Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mrs. Ellet's Letters (Part Three)

"And if, in one, or perhaps two, insulated cases, the spirit of severe truth, sustained by an unconquerable will, was not to be put down, then, forthwith, were private chicaneries set in motion; then was had resort, on the part of those who considered themselves injured by the severity of criticism (and who were so, if the just contempt of every ingenuous man is injury) resort to arts of the most virulent indignity, to untraceable slanders, to ruthless assassination in the dark."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Graham's Magazine," 1841
The letter Elizabeth Ellet wrote to Frances S. Osgood in July of 1846 was a reply to one she received from Osgood the previous month. (That letter, most unfortunately, is lost.) Ellet's comments regarding this letter make it clear that Osgood, awash in her habitual self-pity and desperate to pacify Ellet--who obviously terrified her--was throwing both Edgar and Virginia Poe well and truly under the bus. Evidently, Virginia had first described to and then shown Ellet a letter she said had come from Osgood. This letter--obviously the catalyst for the public feuding--Osgood now claimed was a forgery designed by the Poes themselves.

Here, incidentally, is proof that Osgood's letter--which, for all we know, was addressed to either or both the Poes--could not have been, as is assumed, a love note. Aside from the fact that Virginia would hardly share such a thing with her callers, I doubt even a woman as silly as Frances Osgood would be stupid enough to try peddling the notion of Poe forging billet-doux to himself and then displaying them to his wife. Another piece of evidence that the letter was not romantic in nature is the Valentine poem Poe's wife wrote for him not long after this incident. The poem, with its references to Virginia's desire to live with him in a remote cottage away from the evil of the world, to find a refuge where "love shall heal my weakened lungs," showed that, while she was well aware there was a bad moon rising, she did not blame her husband for their troubles.

And Ellet could not have read a purely "innocent" letter that she somehow miraculously managed to spin into something insidious. Not only would Virginia have equally little reason to show Ellet--who was hardly her friend--an innocuous letter, but if Ellet had tried such a tactic, all anyone she attacked would have to do is produce the letter to prove that Osgood was innocent and Ellet a liar. Instead, Osgood frantically repudiated it. The letter shown by Virginia was obviously an attack on Ellet--Osgood, as Horace Rumpole would say, grassed on her rival.

That is the only thing that explains why Virginia confronted Ellet with this document--she was demanding a response to Osgood's charges. That is the only thing that explains Ellet's reference to the letter's "fearful paragraphs" that "haunted me night and day like a terrifying spectre." That is the only thing that explains Ellet's reference to Samuel Osgood saying "things...too terrible to repeat" about her--"things" that she knows Frances can assure her he will no longer say, "now that he knows the truth" (i.e., that the letter Virginia said was written by his wife was a "forgery.") If Samuel had heard that Frances had written other men love letters, that would hardly lead him to openly insult Mrs. Ellet--rather, he obviously was repeating statements contained in his wife's letter. Finally, the idea that Osgood had written highly damaging revelations about Ellet is the only thing that explains the bitter hatred Ellet expressed not only towards Poe, but his wife as well. (In her letter to Osgood, she referred to "the falsehoods told by the Poes," and added that "it is most unfortunate both for you and me that we ever had any acquaintance with such people as the Poes." Obviously, whatever Virginia said to Ellet when she showed Osgood's letter had left a mark.

Ellet, of course, was only too willing to play along with Osgood's idiotic claim that her letter was forged. Agreeing that "any man capable of offering to show notes he never possessed would not, I think, hesitate at such a crime," she noted how now that Osgood had disowned the letter, the "wretch" Poe will not dare to work "further mischief" with it, and that neither woman need fear any more "verbal calumnies" from the poet, as "steeped in infamy" as he was by then. (Again, here is evidence that Poe was believed to have a grudge against both Ellet and Osgood.)

Ellet's letter also proved that Mrs. Whitman's story about a posse of literary women being sent out to retrieve Osgood's letters from Poe was a complete fable. Ellet's comment about Poe's inability to foment "further mischief" with Osgood's letter showed that the Poes still had this troublesome document, and she said nothing about any efforts to retrieve it.

All this obviously still leaves major questions unanswered. What did Poe discover about Osgood that caused him to avoid her completely for the rest of his life, and cause Greeley, Ellet, Edward Thomas, and who knows who else, to assume the two were enemies? What were Osgood's charges against Ellet, that she so cravenly later tried to take back? Poe later made public reference to Virginia being the target of vicious anonymous letters. Other evidence indicates he believed these letters were Ellet's handiwork. Did Osgood provide the Poes with this information? And are these poison-pen letters somehow linked to these mysterious, undefined, but extremely damning letters of Ellet's that both Poe and Griswold claimed existed? (If Poe was threatening to reveal them to the world, they could hardly have been love letters to him. Such letters would, naturally, embarrass him as well.)

Alluding to a particular sixteenth-century Scottish historical mystery, someone once expressed the pious belief that "at the Day of Judgement, we shall know the solution to the Gowrie Conspiracy at last!" In the case of the Poe Conspiracy, let us hope a less extreme method of enlightenment still might be found.

"O, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days' conference with the dead!
From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure,
I never shall know here."
-John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

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