Monday, March 14, 2011

The Hazards of Poe Fiction: "The Raven's Bride" Revisited

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe and The Raven's BrideI have noticed that over the past two weeks or so, this blog have gotten a number of hits where people appear to be looking for information related to Lenore Hart's recent Virginia Poe novel. Elsewhere online, it has struck me that readers who are unfamiliar with Poe take this work of fiction as some sort of "guidebook" to his real life--which is hardly the case. The novel is well-written and often intriguing, and I always appreciate Poe's wife getting some of the spotlight. However, certain things about "Bride" were simply utterly misguided, and I hate the thought that unwary readers will assume they were based on solid historical research. This seems to be a common trap for fans of historical fiction, and if it seems odd that I'm spending so much time discussing a mere novel, it's because I have come to believe that works of fiction have a greater influence than any biography in shaping general public perceptions of a historical figure. Just look at Shakespeare and Richard III.

Leaving aside the "Raven's Bride"/"Very Young Mrs. Poe" connection (and, again, I hope fans of Hart's novel will read Cothburn O'Neal's book and come to their own conclusions about that matter,) these are a few of the myths I fear this novel will popularize:

1. I assume in the interests of heightened drama, Hart way oversold the "Poe lived in poverty" angle. Yes, the Poes were never rolling in wealth. (Something that, I am convinced, was never important to them anyway.) Yes, there were several periods when they faced serious financial problems, most notably in the months before and after Virginia's death. However, Hart gives the impression that the Poe trio lived in practically unrelieved depressing and degrading squalor. Their lodgings are consistently described as "dingy," their clothes as humiliatingly "shabby," their tableware cracked and chipped. If you take Hart's word for it, Poe made Oliver Twist look like Louis XIV. And Virginia is depicted as privately gnashing her teeth in misery at the deplorable existence her feckless husband has imposed upon her.

This is, to say the least, exaggerated. Despite their lack of funds, contemporaries agree that Poe and his wife always dressed quietly, but with taste and even a modicum of style. Their clothing was always perfectly respectable. Similarly, their various living quarters were invariably described as simple, but comfortable, immaculate, and even charming. We know that, right into 1846, Virginia even owned unnecessary little luxuries such as stationery--which must have been custom-made--embossed with her initials (she owned another set with a flowered pattern,) and an elegant cut-glass perfume bottle. An acquaintance later described Virginia as having been "brought up in the South in perfect indolence and perfectly unfitted for toil. Her hands have never been soiled with work." Such details hardly indicate a hardscrabble existence. The Poe household may have been monetarily poor, but they surrounded themselves with what Poe's biographer Arthur H. Quinn described as "the neatness and self-respecting atmosphere, for which all three of the family were responsible." Their final New York City residence was located in what was then the most fashionable part of town. It should be noted that, even with the ill health she endured the last five years of her life, Virginia's friends all described her as a very cheerful, vivacious, happy personality who appeared utterly content with her lot. It is a disservice to both Virginia and Edgar that Hart failed to acknowledge that aspect of their story. There is no indication anywhere that Virginia ever regretted her life, or blamed her husband in any way for whatever problems they faced. Not one.

2. Poe's drinking was also overemphasized. It would be futile to deny that he had a problem with alcohol, but he was hardly the chronic "dipsomaniac" (Hart's words) portrayed in the novel. However, "Poe the drunk" has become such a beloved legendary figure--rather like Santa Claus--that it scarcely seems worthwhile pointing this out.

3. Hart completely misrepresents Poe's view of the afterlife. She depicts him as basically an atheist, convinced that there is nothing after we die, and that everyone we love is lost to us forever. If she had ever bothered to read "Eureka," or "The Island of the Fay," or "The Poetic Principle"--practically anything he ever wrote, for all that--she would have realized her grave error. (For anyone interested in Poe's religious views, Edward Wagenknecht's "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend" closes with a fine chapter on the subject.)

4. Hart made a complete muddle of the Poe/Ellet/Osgood scandal. Most books about Poe inevitably do, as the subject is so murky and confounding, but I get the feeling she didn't even try to understand what happened. (And, of course, she also included that stale canard about Mrs. Osgood supposedly being estranged from her husband.) Hart simply combined two different, contradictory pieces of completely unverified gossip, and wound up with an illogical mess that doesn't even fit the few facts we have on the subject. For anyone who's interested, I've chronicled the whole complicated unpleasantness involving Poe and those two women here, here and here. (Incidentally, Hart's sloppy research is typified by her description of the very married Elizabeth Ellet as "Miss." And I am confounded by Hart's decision to have all the other characters call her "Lizzie." Mrs. Ellet was called a great many things by her contemporaries--few of which are repeatable here--but I can guarantee "Lizzie" was not among them. And I feel equally confident in asserting that Mrs. Osgood was never on a first-name basis with Poe or Virginia.)

I also found it interesting that Hart couldn't even make up her mind what Poe's relationship to Frances S. Osgood may have been. At one point, he mocks her personally and is unenthusiastic about her poetry. Then, he suddenly winds up in a public "flirtation" with her, and Hart describes him as appearing "disappointed" when Virginia tells him Osgood wants to be friends with both of them--the implication being that he had hoped for something more with the lady. This, of course, makes a startling and inexplicable contrast to Virginia's calm certainty that her husband "loved only me. I had his undying devotion, and all his true attention, in life and on the page..." Then, towards the end of the novel, Virginia classifies Osgood as just another of the literary women whom Poe "wooed" simply in the hopes of getting "favors" or "patronage" from them. (A rather ugly and unfounded smear Hart seems to have picked up from Cothburn O'Neal. In truth, these women were doing the "wooing" to win "favors" or "patronage" from him.) Also, Virginia feels no jealousy about the poems Poe and Osgood published to each other, as she realizes that such writings were merely "a reflection of the poet's ego, not the subject's life." But then, Virginia is depicted as being aware that "Poor Frances Osgood" is in love with Poe. How does she know this? From Osgood's poetry!

Couldn't Hart have made up her mind what she wanted to write before she sat down at the keyboard?

5. Hart's lack of knowledge about Poe is revealed by her ludicrous depiction of Thomas Dunn English as a kindly fellow who acted as Virginia's physician. (This bizarre touch is among her "borrowings" from Cothburn O'Neal.) For anyone who knows the true Poe/English history, this adds a positively surreal tone to the novel.

6. A central theme of the novel is Virginia's stifled dream to be a professional singer. Although we know she played the harp and piano, and was said to have a lovely singing voice, we have no indication she ever harbored any sort of professional ambitions. Virginia was described by everyone who knew her as a strong character, but very modest, dignified, and private, which makes this supposed aching desire to perform publicly seem unlikely. And I doubt her mother and husband would have objected if she had harbored such longings. After all, Poe's mother was an actress and singer, and he was very proud of the fact. As I noted in an earlier post, he publicly asserted the intrinsic morality of the stage, and strongly championed female performers. If his wife had dreamed of following in Eliza Poe's footsteps, I suspect he and "Muddy" would have been supportive, rather than horrified. However, I did not find the idea that she had such dreams convincing. I suspect Hart devised this "would-be career woman" plotline--which comes off as jarringly anachronistic--in order to make it easier for the modern-day female reader to "relate" to Virginia. (I got the strong feeling that "The Raven's Bride" was essentially written for teenage girls.)

7. As was the case in O'Neal's book, Poe's sister Rosalie plays a much larger role than the facts warrant. Rosalie herself admitted that she knew virtually nothing about Edgar and did not even know she had siblings until she was grown. There was always little contact between the two, and what relationship they had was decidedly chilly on both sides. (Although, once Edgar was dead, Rosalie never hesitated to exploit her connection to him.)

8. If I had to pick one thing I disliked about this novel, it was the air of subterranean hostility between the three principals. If you believe Hart, Virginia and her mother secretly resented Poe because he drank and couldn't hold a job. Virginia secretly resented her mother for dominating her. (This domination extended to the point where Mrs. Clemm was able to intimidate Edgar and Virginia into not consummating their marriage for two years!) Mrs. Clemm secretly resented Virginia for fighting this domination. Poe secretly resented them both because their presence kept him from speedily drinking himself to death. (And, of course, Virginia sensed his resentment--and resented him back for it, with interest.) I would not object to seeing such emotions depicted, if it wasn't for the fact that there is nothing on record to support any of it. Even Poe's worst enemies acknowledged that his family life was unusually close, loving, happy, and mutually supportive, with no hint of the clenched-fist antagonisms Hart imagined. Mrs. Clemm expressed nothing less than the truth when she wrote, "We three lived only for each other." Why do modern-day novelists have to turn every family relationship into something out of Tennessee Williams?

9. Just for the record, history gives no indication that Virginia ever had pneumonia. Hart evidently acquired that plotline from Cothburn O'Neal's novel. Similarly, we have no evidence that "Sissy" was a general "family name" for Virginia. As far as we know, no one except her husband ever called her by that pet name. Make of that what you will. The source for Hart's belief that "Sissy" was an appellation used by all her relatives appears to be...Cothburn O'Neal. (The same goes for the idea that Maria Clemm's mother was called "Granny Poe.")

I realize this entire post has an "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" quality. There are some things to like about this novel, and I would not wish to dissuade anyone from reading "The Raven's Bride"--if for no other reason than that Virginia is in desperate need of reappraisals. There certainly are worse books about Poe in circulation. I just want to emphasize that this is very definitely a work of fiction. Magna est veritas et praevalebit.