Thursday, October 1, 2009
Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, known to history for reputedly being twice engaged to Edgar Allan Poe, is among the more mysterious figures in Poe's notoriously mystery-plagued life. There have been many fanciful stories told about their alleged youthful romance--most notably from J.H. Whitty and Hervey Allen--but they all seem to spring from unverifiable and unbelievable years-after-the fact local legends and overactive literary imaginations. The closest thing we have to solid evidence detailing their relationship are "notes" a Richmond journalist named Edward Valentine wrote of a conversation he claimed to have with Shelton one day in 1875, which he provided to Poe biographer John H. Ingram. (Strangely, when Ingram himself contacted Shelton, she declined the opportunity to directly cooperate with his research.)
These "notes" of Valentine's claim vaguely that before Poe left Richmond for the University of Virginia, when he was not yet seventeen and Miss Royster only fourteen, she "engaged myself to him." (The "notes" seem to indicate that they had only known each other for a few months at that time.) Her father, believing her too young for a serious attachment, secretly intercepted the letters Poe wrote her from the University. (Why Mr. Royster, instead of resorting to complicated and heartless subterfuge, did not merely openly forbid the pair from making a premature commitment to each other is not explained.) The "notes" claim Sarah Elmira did not learn that Poe had written to her until sometime after she married Alexander Shelton in December 1828. The inference is that she assumed Poe had jilted her, leaving her free to marry another, but the "notes" do not explain when and how she discovered her father's deception, why she did not ask Poe, after he returned to Richmond eight months later, about his evident rejection of her, or why Poe himself seemingly dismissed their engagement without so much as a word being spoken between them.
There is no legitimate evidence that Poe gave Sarah Elmira another thought during the quarter-century of their separation. Some of the more fanciful Poe specialists have speculated that several of his early poems, such as "Tamerlane" and "Song" ("I saw thee on thy bridal day") were inspired by their failed relationship, but there is absolutely no factual basis for this theory. Thomas Mabbott's claim that Poe's friend Lambert A. Wilmer based his play "Merlin" (published in a Baltimore paper in 1827) on the Poe/Royster "romance" is also untenable. (Mabbott was unaware that "Merlin" was first published in Philadelphia in 1823, long before Poe knew Wilmer or Miss Royster.)
Poe and Sarah disappeared from each other's lives until his final visit to Richmond in the summer of 1849. (Sarah Helen Whitman's bizarre claim that Poe courted Mrs. Shelton during his brief visit to Richmond in 1848, before he changed his mind and began courting her instead, is--as is often the case with Mrs. Whitman's yarns--contradicted by all the other known evidence.) At some point in the latter half of 1849, local rumor, later boosted by Rufus Griswold's notorious obituary of Poe, claimed the poet had become engaged to Shelton, who had been widowed for several years. However, no one claimed to have heard this directly from either of the pair themselves. The Valentine "notes" have Mrs. Shelton denying that they were engaged at the time of Poe's death. This account claims that Poe suddenly turned up on her doorstep in the summer of 1849, and immediately--after a separation of over twenty years--begged her to become his wife, but there had been nothing between them beyond a "partial understanding." The "notes" added that she did not believe they ever would have married, if Poe had lived.
What we know of Poe's feelings in the matter is equally ambiguous. We have several letters he allegedly wrote from Richmond to his aunt (and former mother-in-law) Maria Clemm, which refer unenthusiastically to his plans to marry the wealthy widow Shelton. (There has always been the strong implication that he was seeking her hand strictly for financial reasons.) However, the letters conclude by cautioning Mrs. Clemm that the wedding may never take place because "my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage." During Poe's stay in Richmond, Sarah Elmira herself wrote to Mrs. Clemm, whom she had never met. The letter indicates that she had cherished the memory of her childhood infatuation with Poe for all these years--it relates a story of the intense jealousy she felt when she accidentally saw Poe and his wife together soon after their marriage--(an oddly uncomfortable thing to say to Virginia's mother) but the missive, interestingly, makes no mention of any marriage plans. It was later said that after Poe's death that October, Mrs. Shelton donned mourning for him, but she denied this as well.
Aside from those enigmatic, confusing, unsatisfactory, and altogether suspicious "notes" Valentine provided Ingram, there is no trustworthy evidence of Shelton ever speaking about Poe. Whether her silence arose out of discretion, or a lack of anything to say on the subject, is a matter of conjecture. Her own granddaughter, who had lived with Shelton for years, once stated that it was not until she herself was a grown woman that she heard--presumably, when Ingram's book came out--that Poe had even the slightest connection with her family. When Shelton died in 1888, her obituary in a local paper stated that after Poe's death, she never so much as uttered his name to anyone. We can only assume that Mrs. Shelton went to her grave preferring that whatever knowledge we have of her dealings with the legendary poet should be based largely on speculation and myth.