your fancy.
The story is centered on the popular literary society during a time in the mid-1800s when writers were as famous as actors are today. Writers such as Anne Lynch, Margaret Fuller, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman and many more make an appearance or are spoken of by characters throughout the book. Other characters based on famous people include Fanny Kemble, Samuel Morse, Samuel Osgood, Rufus Griswold, John Astor, etc.
Before reading this book, I had no idea that some scholars believe the famous female poet and narrator of the story, Frances Osgood, and Mr. Poe had a secret love affair during the time Poe was married to Virginia (Poe’s cousin, whom he married when she was only 13), and it is true, according to proof of love poems exchanged between Osgood and Poe in a magazine. However, no one can know for sure if the affair was sexual or just an act for publicity, but Cullen gives a quite convincing tale that the birth of Mrs. Osgood’s youngest daughter, Fanny Fay, was a result of the affair.
Throughout the story, Cullen shows readers how society thought and acted in the mid-1800s: divorce was taboo, women financially supporting themselves was difficult, men ruled the household (and everything else for that matter), and so on and so on. Because of such views and beliefs, readers can imagine how difficult it was for Frances Osgood to be happy with a cheating husband who disappeared for months at a time, raising two children by herself and having to live with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett, because of the lack of jobs women could have.
In Cullen’s author’s note, she gives the historical details she left out for the purpose of the somewhat fictional story she was trying to create, and in that note she ends with a comment about Poe’s immortality despite the efforts of Griswold to destroy him: “Now, of the three, only Poe has gone on to immortality, thanks in part to Griswold. But to rediscover Frances Sargent Osgood, one need only read her poetry. There, between the pages, her wit and passion gleams, as does her everlasting love for Edgar Allan Poe.”
I enjoyed this novel because of my love for Edgar Allan Poe, yet I cannot go as far to say I loved it and could not put it down. The historically-based characters were interesting and kept my attention, the love story was sweet and the unforeseen twist toward the end of the novel left me in disbelief, but knowing some parts of Osgood’s and Poe’s life were changed in order to fit Cullen’s tale was kind of upsetting. Despite that, reading Cullen’s author’s note at the end of the novel helped calm some of my frustrations with it and it has inspired me to read more of both Osgood and Poe.