Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poe's Weird Women (Part Three) - Annie Richmond

Annie RichmondNancy Locke Heywood Richmond was the wife of Charles Richmond, a wealthy businessman in Lowell, MA. She is known to us through her accounts of a connection she had with Edgar Allan Poe in the last year of his life. He first met her in in July of 1848, when he came to Lowell to deliver a lecture. He made two other visits to the city, in October of that same year, and the spring of 1849. He stayed only briefly each time, and it has been calculated that the total amount of time he spent in the actual society of Mrs. Richmond and her family amounted to no more than about two weeks. However, Mrs. Richmond, although possessed of no literary ability or ambitions herself, was greatly interested in those who were. Having as illustrious a writer as Poe visit her rather prosaic manufacturing town made a great impression upon her. A restless, undomestic woman who was always, in the words of a relative, "given to new fads," she was evidently quite bored with her life and her marriage, and eagerly seized the opportunity to become acquainted with this fascinating literary celebrity.

Edgar Allan Poe Annie RichmondFor years after Poe's death, even Mrs. Richmond's intimates believed the two were no more than friendly acquaintances. A series of letters written by her own brother, Amos Bardwell Heywood, which only surfaced in 1942, give detailed accounts of Poe's Lowell visits, but give no hint of any romantic friendship between the poet and Heywood's sister. (In fact, these letters--assuming they are authentic--indicate that Heywood was fascinated by Poe, but rather disliked him as well.) Then, in the late 1870s, Mrs. Richmond announced to biographer John H. Ingram that Poe had been deeply in love with her. As proof, she gave Ingram copies of letters she said she had received from the poet. (She never showed him--or anyone else--the originals of these letters, none of which have ever been discovered, aside from one or two items of unknown provenance and highly questionable authenticity.)

These strange, hysterical, poorly-written letters depict Poe as consumed by an unbalanced, obsessive passion for the woman he, for reasons unknown, rechristened "Annie." This passion, according to the letters, persisted throughout his brief, ill-fated 1848 relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman--who was simultaneously receiving similar letters expressing Poe's undying love for her. "Annie" apparently was either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that by revealing these letters, she was making Poe look not just like a horribly untalented letter-writer, but an insincere, disloyal human being. It was a great way to make known to the world the incredible wonderfulness of herself, but an odd way to show her devotion to his memory. She claimed repeatedly to Ingram and William Gill that she considered her relationship with Poe too "sacred" to share with the world; that she was only revealing his letters to prove what a fine, noble human being he was. First of all--if her romance with him was so private and "sacred," why tell anyone at all? Why not simply say, "my family and I became friends with him during his Lowell visits, and we all thought he was just wonderful," without dragging in these "sacred" details about his wild love for her? And if she was so concerned about rehabilitating his personal reputation, could even she have been stupid enough to think the way to do so was by displaying to his biographers letters that made him sound like a half-mad, suicidal, infantile wreck of a human being? And one who was capable of something so despicable as wooing one woman with assurances that he loved her only, and was desperate to marry her, while telling "Annie" that he loved her only, and hated the idea of marrying this other woman? If one believes the accounts and the letters provided by both Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Richmond in toto--and let me make it quite clear that I do not--it puts Poe in the worst light and certainly does not reflect well on the two women, either. It has always been to me one of the stranger ironies in Poeworld, that both Sarah Helen Whitman and "Annie," by making known to the world all the details of their "romances" with him, under the guise of "helping" his good name, managed instead to do incalculable damage to it.

It is a curious fact that Mrs. Richmond's friends and relatives knew her only as "Nancy" during Poe's lifetime. A niece of her husband's later revealed that when she was a child, probably sometime in the late 1850s, her "Aunt Nancy" suddenly announced that she wished to be called "Annie," letting it be known that Poe had said it "sounded better." It was difficult for everyone to make the adjustment, the niece recalled, but everyone eventually complied. (The niece described her aunt as a strong-willed, assertive woman, and "Annie's" surviving letters certainly do have a "She Who Must Be Obeyed" air.) After Charles Richmond died in 1873, his widow made her name change official. We can only conjecture why she was so insistent on this switch, so long after Poe's death, but presumably she wished to publicly associate herself with the late writer's poem "For Annie" and his story "Landor's Cottage," which includes a brief cameo by a character called merely "Annie."

"Annie" soon regretted her decision to "go public" with her tale of romance. Her daughter, Mrs. Caroline Coffin, was infuriated when Ingram's book was released and she learned--only then--of her mother's collaboration with Poe's biographer. According to family friends, she saw "Annie's" account of her great, hitherto secret, platonic love affair with Poe as a cruel insult to the memory of Caroline's beloved father, and she never forgave her mother's emotional infidelity. The family feud that resulted from "Annie's" indiscretion lingered until her death in 1898, making her last years bitter and lonely ones. Her efforts at self-promotion gained her fame of a sort, but at a high price.

I must say, however, that it is hard for me to work up much sympathy for Mrs. Richmond. Her surviving letters show her to have been a strangely unpleasant woman of little intelligence or genuine feeling for others--including Poe. She had a nasty habit of back-biting. She convinced Mrs. Clemm that she was her devoted friend, (she was angling for Clemm to bequeath Poe's papers to her when the older woman died,) while denouncing her to Marie Shew Houghton, Ingram, and Heaven knows who else. She wrote Ingram letters praising him and reviling his biographical rival, William Gill, and wrote Gill letters praising him and reviling Ingram. According to her own account, she encouraged Poe to court and marry Sarah H. Whitman, even though he was writing "Annie" letters assuring her that she was his true love, and disdainfully referring to poor Mrs. Whitman as "her." Any woman who could--particularly while Whitman was still alive--write out such letters and send them to a biographer was someone lacking in some sort of basic humanity. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that "Annie" appears to have had a close association with none other than our old friend Elizabeth F. Ellet, who was last seen writing the dying Virginia Poe poison-pen letters and blithely agreeing with Frances S. Osgood's claims that Poe had forged her letters. There is extant a letter Ellet wrote "My dear Annie" in 1864. In this letter, Ellet promises her help with some sort of charity fund-raising efforts organized by one of the numerous clubs and societies to which "Annie" belonged. The tone of the letter is quite intimate and affectionate, indicating the two women knew each other well. One wonders what Poe would have made of that.

Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of Mrs. Richmond's was that her only apparent interest in Poe's memory consisted of glorifying herself by promoting their "romance." She seemed indifferent to his body of work. She could tell Ingram practically nothing about him--she claimed not to remember any of their conversations--and she expressed little curiosity about any aspect of his life that did not directly involve herself. (Her answers to Ingram's efforts to seek Poe information from her largely consisted of "I don't know," "I don't remember," or "I was never interested enough to ask.") Her manifest callousness could be stunning. "Annie"--stupid, shallow, self-absorbed, deceitful and spiteful--was one of the most unlikable of all Poe's Weird Women. If the poet truly imagined himself to be in love with this lady during the last year of his life, it would be the best evidence I've seen yet for the theory that before his death, he was beginning to go mad.

3 comments:

  1. I find Poe's "letters" to Mrs. Richmond quite contradictory. On one hand he seems content to view her as only a dear friend and "Sister" yet also as a lover and a wife. It's quite curious to me. Therefore I believe they were tampered with and that there are some loose ends yet to be tied up.

    I for one do not think Poe would have been so untrue to his wife's memory. His so-called-relationships with all these women are quite a jumbled mess and biographers have done a poor job of sorting it all out. I think you do a lovely job of setting the record straight and I take your view on these matters.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you agree with my admittedly contrarian position.

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  2. I wish biographers would do the poor man justice. God knows he deserves it. Have you ever thought about writing one yourself? You would surely educate the masses and clear up all the rubbish!

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