Monday, December 21, 2009

Virginia Clemm Poe Redux

Anyone who has read through this humble little blog (assuming anyone has,) will get the hint that, in general, I do not have an exalted opinion of the women associated with Edgar Allan Poe's life. Fanny, Annie, Sarah Helen, Sarah Elmira, Mary, Marie Louise, Eliza...(I decline to dwell even momentarily on Jane Locke and Stella Lewis...) If Hell ever decides to stage its own version of "The Dating Game," these ladies would make the ideal line-up of contestants.

From the time I first became seriously involved in studying Poe's life, the one exception I have found in this ghastly parade is the only one among the lot he actually married. And, naturally, she has gotten the worst press of them all.

It all traces back--as do many of the nuttier elements of Poe biography--to Susan Archer Talley Weiss, the Berserker of American literary history. For whatever dark, inscrutable reasons of her own, Weiss--who never met Virginia Poe, and never knew anyone who had known Poe's wife at all well--was obsessed with convincing posterity that Virginia, to the end of her days, remained a childlike, sexless, simpleminded creature who bored her brilliant husband out of his wits and in to ardent pursuits of other women, in a desperate attempt to find the fulfillment he was denied in his "fatal marriage."

This dismal picture is directly contradicted by those who were actually acquainted with Virginia. These first-hand witnesses all describe a beautiful, accomplished, charming young woman of great virtue and integrity, who won over everyone in her acquaintance, and who was clearly adored by her husband. Poe's friend Mayne Reid, who disputed the legend of the poet's great attraction for women, stated that Poe's lack of romantic appeal did not matter, as "it was enough for one man to be beloved by one such woman as he had for his wife" Even Thomas Dunn English, who rarely had a good word for anyone other than himself, praised Virginia's "air of refinement and good breeding." George Lippard warmly remembered Virginia as a "pure and beautiful woman" who had brought happiness to Poe's home. Thomas C. Clarke described her as an "exquisite picture of patient loveliness," despite "the hours of sickness, which rendered so much of Virginia's life a source of painful anxiety to all who had the pleasure of knowing her." Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote that when Virginia was too ill to accompany Poe to social gatherings, he clearly missed his wife's presence: "he was fond of naming her," Smith recalled, "and dwelling upon her loveliness of character." A man who was Virginia's neighbor when they were both children described her years later as a "fascinating little brunette" who had been his first love. Poe himself, on hearing of James Russell Lowell's marriage in 1844, wrote him that "I can wish you no better wish than that you may derive from your marriage as substantial happiness as I have derived from mine." Soon after Virginia's first hemorrhage in January 1842, Poe wrote to his close friend Frederick W. Thomas. When telling of the sudden disaster that had struck his home, he said plaintively, "You might imagine the agony I have suffered, for you know how devotedly I love her.

If you read all the accounts given by Poe's acquaintances--particularly the male ones--the impression is given that, if anything, his "child-wife" was considered a damn sight too good for him. Certainly, she gave him the only happy, stable, romantic relationship he ever knew, and was the only one among his real or alleged sweethearts who loved him wholeheartedly and unselfishly.

So...given the choice between accepting the consistent word of Virginia's friends, and a lurid, improbable tale presented by a woman who was (as I pointed out in an earlier post) completely deaf since childhood and unable to lip-read, and thus also unable to have had all those intimate Poe-related conversations she described in print, who never even laid eyes on her subject and who was demonstrably untruthful in nearly everything she ever wrote about Poe--who do most modern-day writers believe?

You guessed it. We're given a Virginia who is, at best (in the cruel words of Burton Pollin,) "a friendly kind of animated doll." At worst, she is depicted as frankly imbecilic. (Here I note the honorable exception of Arthur Quinn, who stood nearly alone in rallying to her defense.) The bulk of Poe's biographers have taken the relative lack of documentation about Virginia (a lack which is not surprising, considering she spent most of her adult life as an invalid,) to mean she had no personality at all. The biographers are hard enough on the poor girl, but the novelists are even worse. The image of a puerile Virginia vacuously coughing in the background, and further burdening her already bedeviled husband with an unsatisfactory marriage, has been a staple of endless piles of bad fiction. (The most recent example, John May's offensive and inept fantasy "Poe & Fanny," takes the prize--against admittedly powerful competition--for Worst Poe Novel.) If these novelists and biographers are to be believed, the one notable thing Virginia did in her entire life was to die miserably.

I simply don't believe it. Anyone who could arouse such fear and loathing in the formidable Elizabeth Ellet (see her July 1846 letter to Frances S. Osgood, where Virginia is as reviled as Poe himself) could not have lacked character. (Oh, what I wouldn't pay for a tape recording of that scene where Virginia confronted Ellet with Osgood's letter...whatever happened on that occasion, it's clear Mrs. Ellet never forgave Mrs. Poe for it.)

Edward Wagenknecht, one of Poe's more rational biographers, noted in Virginia's behalf that she "clearly had her share of charm, and a good many persons were impressed by her." This definitely included Poe himself. His August 1835 letter to her and Mrs. Clemm indisputably proves that Poe desperately loved Virginia and was terrified she might reject him--and unlike the round of engagements-a-go-go he was said to have pursued after her death, he could not have had any ulterior motive in seeking her hand. (This letter, incidentally, also dispenses of the popular slander that Mrs. Clemm was using the possibility of Virginia going to live with the family of her cousin/brother-in-law Neilson Poe as a way of manipulating/pressuring Poe to marry her daughter. The letter shows that when Poe left Baltimore for Richmond--before Neilson's offer was ever made--he already saw himself as Virginia's future husband.)

Many biographers interpret Poe's desire to marry Virginia as a neurotic, even depraved urge. One could look at it another way, and conclude that it would take a rather remarkable thirteen-year-old to inspire such devotion in her older, sophisticated cousin. (It is interesting that in this letter, Virginia's youth is never an issue. It must be remembered that in the 1830s, it was perfectly legal for her to marry. As antipathetic to today's mores as it may be, the marriage of a girl so young was then seen as uncommon, but hardly deviant.)
[A footnote: Much has been made of the fact that, on their Richmond marriage bond, Virginia's age is given as twenty-one. This is often used as a tool to further demean their marriage, by claiming this as proof that all involved were embarrassed by her youth. There is a much simpler explanation for this minor deception. At that time, the state of Virginia required all females under twenty-one to obtain an official affidavit of consent from her father or guardian before she could marry. Virginia's father, William Clemm, was long dead, and, in those pre-feminist times, her mother does not appear to have counted as "guardian." (Before the marriage, Mrs. Clemm had talked of Poe himself becoming the legal guardian of her minor children.) It seems obvious that they misrepresented Virginia's age simply to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with her lack of official guardianship, not out of any fear of public censure. The notion that Poe and his fiancee lived in dread of some Richmond busybody trooping down to the local courthouse and inspecting their marriage bond, just to ascertain the age of the bride, is absurd.]

Despite anything Poe supposedly said or wrote about his marriage during the last two years of his life, when he was sadly ailing in body and spirit, and probably resentful at Virginia's ultimate abandonment of him, I am convinced his was a devotion she kept. The most straightforward and sincere lines he ever wrote comprise his most explicitly autobiographical work, "To My Mother."

edgar allan poe to my mother"Annabel Lee" has often been interpreted as a ballad to his dead wife. I question that--the poem well might be completely fictional, although if it is "about" anyone, Virginia is the only woman for whom it could possibly apply. (She was the only one who was his "bride," she alone could be said to have "no other thought than to love and be loved by me," and of course, she was the only one who died.) Be that as it may, the following poem--one of the last he ever wrote--while addressed to Maria Clemm, is truly a tribute to Virginia, and, to me, is even more touching than the more famous poem:

Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of "Mother,"
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you-
You who are more than mother unto me,
And fill my heart of hearts, where Death installed you
In setting my Virginia's spirit free.
My mother- my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the one I loved so dearly,
And thus are dearer than the mother I knew
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.