Mrs. Poe

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About The Book

Inspired by literature’s most haunting love triangle, award-winning author Lynn Cullen delivers a pitch-perfect rendering of Edgar Allan Poe, his mistress’s tantalizing confession, and his wife’s frightening obsession in this new masterpiece of historical fiction to which Sara Gruen says, “Mrs. Poe had my heart racing...Don't miss it!”

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…

And don't miss the next captivating novel from Lynn Cullen—Twain’s End—where the acclaimed author tells a fictionalized imagining of the relationship between iconic author Mark Twain and his personal secretary, Isabel Lyon.

Excerpt

Mrs. Poe One
When given bad news, most women of my station can afford to slump onto their divans, their china cups slipping from their fingers to the carpet, their hair falling prettily from its pins, their fourteen starched petticoats compacting with a plush crunch. I am not one of them. As a lady whose husband is so busy painting portraits of wealthy patrons—most of whom happen to be women—that he forgets that he has a family, I have more in common with the girls who troll the muddy streets of Corlear’s Hook, looking to part sailors from their dollars, than I do with the ladies of my class, in spite of my appearance.

This thought bolted into my mind like a horse stung by a wasp that afternoon at the office of The Evening Mirror. I was in the midst of listening to a joke about two backward Hoosiers being told by the editor Mr. George Pope Morris. I knew that the news Mr. Morris was obviously putting off giving me must not be good. Still, I laughed delightedly at his infantile joke, even while choking on the miasma created by his excess of perfumed hair pomade, the open glue pot sitting upon his desk, and the parrot cage to my left, which was in dire need of changing. I hoped to soften him, just as a “Hooker” softens potential customers by lifting a corner of her skirt.

I struck when Mr. Morris was still chuckling from his own joke. Showing teeth brushed with particular care before I had set off to confront him after a silence of twenty-two days, I said, “About the poem I sent you in January. . . .” I trailed off, widening my eyes with hopefulness, my equivalent of petticoat lifting. If I was to become independent, I needed the income.

No sailor considering a pair of ankles looked more wary than Mr. George Pope Morris did at that moment, although few sailors managed to achieve the success he had at toilet, particularly with his hair. Never before had such a lofty loaf of curls arisen from a human head without the aid of padding. It was as if he had used his top hat for a mold. Whether by design or accident, one large curl had escaped the mass and now dangled upon his forehead like a gelatinous fishhook.

“Might you have misplaced it?” I asked lightly. Maybe he would appreciate putting the blame on his partner. “Or perhaps Mr. Willis has it.”

His gaze slid down to my bosom, registered the disappointment of seeing only cloak, then snapped back to my face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Osgood. To be quite frank, it is not what we are looking for.”

“I’m certain that your female readership would enjoy my allusions to love in my descriptions of flowers. Mr. Rufus Griswold has been so kind to include some of my poems in his recent collection. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“I know Griswold’s collection. Everyone does—he’s made sure of it. How that little bully got to be such an authority on poetry, I’ll never know.”

“Threats of death?”

Mr. Morris laughed, then waggled his finger at me. “Mrs. Osgood!”

Quickly before I lost him: “My own book, published by Mr. Harper, The Poetry of Flowers and the Flowers of Poetry, sold quite well.”

“When was that?” he asked distractedly.

“Two years ago.” Actually it was four.

“As I thought. Flowers are not what is selling of late. What everyone is interested in these days are shivery tales. Stories of the macabre.”

“Like Mr. Poe’s bird poem?”

He nodded, causing the great greased curl to bounce. “As a matter of fact, yes. Our sales soared when we brought out the ‘The Raven’ at the end of January. Same thing happened when we reprinted it last week. I suspect we could reprint it ten times and it wouldn’t be enough. Readers have gone Raven-mad.”

“I see.” I didn’t see. Yes, I had read the poem. Everyone in New York had since it had first been published the previous month. Even the German man who sold newspapers in the Village knew of it. Just this morning, when I asked him if he had the current issue of the Mirror, he’d said with an accent and a grin, “Nefermore.”

My dearest friend, Mrs. John Russell Bartlett, part of the inner circle of the New York literati, thanks to her husband, a bookseller and publisher of a small press, would not be quiet about him. She had been angling to meet him ever since “The Raven” had come out. In truth, I had thought I might get a glimpse of the wondrous Mr. Poe in the office that morning. He was an editor at the Mirror as well as a contributor.

Mr. Morris seemed to read my mind. “Evidently, our dear Mr. Poe is feeling his success. He is threatening to leave the magazine. Wherever he goes, I wish them luck in dealing with his moods.”

“Is he so very moody?” I still hoped to cajole Mr. Morris into friendship and, therefore, into indebtedness.

Mr. Morris gestured as if tipping a glass to his mouth.

“Oh.” I made a conspiratorial grimace.

“He’s really quite unbalanced, you know. I suspect he’s more than half mad, and it’s not just the drink.”

“A shame.”

He smiled. “Look, Mrs. Osgood, you are an intelligent woman. You’ve had some luck with your story collections for children. My own little ones loved ‘Puss in Boots.’ Why don’t you go back to that?”

I could not tell him the real reason: money. Writing children’s stories did not pay.

“I feel that it’s important for me to expand my writing,” I said. “I have things I would like to say.” Which was also true. Why must a woman be confined to writing children’s tales?

He chuckled. “Like which color brings out the roses in one’s complexion, or how to decorate at Christmas?”

I laughed, good Hooker that I am. Still smiling, I said, “I think you might be surprised at what I am capable of.”

His parrot squawked. He fed it a cracker from his pocket, then wiped his hands on his pantaloons, his sights making their habitual rounds from my eyes to my bust and back again. I forced myself to keep a cheerful gaze, although I wished to slap the curl off his forehead.

He frowned. “A beautiful woman like you shouldn’t have to trouble your head with this sort of thing, but what if you came up with something as fresh and exciting as ‘The Raven,’ only from a lady’s point of view?”

“Do you mean something dark?”

“Yes,” he said, warming to the idea. “Yes. Exactly so—dark. Very dark. I think there might be a market for that. Shivery tales for ladies.”

“You’d like me to be a sort of Mrs. Poe?”

“Ha! Yes. That’s the ticket.”

“Will I be paid the same as Mr. Poe?” I asked brazenly. Desperate times call for uncouth measures.

He marked the inappropriateness of my question with a pause before answering. “I paid Poe nothing, since he was on staff. I should think you’d want to do better than that.”

Although already envious of Mr. Poe for his recent success, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Perhaps he was independently wealthy, as was Mr. Longfellow or Mr. Bryant, and did not need the money or my compassion. In any case, he was not wed to a philandering portrait painter.

Mr. Morris led me to the door. “The Mirror is a popular magazine, Mrs. Osgood. We’re not interested in literature for scholars. Bring me something fresh and entertaining. Something dark that will make the lady readers afraid to snuff their candles at night. You do that, and I’ll see what I can do for you. Just don’t turn your back on us when you’ve reached the top, as did our Mr. Poe.”

“I wouldn’t. I promise.”

“Poe’s his own worst enemy—he no sooner makes a friend than he turns him into a foe.”

“I wonder what has made him such a difficult character.”

He shrugged. “Why do wolves bite? They just do.” He held open the door, letting in a cool draft. “Give my regards to Mr. Osgood.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I will.” If he ever tired of his current heiress and came home.

• • •

I soon found myself on the sidewalk of Nassau Street and, it being a mild day for February, ankle-deep in slush. Gentlemen passed, encased in buttoned overcoats and plugged with top hats. They flicked curious gazes in my direction, not sure whether I was a lady to whom they should tip their hat or a Hooker who had wandered into their inner sanctum. Few females of any sort ventured into the hallowed business precincts of New York—the engine room of what was becoming the greatest money factory in the world.

I bent into the biting wind, ever present in winter in this island city, and rounded the corner onto Ann Street. A landau clattered by, its wheels flinging melted snow. Across the way, a hog rooted in refuse, one of the thousands of pigs who plied the streets, be it rich district or poor. The wet had brought out the smell of the smoke rising from the forest of rooftop chimneys as well as the stink of horse manure, rotting garbage, and urine. It is said that sailors can smell New York City six miles out at sea. I had no doubt of it.

Two short blocks later, across Ann Street from Barnum’s American Museum, with its banners advertising such humbuggery in residence as President Washington’s childhood nurse and the Feejee Mermaid, I arrived upon the shoveled promenade of Broadway. Vehicles poured down the thoroughfare before me as if a vein in the city had been opened and it was bleeding conveyances down the bumpy cobblestones. The din they made was deafening. The massive hooves of shaggy draft horses clashed against the street as they pulled rumbling wagons bulging with barrels. Stately carriages creaked by behind clopping bays. Hackneys for hire rattled alongside omnibuses with windows filled with staring faces. Whips cracked; drivers shouted; dogs barked. In the midst of it all, on a balcony on the Barnum’s building, a brass band tootled. It was enough to test one’s sanity.

Clutching my skirts, I hurried through a gap in the thundering traffic. I landed breathless on the other side of the street, where the Astor House hotel, six stories of solid granite gentility, sat frowning down its noble pillars at me. It seemed aware that I had only two pennies in the expensive reticule on my arm.

Just a month previously I had been one of its pampered residents. I had been among the privileged to bathe in its hot-running-water baths. I, too, had enjoyed reading by the gaslights and dining with the rich and beautiful at the table d’hôte. Samuel had insisted that we take rooms at the Astor House when we had moved to New York from London, to make a good impression.

Had I known of the ruinous state of our ledgers, I would have never agreed to it. But Samuel thought that as the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, I expected no less of him. He could never get over the inequality of our backgrounds, no matter how much I assured him that it didn’t matter to me. I, on the other hand, had gotten over it the moment he first kissed me. I had no care if we took up housekeeping in a soddy, as long as I spent the night in Samuel Osgood’s arms. Samuel, though, could never quite believe this. There is no more prideful creature than a man born poor.

Now, hunched against the icy wind and feeling the pinch of my thin pointed boots and the stabbing of my corset stays, I marched up the assault on the senses that is called Broadway. The loud swirl of striving people and their beasts dazzled the eyes, as did the brightly painted establishments bristling with signs that bragged LIFE-LIKE DAGUERREOTYPES! WORLD’S FRESHEST OYSTERS! MOUTH-WATERING ICE CREAM! FINEST QUALITY LADIES’ FANS! The stench of rotting sea creatures commingled with the sweet scent of perfumes, as did the spicy odor of unwashed human flesh and the aroma of baking pies.

Soon the flapping awnings of tobacconists, haberdashers, and dry-goods emporiums gave way to mansions with ornate iron fences that fringed their foundations like chin whiskers. Although the richest man of them all, Mr. Astor, refused to budge from his stone pile at Broadway and Prince, the fashion was to show off one’s newly minted money by constructing a castle in the neighborhoods north of Houston Street. It was in this vaunted district that I turned westward on Bleecker. In boots made to stroll across a manicured square, not march up a mile and a half of flagstones, I minced painfully past ranks of stately brick houses at LeRoy Place, in many of which I’d had tea. Near the writer James Fenimore Cooper’s ostentatiously large former home on Carroll Place, about which his wife liked to complain often and loudly that it was “too magnificent for our simple French tastes,” I veered right onto Laurens Street.

With an end in sight, I picked up my pace as much as my cursed corset and destroyed feet would allow. I hobbled elegantly by a tumbledown row of stables, smithies, and small wooden dwellings meant for those who served the denizens of the palaces around them, until at last, a block short of Washington Square, I came to Amity Place, yet another enclave of new four-story Greek Revival town houses caged in by black ironwork fences. From a third-story window, through an oval that had been cleared in the frost by the sun, peered two young girls.

My heart warmed. I opened the wrought iron gate, climbed the steep flight of six stone steps, and pushed open the door.

Five-and-half-year-old Vinnie was running down the narrow staircase as I entered the hall. “Mamma, did he buy your poem?”

“Hold on to the railing!” I exclaimed. Behind her, my elder daughter, Ellen, three years older than her sister and worlds more cautious, took the stairs at a more judicious rate.

Vinnie threw herself against me. A loud crash descended from an upstairs room, followed by a wail and the exasperated voice of my friend Eliza.

Ellen made a safe landing and held out her arms to take my mantle and hat. “Henry is being bad.”

I glanced above her. “Yes, I can hear him.”

“Mamma,” Vinnie demanded, “did the man buy your poem?”

“He didn’t buy that one. But he did ask to see more.” I opened my gloved palm, upon which lay two peppermint drops. I had taken them from a dish on Mr. Morris’s desk when I had waited for him to arrive.

Vinnie’s grin revealed a newly naked arch in her upper gums. She popped in the candy.

Ellen shifted my things in her arms, then took her piece. Not yet seven and she was as somber as a Temperance lady on Christmas. “You should write more stories for children,” she said as I peeled off my gloves. “They always buy your children’s stories.”

“I’m trying to spread my wings. What do I say about birds who don’t spread their wings?”

The candy rattled against Vinnie’s remaining teeth as she moved it to her cheek to speak. “They never learn to fly.”

“You don’t need to fly, Mother,” Ellen said. “You need to make money.”

How did she know these things? At her age, I was dressing paper dolls. Blast you, Samuel Osgood, for stunting her with worry and spoiling her childhood. I could spin all manner of tales about his care and concern for us and she always saw right through them.

“What I need to do now is to help Mrs. Bartlett,” I said cheerfully. “Vinnie, how is your ear?”

She gingerly touched the ear with the tuft of cotton sprouting from it. “Hurts.”

Just then, a young boy in a rumpled tunic trampled down the stairs, followed closely by a plain but kindly looking gentlewoman of my age, who was in turn followed by a pretty red-cheeked Irish maid carrying a toddler.

“Fanny!” cried Eliza. “Thank goodness you’re back. I have news!”

Although I had lived with Eliza Bartlett and her family for several months, my heart still swelled with gratitude at the sight of her. She and her husband had taken me in when the Astor House had turned me out. It seemed that prior to decamping for lusher pastures in November, Samuel had not paid the bill for the previous three months. After I showed up on Eliza’s doorstep with my shameful story, she made no verbal judgment, just said, “You’re staying with us.” Nor did she speak up when our other friends inquired about Samuel, but silently sat back and let me lie about his imminent return. She thus saved me from the pity that our circle would have rained upon me for being the abandoned wife of a ne’er-do-well. I would have gained their sympathy but lost my place and my pride.

She took little Johnny from her maid. “Mary, please take Mrs. Osgood’s things downstairs to dry and Henry along with you. Henry: be good.” To me she exclaimed, “Goodness, you look frozen. Why didn’t you take a hackney home?”

“What is this news?”

She removed little Johnny’s hand from inside her blouse. “Mr. Poe is coming!”

“Here?”

She laughed. “No. Not unless he wishes to change a diaper. He’s going to appear at the home of a young woman named Anne Lynch—this Saturday! And we, my dear, are invited.”

I found my excitement to meet the renowned writer was tempered by the fact that I had just been encouraged to be his competitor. “Wonderful! Do we know this Miss Lynch?”

Eliza gave little Johnny to Vinnie, who’d been silently begging for him with open arms. “She’s new to this city from Providence—she’s a friend of Russell’s family. She stopped in his shop and told him she was attempting to start a salon—not just for the usual bon ton but for artists of all kinds, rich or poor. I daresay she might have a chance at success after having snagged Poe.”

“I wonder how she lured him in.”

“She might come to regret it. He’s sure to be horribly ruthless. Poe doesn’t like anything.”

It was true. I had seen his reviews in The Evening Mirror. Prior to “The Raven,” he was best known in literary circles for his poisoned pen. For good reason he was called the Tomahawker, happy as he was to chop up his fellow writers. He regularly tore in to gentle, gentlemanly Mr. Longfellow with a savagery that made no sense. In truth, I had wondered about his sanity even before Mr. Morris’s accusation, or at least his motives for such abuse.

“The gathering is to be at seven. Say that you’ll come with me. I told her about you—” She saw my wince. “That you are a poet.”

Bless you, Eliza. “I’ll go, if the girls are well by then.”

Vinnie jogged little Johnny on her hip. “I will be!”

“There you have it,” I said with a nonchalance that I did not feel. If I became his competition, I, too, might soon be on the wrong side of the dangerous Mr. Poe.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Mrs Poe includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynn Cullen. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Set in the fascinating world of New York’s literati scene of the 1840s, Mrs. Poe tells the story of Frances Osgood, a poet desperately trying to make a living as a writer in New York, a difficult task for a woman—particularly one with two children and a philandering husband. When Frances meets Edgar Allan Poe at a literary salon, he seems dismissive of her work. However, a few days later, she learns that Poe has given a lecture praising her poems and then asks to speak with her about poetry, striking up an unlikely friendship. Although both Frances and Edgar try to deny their feelings, they become increasingly obsessed with each other, leading to a passionate affair and endangering Frances’s reputation. During this time, Frances has also become the confidante of Virginia Poe, Edgar’s much younger wife, who, despite her appearance of innocence, seems to be subtly threatening Frances. As the stakes escalate, Frances must decide whether she can walk away before it’s too late. This captivating novel is based on the historical fact that Poe and Frances Sargent Osgood published a very public exchange of love poems in 1845, the year in which “The Raven” catapulted Poe into literary stardom.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

 
1. Cullen begins Mrs. Poe with two epigraphs. In the first, Osgood is recounting her first meeting with Poe to Reverend Griswold. In the second, Poe describes Frances Osgood. How do these two quotes set up the novel? Were Cullen’s representations of Osgood and Poe as you expected after reading the epigraphs?
 
2. Although Frances narrates the story, it is named for Mrs. Poe. Why do you think that Cullen has chosen to call the novel Mrs. Poe? Did the title affect your reading of the story? How?
 
3. After Frances meets Virginia Poe for the first time, Eliza asks her, “What does she seem like? Sweet? Sharp?,” and Frances replies “Both, oddly enough.” (p. 55) What does she mean? Do you agree with Frances’s assessment of Virginia? Why or why not?
 
4. Miss Fuller tells Frances, “Beneath that pretty society-girl surface, you strike me as the striving sort.” (p. 163). Do you agree? What reasons does Frances have to be “the striving sort”? What are your initial impressions of Frances? Did your feelings about Frances change throughout the novel? In what ways?
 
5. Of Poe, Reverend Griswold says, “I find that there is nothing about Edgar Poe that is remotely like the rest of us. He is a predator, plain and simply. A wolf in wolf’s clothing.” (p. 123) Why do you think that Griswold feels such animosity towards Poe? What do you think of Griswold? Discuss his interactions with Frances.
 
6. After Frances learns that Poe has praised her poetry in a lecture, the two meet to discuss writing. She tells him, “I find that the thoughts spoken between the lines are the most important part of a poem or story.” To which he replies, “as in life.” (p. 36) How does this apply to their relationship? Are there other instances in the novel where this is true? Discuss them.
 
7. The subject of marriage comes up frequently in Mrs. Poe. Eliza tells Frances “Wedded bliss is a tale made up to keep the species going” (p. 278), and Margaret Fuller says, “for every married person [at Anne Lynch’s conversazione] there is a story of rejection and betrayal” (p. 77). Discuss the marriages in Mrs. Poe. Why do you think Eliza feels that wedded bliss is simply a story? And, why does Frances stay married to Samuel although she knows he is a philanderer? Do you think that Frances is justified in making her decision?
 
8. At one of the conversaziones, Poe says, “Desire inspires us to be our very best.” (p. 169) Do you agree? In what ways, if any, do Poe and Frances improve because of their relationship?
 
9. Margaret Fuller warns Frances to steer clear of the Poes, stating that Poe is “not what he seems” but rather “a poor boy much damaged from the trauma of his childhood.” (p. 193). Do you agree with her assessment of the Poes? What do you think caused her to drop the idea of running a profile of them? Do you think that Margaret is acting as Frances’s friend, as she claims? What makes you think so?
 
10. Were you surprised by Samuel’s return? Although he is “maddeningly agreeable” (p. 230) with regard to Frances’s relationship with Poe, he is critical of her work. After reading one of her poems, he tells her, “There was a time when you would have made fun of a poem like this.” (p. 240). Why does Samuel’s statement bother Frances so much? What do you think of the poem that he critiques?
 
11. Frances thinks that Virginia Poe is out to do her harm. What evidence supports her suspicions? Were you surprised when you found out the truth?
 
12. The Poes invite Frances to attend a play called “Fashion” with them. How does the plot of the play mirror their outing? Why does Poe apologize for his wife?
 
13. In several of his conversations with Frances, Poe makes references to stories that he has written, including “William Wilson” and “The Oval Portrait.”.How does Poe use these stories to communicate with Frances?
 
14. Poe reads “Al Aaraaf,” the poem he wrote when he was fourteen, at the Boston Lyceum, claiming that he wanted “to see if they could tell the difference between a child’s verse and a masterpiece.” (p. 260). What do you think the real motivation behind his decision is? Do you agree with Mrs. Ellet that he called “down the wrath of the Boston circle” because it terrified him to do so (p. 271)? Why?

Enhance Your Book Club

 
1. The New York Literati scene of the 1840s serves as a the backdrop for Mrs. Poe and many luminaries of the period appear as minor characters within the book, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John James Audubon, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller. Discuss their famous contributions with your reading group and share some of the writers works, creating your own conversazione.
 
2. Read Griswold’s eulogy of Poe from The New York Tribune here: http://www.poeforward.com/poe/texts/griswold-poe-obit.html Then, discuss Cullen’s representation of Griswold. Was his writing as you imagined after becoming familiar with Griswold in Mrs. Poe?
 
3. When Frances first reads “The Raven” she says, “What trickery. It’s just a word game.” (p. 17). Read it here: http://www.heise.de/ix/raven/Literature/Lore/TheRaven.html , then discuss it with your book club. Do you agree with Frances that it’s trickery? Or, do you think, like much of the literati in Mrs. Poe, that the work is an enduring classic.
 
4. To learn more about Lynn Cullen, read her blog and to read more about her other books, and find out how to invite her to your book club, visit her official site at http://www.lynncullen.com   
 

A Conversation with Lynn Cullen 

1. You’ve written nearly twenty books throughout your career. How does the publication of Mrs. Poe compare?  

Each book comes from where I am in my life when I’m writing them. When my daughters were young, I wrote children’s novels and picture books. I penned my first young adult and adult novels when they were in high school—and planned our family vacations around the research. After they left home, I wrote Reign of Madness, which might look like an adult historical novel but was really my exploration of the relationships between grown daughters and their mothers.  

Then, in September 2011, my husband became ill with a life-threatening case of encephalitis. Already he was a casualty of the Great Recession and not working, and now he had a long stint of recuperation ahead. I was on my own when it came to supporting our family and terrified. As any writer can tell you, income from writing is not exactly steady. So the day my husband came home from the hospital, I was pacing in my office, wondering how we were possibly going to survive, when suddenly, I thought “Poe.” I have no idea why. A coincidence? (We know what my Poe would say about that.) I Googled Poe and stumbled upon the story of Francis Osgood, the abandoned young mother who exchanged love poetry with him. Many scholars suspected that she had a love affair with Poe, some going as far as to suggest that Poe was the father of her child, Fanny Fay. In Francis Osgood I had the perfect character into which I could pour my own fear and determination. Frances Osgood survived and so would I.

2. Frances Osgood is an intriguing figure, not least because, in her time, she was just as well known for her own writings as she was for her friendship with Edgar Allen Poe. What drew you to her?  

Frances Osgood was the perfect person for me to write about. Not only did she allow me to work out my own fears of survival, but she gave me a chance to talk about what it’s really like to be a writer, since she was a poet. She let me pour into the pages the joys and terrors of writing life. I also thought it would be fun to fantasize, through her, about falling in love with the mysterious, wounded, sensuous Poe. (I had learned that he was sexual catnip, back in the day.) I let my imagination go to work on Poe as a cross between Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff in the BBC film version of Wuthering Heights, Colin Firth in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean (but sober) and voila, I understood Frances’s obsession.

3. After Frances finishes writing “So Let It Be,” she says, “I sat back, wrung out, as I always am after I have brought forth a true and honest work, regardless of its subject or length. It is as if producing a creative work tears a piece from your soul.” (p. 100) Is your writing process anything like hers? Can you tell us about it?  

Frances’s writing life is my writing life. I tried to describe the pain and the joy of having work ripped from the part of your mind that is a mystery even to you. I wanted to get across how when the writing flows, it’s a high that makes an addict out of you. You can just feel the exhilaration whooshing through your veins when you have a breakthrough with a true and honest scene. A few happy tears are sometimes in order. When the writing doesn’t come, you feel as bleakly desperate, hopeless, and unloved as if all your friends have left you for smarter, more desirable people. Your brain fills with mud. You can’t enjoy sunshine. To take the ups and downs of writing, you have to be tough as rawhide, yet to create, you have remain as open and sensitive as an exposed nerve. As I tell my friends, writing is my therapy and it also causes me to need therapy.

4. How do you research your books?  

Research is pure pleasure. First, I read everything I can get my hands on, not only about the main characters, but about the setting, daily life, and other people from that time. I have bought at least seventy books for Mrs. Poe alone. In the case of this novel, I then spent time combing through the eye-popping collection of material from the 1840s in the library of the New York Historical Society. Next comes the best part. Before I set out to write the book and several times during the actual writing, I visit the settings. I go to the places where my characters were known to have lived, worked, and played in real life. I have made a point of visiting the site of each scene in my books, even though the place may have completely changed. It’s a thrill when they have not. In the case of Mrs. Poe, I tramped the streets of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village so thoroughly one week in late April that I tore the meniscus in my knee. Many other times, I trotted up the steps of Miss Lynch’s home on Waverly Place. I stood over the bed where Virginia Poe died, in the Poe Cottage located in what is now the Bronx. I strolled through Washington Square at night, peeking through the trees and trying to imagine seeing the light shining from Samuel Morse’s window while E.A. Poe put his arms around me. (This is where having a husband comes in handy.) I explored the parlors, kitchen, garden, and bedrooms of The Merchant House Museum in Greenwich Village, grateful that a house very much like the Bartlett’s still exists. I even climbed up into the clock tower of Trinity Church and stuck out my head through the rosette window, as did Frances. What good luck it was to write a book set in 1845 New York!

5. Like Frances Osgood, you have written works for both children and adults. Does the process differ? If so, how?  

When it comes to research and attention to detail, there is not much difference between writing children’s and adult books. I take the same care choosing each word in all my books. However, there are so many less words in children’s books that it takes far less time to write them. You have to commit several years of your life to writing an adult novel; researching for a historical novel only adds to the time commitment. Novel-writers are the marathon runners of our field. No wonder so many need “hydration” during the long and arduous slog to the finish.

6. When Frances tells Reverend Griswold that she has not read Margaret Fuller’s column about John Humphrey Noyes, he chastises her, saying that she must keep up with the news because “As an important woman poet, it is your duty to speak out against false prophets.” (p. 205). As a writer yourself, do you think that it is the responsibility of the artist to speak out against “false prophets” as Griswold suggests?  

I think all serious writers are articulating their personal philosophies in their story, even if the book isn’t overtly about a political agenda. I don’t know if it’s so much that artists feel a responsibility to speak out—it’s more like we just can’t help ourselves from sharing our views!

7. Poe tells Frances, “Our job [as poets] is to raise questions, not to answer them.” (p. 53) As a writer, what questions were you hoping to raise with Mrs. Poe?  

Thank you for asking—I have a ton of unanswered questions: What IS that animating essence in each of us that is traditionally called a “soul”? How does this animating essence contribute to our individuality? Is it communicating with other souls on a level that we don’t often pay attention to? Do animals, other creatures, even rocks, as the Swedenborgians believed, have souls? Is our soul the part of us that is responsible for always keeping us craving what we cannot have? Does the human’s—and all creatures’—universal need to be loved spring from this part of us, and why? What IS love? I think I had better stop now.

8. Since its publication in 1845, “The Raven” has become a canonical text. It has inspired other writings ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Ray Bradbury, and has even been parodied. Why do you think the poem has had such an enduring appeal?  

“The Raven” is catchy and vivid. It’s a movie in words. Also, Poe’s legend as a frightening, half-mad genius (thank you, Rufus Griswold!) brings a darkness to the poem that has thrilled people for centuries. In addition, its immense popularity in Poe’s day helped cement it into the American memory. We picture Poe’s raven almost as automatically and as mindlessly of its origins as we say “OK.” Personally, I don’t think it’s his most honest work. For authentically expressed anguish, see “Ulalume.”

9. Mrs. Poe is based on historical facts. When recreating the relationship between that Poe Frances, what liberties did you take?  

As a historical novelist, the game I like to play with myself is to try to make sure that everything that happens in the story could have actually happened. I like to fill in the gaps in recorded history but try very hard not to bend the facts. But since I’m a novelist and not a Poe scholar with decades of Poe study under my belt, and since so much has been recorded about him, I might have inadvertently gotten some things wrong. (Poe scholars: forgive me!) It wasn’t my intention, though, to write a biography about Poe or Frances Osgood, fictionalized or otherwise. My aim was to take these two personalities as I came to understand them, put them together, and see what sparks flew.

10. What would you like your readers who are interested in Edgar Allen Poe’s writings to take away from Mrs. Poe?  

Mainly, I hope readers will think about how his difficult life shaped his writing. He was a wounded beast and his own worst enemy, but that he put everything he had into his work. What I think Poe strove for hardest was simply to be loved.

11. What are you working on next?  

It’s a secret just yet. But I promise to keep raising unanswerable questions. And there will always be people in my story craving for something they shouldn’t have.

About The Author

Photograph by Parker Clayton Smith

Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and is the bestselling author of Twain’s End and Mrs. Poe, which was named a Target Book Club Pick, an NPR 2013 Great Read, and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta surrounded by her large family, and, like both Poe and Mark Twain, enjoys being bossed around by cats.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (April 2014)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476702926

Raves and Reviews

"When struggling poet and betrayed wife Frances Osgood meets Edgar Allen Poe, she is hoping only for a boost in her literary career—certainly not what came next. Swept into an illicit love affair with the complicated, magnetic, and married Poe, Osgood and Poe must together face the consequences, which are no less horrific or revenge-filled than his best loved horror stories—and quite possibly as deadly. Mrs. Poe had my heart racing...Don't miss it!"

– Sara Gruen, New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants and Ape House

"Mrs. Poe is a compelling tale of ill-fated love, passion, and the writing life in antebellum New York, rich with period detail and suspense."

– Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

"Layered with the atmosphere and intensity of Poe's prose, Cullen's Mrs. Poe infuses a tale of tragedy and loss with a spirit of passion and vitality. Fans of historical fiction and Poe will devour this novel."

– Erika Robuck, bestselling author of Call Me Zelda

“Readers can expect a page-turning tale exposing the transgressions, antics, and heroics behind a literary icon. Literary fiction fans and readers who loved Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife will relish another novel based on historical scandal and romance.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

“Is it true that Edgar Allen Poe cheated on his tubercular, insipid young wife with a lady poet he’d met at a literary salon? Cullen makes you hope so.”

– New York Times

"Lynn Cullen seems to have transported herself to Old New York—Mrs. Poe feels that authentic. Without a doubt, this is one of the best historical fiction novels I've read in a long time. Evocative, compassionate, intelligent, sexy and utterly addictive. The passion between Frances Osgood and Edgar Allen Poe burns up the pages while at the same time her relationship with Mrs. Poe makes your heart ache. Truly a book to savor!"

– M.J. Rose, International Bestselling Author

“Part romance, part mystery, part biography, this fictional reenactment of the mistress of Edgar Allan Poe escorts you into the glittering world of New York in the 1840s, when poets were celebrities and the admission of emotions—like silk gowns and glossy beaver hats—were a luxury...A bewitching, vivid trip into the heyday of American literary society."

– Oprah.com

"In Mrs. Poe, Lynn Cullen conjures a darkly atmospheric 19th century New York with a masterful hand. Rich with period detail and compelling characters, Mrs. Poe weaves a thread of creeping menace into the true story of Edgar Allan Poe’s obsessive liaison with Frances Osgood for a thoroughly unforgettable and chilling read. Enthralling."

– Deanna Raybourn, author of A Spear of Summer Grass

"The fierce ambitions and dangerous rivalries of literary New York in the 1840s come vividly alive in Lynn Cullen's riveting novel Mrs.Poe. With masterful skill, Cullen tells the story of the real-life fatal attraction between the toast-of-the-town Gothic storyteller Edgar Allan Poe and vulnerable poet Frances Sargent Osgood.The fact that both are unhappily married did not sanction any sort of romance in this judgmental society, and Cullen skillfully charts the course of a fraught and forbidden love affair. As the lonely Mrs. Osgood is pulled further and further into Mr. Poe's dark world, the tensions in the Poes' bizarre marriage explode. Full of longing, this is a story both poignant and shocking—and not easily forgotten."

– Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Chalice

“Clearly composed and carefully researched the book’s vivid prose accentuates the passion, jealousy and hatred that evolve from a tangled three-way relationship that could easily have come straight from the pages of Poe’s stories. A must-read for those intrigued by Poe, poetry and the latter half of 19th-century America.”

– RT Book Reviews (four stars)

“Taking advantage of letters and published poems, imaginative historical novelist Cullen cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale told by Mrs. Osgood about the long-ago intrigue, with just enough facts to make it believable.”

– Booklist

“Lynn Cullen weaves a dark, sensuous love triangle between three real people, and in the midst of many real historical details, she creates something truly and wonderfully surprising...Devotees of dark historical fiction will devour Mrs. Poe, but so too will fans of Gothic romance and forbidden love stories. This is an invigoratingly creepy historical novel propelled by brilliant pacing. If you like books that send a little shiver up your spine, don’t miss it.”

– Book Page

"Mrs. Poe is an entertaining tale with interesting characters, a vibrant locale, a good dose of romance, and even some intrigue, which is what an historical novel should be."

– The Copperfield Review

"Mrs. Poe is a captivating novel. Cullen’s attention to historical detail, lush prose and enlightening evocation of an interesting moment in American literary history make this story a fascinating read.”

– Arts ATL

Brilliant…a wonderful and fascinating novel… Poe absolutely comes to life in Cullen's novel…Mrs. Poe is truly one of the best historical fiction novels of 2013 and possibly ever.”

– Examiner.com

"Mrs. Poe is an entertaining tale with interesting characters, a vibrant locale, a good dose of romance, and even some intrigue, which is what an historical novel should be."

– The Copperfield Review

"Cullen creates a delicious sense of suspense and impending doom; antebellum Manhattan and the ruling literati cast an irresistible spell."

– Atlanta Magazine

"Mrs. Poe is such a compelling novel, bringing history to vivid life. Danger, sensuality, mystery and passion fill the pages of this bewitching story set in the crowded cobbled streets, alleyways,cheap boardinghouses and literary gatherings of mid-nineteenth century New York City. Everyone warns the lovely, near penniless poet Mrs. Osgood, a deserted wife with two young children, to stay away from the dark-eyed writer Edgar Allen Poe who has fallen in love with her. She writes tender verses; he creates blood-curdling tales but he is darker than his writing, carrying secrets of his frail much younger wife and his heinous past. Even when Mrs. Osgood understands that someone is trying to kill her because of him, she cannot put aside her passion until it is almost too late."

– Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille

“At once beautiful and heartbreaking, Lynn Cullen has woven together a tapestry of fact and rumor to give us an intimate view into the forbidden love between two complicated, creative lives. Historical fictions fans, you’re in for a treat.”

– Susan Crandall, bestselling author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

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