Monday, January 10, 2011

The Reticent Mrs. Shelton (Part One of Two)

Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton and Edgar Allan Poe
"In biography the truth is everything, and in auto-biography it is especially so."
-"The Business Man"

In 1874, a Richmond, VA Poe admirer named Edward V. Valentine made efforts, on behalf of biographer John Ingram, to persuade Sarah Elmira Shelton to clarify her relationship with Edgar Allan Poe. For many years, it was rumored that she had had a youthful romance with him, and that, shortly before his death, they had rekindled their old relationship and planned to marry. However, no one seemed to have any definite knowledge about this story, and Mrs. Shelton herself had yet to speak a word on the subject.

She answered Valentine's pleas for information with the simple and seemingly sincere statement (in a letter now in Richmond's Valentine Museum,) that "I am not prepared to give any information in regard to Mr. Poe's early life--we were both very young when I did know him, and the slight recollection I have of his history (at that time) will not justify any attempt that I might make, to undertake it. The meridian and latter part of his life, there are many others, who profess to know much more than I do."

That, one would think, would be that. The lady herself declared--in writing--that she barely remembered Poe in his youth, and knew scarcely anything of his adult life. However, according to Valentine, just a year after penning him these unequivocal words, Shelton granted him an exclusive interview about Poe where, in modern parlance, she sang like a canary. The notes he made of this alleged interview (now also in the Valentine Museum,) tell a disjointed, fragmentary, but quite intimate history, revealing her precocious engagement to Poe (the "notes" have her say she was "15 or 16" at the time, but in truth she would have been 14. Also, the "notes" seem to indicate that at the time of their supposed engagement, their "acquaintance" must have been only a few months old, which makes the idea of a betrothal between a sixteen-year-old boy and a girl barely into her teens seem all the more implausible.)

The "notes" say that when Poe departed for the University of Virginia, her father, objecting to the pair corresponding because of their youth, secretly intercepted Poe's letters to her. (It is not explained how she and Poe both--without so much as exchanging a word--apparently took this mutual failure to receive correspondence as a sign that their relationship was irrevocably over, why her father resorted to such cruel and unnecessary measures, or how she eventually came to discover the truth.) Then, in the summer of 1849, by which time the pair had lost both their spouses, Poe--a stranger to her for some twenty-three years--suddenly appeared in her parlor, and after barely saying more than "hello," pressed for an immediate marriage. However, the "notes" have Mrs. Shelton declaring that this marriage never would have actually transpired.

This last statement, at least, could very well have been the truth. Poe scholars take a letter Shelton wrote Maria Clemm in late September 1849 as proof she had consented to marry Poe. However, while this letter certainly expressed fondness towards him and a desire to ingratiate herself with his aunt--a complete stranger to Shelton--she said nothing to indicate she and Poe were betrothed. Actually, Shelton's references to her jealousy when she happened to see Poe and "his lovely wife" together soon after their marriage, and her descriptions of how often and lovingly Poe talked to her of "his Virginia" seem, if anything, to argue against the idea that Poe was ardently and successfully wooing her! Poe's own letters to Mrs. Clemm during this period, if authentic, confirm Shelton's infatuation with him, but they also betray a positive distaste at the thought of wedlock with his childhood neighbor. His penultimate letter to "Muddy" even warned her not to count on getting an addition to their family, as "my heart sinks at the idea of this marriage..." (This is oddly reminiscent of his earlier recorded comment about his reputed engagement to Mrs. Whitman: "That marriage will never take place.")

In short, if you accept the testimony of the "Valentine interview," Poe was desperate to wed Mrs. Shelton as soon as possible, but she, for unspecified reasons, had strong reservations against the idea. On the other hand, the letters to Maria Clemm from both Poe and Mrs. Shelton paint Elmira as deeply enamored of her childhood friend and the assertive one in the relationship, while he is depicted as haunted by grave doubts about marrying a woman he knew he did not really love. (His qualms would not be surprising, as the little we know about Mrs. Shelton suggests a Victorian Hilda Rumpole.)

This was, after all, the man who wrote that "the mere death of a beloved wife does not imply a final separation so complete as to justify a union with another."

After these "notes"--upon which the entire history of the Poe/Shelton relationship is based--were published by Ingram, Shelton continued to maintain her old blank silence. All her family members agreed that they never heard her so much as mention Poe's name. Her granddaughter--who lived under the same roof with her--later stated that she grew up having no idea the family matriarch even knew Poe. And Mrs. Shelton failed to provide her--or anyone else--with additional details. Biographers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. As a result of this paucity of information, no relationship in Poe's life has been more exaggerated or mythologized than the "romance" with Sarah Royster Shelton, his so-called "first and last love."

J.J. Moran, the doctor who claimed to have attended Poe on his deathbed--although even that has been disputed--published an account of a call he supposedly paid to Shelton sometime before her death in 1888. According to him, he and Shelton shared an emotional and highly theatrical-sounding conversation about Poe. Unfortunately, Moran's anecdotes about his most famous patient grew increasingly colorful and fictional over the years, particularly once he hit the lecture circuit. Like so many others, he found Poe to be an irresistible cash cow. These alleged confidences of Shelton's are believed to be just one more of his fables. The same holds true for a widely-circulated 1901 article about Poe and Shelton written by a Richmond journalist named Edward Alfriend, as well as legends about the Poe/Shelton relationship promulgated by fellow Richmond folklorists Charles Marshall Graves and the ineffable, ubiquitous, reality-challenged J.H. Whitty. All these men depict Mrs. Shelton as doing little over the years except endlessly chattering about Poe to anyone who would listen--which would surely have come as a surprise to her own family. Furthermore, the stories they related (which not only contradict each other, but the Valentine notes as well,) are all so unrealistic, when they're not demonstrably untrue, (Alfriend, who claimed to know Mrs. Shelton well, even gave her first name as "Elizabeth!") that even most Poe scholars--a lot normally willing to swallow virtually anything--have treated them gingerly, relying instead on the Valentine interview.

In Part Two: More on the Shelton/Valentine interview, plus a note on why you can't blindly trust "The Poe Log."