Monday, April 11, 2011

On the Dangers of Corresponding With Mrs. Ellet

"What chance--what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate."
-"William Wilson"
Elizabeth F. Ellet and Edgar Allan PoeIt is well known that a particularly lively section of Hell was stirred up early in 1846 when Poe accused Elizabeth F. Ellet of having written to him certain never-described but evidently highly discreditable letters. Unfortunately, we know virtually nothing of their acquaintance before that fateful moment when Virginia Poe--for reasons hidden from us--displayed to Ellet a letter (contents also unknown) written by Frances S. Osgood. Whatever happened during this meeting, it left Ellet with a vengeful hatred of Poe, Osgood, and--a highly pertinent fact that is universally ignored--Virginia herself.

Our lack of knowledge makes it highly difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the truth about Ellet's prior dealings with Poe. We know he had published some of her poems in the "Broadway Journal," along with effusive words of praise about her work (praise he naturally bestowed upon all the contributors to the "Journal," whether their writings were good, bad, or indifferent.) There are hints from Charles F. Briggs, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and Poe himself that the attractive young Mrs. Ellet had made some sort of unreciprocated amorous advances towards him. Otherwise, we are left groping in the dark--not an unusual position when studying the World of Poe.

We do not even know exactly what Ellet did to prompt Poe to make this inflammatory revelation about her letters. Rufus W. Griswold's "Memoir" claimed Poe borrowed money from Ellet, and then "threatened to exhibit a correspondence" which "would make the woman infamous" if she did not drop the matter. (Griswold, in order to make Poe look as black as possible, claimed that, "of course" these letters never existed. He never bothered to explain how Poe could blackmail Ellet with letters she would have known were nonexistent.) Sarah Helen Whitman said that Poe, indignant that Ellet had instigated a demand that he return Frances S. Osgood's letters, impulsively blurted that Ellet had better look out for her own correspondence. (It must be noted that she is the only source to give anything like this version of the brouhaha.) Charles F. Briggs, who satirized the scandal in his novel "The Trippings of Tom Pepper," depicted Poe as actually displaying Ellet's letters to his acquaintances, as proof that she had tried to seduce him. Elizabeth Oakes Smith wrote Whitman a letter in the mid-1870s saying nothing about immodest correspondence, but suggesting that certain ladies who had greatly admired Poe fell into a jealous feud as a result. Smith was said to have spread another story indicating that Ellet's ire was aroused when she caught Virginia Poe and Mrs. Osgood laughing together over a love letter Ellet had written Virginia's husband. Margaret Fuller, in a letter written to Elizabeth Barrett Browning soon after Poe's death, indicated that several women imagined themselves infatuated with him, but their emotions were no more than a "romantic illusion" which merely amused him. (It should be emphasized that none of these nosy little chatterboxes depicted Poe as returning the affections of these ladies, who were obviously Ellet and Osgood.)

In regard to the fate of these letters, we again are given multiple conflicting accounts. A letter Poe allegedly wrote Whitman in 1848 claimed that he returned Ellet's letters to her--whereupon she sent her brother to demand he produce these missives. Thomas Dunn English described Poe as telling him that he still had Ellet's letters in his possession, but that he refused to produce them under duress. (English, anxious to whitewash his friend Mrs. Ellet, claimed that Poe simply lied about possessing any letters from her--as if he would know.) Rufus Griswold, despite what he wrote in his Poe memoir, stated privately that he obtained these legendary documents after Poe's death--letters which he said were indeed highly indecent--and returned them to that indiscreet lady. It is anyone's guess what the truth may have been.

Ellet herself, naturally, asserted that no such letters ever existed. In fact, she claimed Poe had written her a note of apology acknowledging that he had lied about receiving letters from her. There is no record of anyone else having actually seen this alleged note, and Poe himself certainly never admitted making such a humiliating confession. Despite the absence of any confirmation for Ellet's claims, many of Poe's biographers accept them. Largely ignored, however, is the fact that two brief notes of hers to him survive, and one of them is strange enough to suggest that Poe's accusations against her were all too true.

The notes--which came into the hands of Griswold after Poe's death--were written in mid-December of 1845. The first one (which is signed simply, "E,") is largely businesslike, even curt, dealing with some article about a certain college that was to be published in the "Broadway Journal." Then, on the second page, she writes in German that she had a letter for him, and that he should send for it or pick it up himself after seven o'clock that evening. Under that--still in German--is a quotation from Schiller which translates as:

"O, what a rent you have made in my heart
The senses are still in your bonds
Though the bleeding soul has freed itself."

The second note, evidently written a day or two later, is unaddressed and unsigned, and says only: "Do not use in any way the memorandum about the So. Ca. College. Excuse the repeated injunction--but as you would not decipher my German manuscript--I am fearful of some other mistake."

These notes raise some intriguing questions. The message about the letter she asked him to pick up was obviously something she wanted kept a secret between them, as she wrote it out in a foreign language. She also obviously did not trust this mysterious letter to the postal service, as she was so specific about how he should obtain it. Whether she herself was the author of that letter or not, it was clearly something she wanted kept very private. The rather startling lines from Schiller hint that she may indeed have been guilty of some impropriety. And what did Ellet mean by her complaint that Poe "would not"--as opposed to "could not"--pay heed to what she had previously written? Did that mean he had chosen to ignore her message?

Most unfortunately, we know nothing more about their correspondence. These two notes, however, possibly hint at why Mrs. Ellet was later so desperate to convince the world that this correspondence never existed.

A footnote: It is universally assumed that Mrs. Ellet spent the rest of her life (which came to an end in 1877) spreading vicious reports about Poe. However, aside from Ellet's assertion that Poe admitted he had lied about her letters, I know of only one other extant first-hand comment from her about the poet. It is a letter she wrote George W. Eveleth in 1856, in response to what was evidently his request that she give her opinion about her old antagonist. (Eveleth was in the habit of writing interrogatory letters about Poe to complete strangers--and oddly enough, they generally answered him.)

Ellet disclaimed any real personal knowledge about Poe, saying only that "I always understood that Mr. E.A. Poe, though a man of genius, was intemperate, and subject to attacks of lunacy. He was frequently in the asylum..."

There is a little epilogue to their acquaintance which is even more curious. In the 1850s and '60s, Mrs. Ellet frequently raised money for various charities by giving public readings of poems and other dramatic works. She often closed these performances with a well-regarded recitation of..."The Bells."

Make of that what you will.

(Image courtesy New York Public Library.)