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.
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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.