Struggling to support her family in mid-nineteenth-century New York, writer Frances Osgood makes an unexpected connection with literary master Edgar Allan Poe and finds her survival complicated by her intense attraction to the writer and the scheming manipulations of his wife.
"The Raven," "The Tell-Tale Heart"-these scary pieces by Edgar Allan Poe stirred the emotions of the literary ladies of his time. But in 1845, Poe stirred up gossip, too, with his attention to Frances Sargent Osgood, a poet deserted by her philandering husband. Poe's deathly ill, 23-year-old wife (his first cousin, whom he married when she was 13) seems to be suspicious. Taking advantage of letters and published poems, imaginative historical novelist Cullen (Reign of Madness, 2011) cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale told by Mrs. Osgood about the long-ago intrigue, with just enough facts to make it believable. Celebrities like Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, and John Jacob Astor make cameo appearances. Others-the creator of graham crackers, the author of Bartlett's Quotations, Horace Greeley-also step in for a fun romp through history. As the story unfolds, we're left to wonder if Mrs. Poe is Edgar's Mr. Hyde, or is Poe himself the villain? It's enough to make the teacups rattle. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.
Edgar Allen Poe, master of the gothic tale, becomes shrouded in even more gloom in Cullen's (Reign of Madness, 2011, etc.) insipid historical novel about his relationship with fellow author Frances Sargent Locke Osgood. In the winter of 1845, Osgood finds herself relying on friends Russell and Eliza Bartlett for food and lodging while her philandering husband, portrait artist Samuel, is off with his latest romantic conquest. Although she's had some success with her writing-Puss in Boots and her poetry-Osgood worries about supporting her two young daughters. At a gathering of New York elite, she meets Poe, who admires her talent. Following widespread publication of "The Raven," Poe has become the most famous and feted writer in America. He's also despised by many for his scathing reviews of their literary efforts and his air of superiority. The fact that he married his first cousin, Virginia, when she was only 13 supplies fodder for the gossip mills and, eventually, so does the relationship that develops between Osgood and Poe. Although they try to mask their attraction, they spend time together with his mother-in-law/aunt and Mrs. Poe, who is desperately ill and annoyingly childish. Osgood is commissioned to write a piece about the Poes' lives, but the plans fall through; however, it doesn't end her relationship with the Poe family. Even though she's uncomfortable with her situation, and suspects that Mrs. Poe's need to compete with her for Poe's attention is more ominous than mere jealousy suggests, Osgood is unable to break away. The pair continues to communicate in the form of published poems, during arranged outings and at social events, but their love is further complicated by public disapproval, Mrs. Poe's decline, Samuel's brief reappearance, a life-altering decision and harrowing near-death experiences. Although Cullen attempts to portray Osgood and Poe as sympathetic characters, it's difficult to identify with either as they teeter back and forth between feelings of guilt, anguish, fear and defiance. The narrative might have been more interesting had the author focused on the relationship between the title character and her husband. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
When given bad news, most women of my station can afford to slump onto their divans, their china cups slipping from their fingers to the carpet, their hair falling prettily from its pins, their fourteen starched petticoats compacting with a plush crunch. I am not one of them. As a lady whose husband is so busy painting portraits of wealthy patrons—most of whom happen to be women—that he forgets that he has a family, I have more in common with the girls who troll the muddy streets of Corlear’s Hook, looking to part sailors from their dollars, than I do with the ladies of my class, in spite of my appearance.
This thought bolted into my mind like a horse stung by a wasp that afternoon at the office of The Evening Mirror. I was in the midst of listening to a joke about two backward Hoosiers being told by the editor Mr. George Pope Morris. I knew that the news Mr. Morris was obviously putting off giving me must not be good. Still, I laughed delightedly at his infantile joke, even while choking on the miasma created by his excess of perfumed hair pomade, the open glue pot sitting upon his desk, and the parrot cage to my left, which was in dire need of changing. I hoped to soften him, just as a “Hooker” softens potential customers by lifting a corner of her skirt.
I struck when Mr. Morris was still chuckling from his own joke. Showing teeth brushed with particular care before I had set off to confront him after a silence of twenty-two days, I said, “About the poem I sent you in January. . . .” I trailed off, widening my eyes with hopefulness, my equivalent of petticoat lifting. If I was to become independent, I needed the income.
No sailor considering a pair of ankles looked more wary than Mr. George Pope Morris did at that moment, although few sailors managed to achieve the success he had at toilet, particularly with his hair. Never before had such a lofty loaf of curls arisen from a human head without the aid of padding. It was as if he had used his top hat for a mold. Whether by design or accident, one large curl had escaped the mass and now dangled upon his forehead like a gelatinous fishhook.
“Might you have misplaced it?” I asked lightly. Maybe he would appreciate putting the blame on his partner. “Or perhaps Mr. Willis has it.”
His gaze slid down to my bosom, registered the disappointment of seeing only cloak, then snapped back to my face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Osgood. To be quite frank, it is not what we are looking for.”
“I’m certain that your female readership would enjoy my allusions to love in my descriptions of flowers. Mr. Rufus Griswold has been so kind to include some of my poems in his recent collection. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
“I know Griswold’s collection. Everyone does—he’s made sure of it. How that little bully got to be such an authority on poetry, I’ll never know.”
“Threats of death?”
Mr. Morris laughed, then waggled his finger at me. “Mrs. Osgood!”
Quickly before I lost him: “My own book, published by Mr. Harper, The Poetry of Flowers and the Flowers of Poetry, sold quite well.”
“When was that?” he asked distractedly.
“Two years ago.” Actually it was four.
“As I thought. Flowers are not what is selling of late. What everyone is interested in these days are shivery tales. Stories of the macabre.”
“Like Mr. Poe’s bird poem?”
He nodded, causing the great greased curl to bounce. “As a matter of fact, yes. Our sales soared when we brought out the ‘The Raven’ at the end of January. Same thing happened when we reprinted it last week. I suspect we could reprint it ten times and it wouldn’t be enough. Readers have gone Raven-mad.”
“I see.” I didn’t see. Yes, I had read the poem. Everyone in New York had since it had first been published the previous month. Even the German man who sold newspapers in the Village knew of it. Just this morning, when I asked him if he had the current issue of the Mirror, he’d said with an accent and a grin, “Nefermore.”
My dearest friend, Mrs. John Russell Bartlett, part of the inner circle of the New York literati, thanks to her husband, a bookseller and publisher of a small press, would not be quiet about him. She had been angling to meet him ever since “The Raven” had come out. In truth, I had thought I might get a glimpse of the wondrous Mr. Poe in the office that morning. He was an editor at the Mirror as well as a contributor.
Mr. Morris seemed to read my mind. “Evidently, our dear Mr. Poe is feeling his success. He is threatening to leave the magazine. Wherever he goes, I wish them luck in dealing with his moods.”
“Is he so very moody?” I still hoped to cajole Mr. Morris into friendship and, therefore, into indebtedness.
Mr. Morris gestured as if tipping a glass to his mouth.
“Oh.” I made a conspiratorial grimace.
“He’s really quite unbalanced, you know. I suspect he’s more than half mad, and it’s not just the drink.”
He smiled. “Look, Mrs. Osgood, you are an intelligent woman. You’ve had some luck with your story collections for children. My own little ones loved ‘Puss in Boots.’ Why don’t you go back to that?”
I could not tell him the real reason: money. Writing children’s stories did not pay.
“I feel that it’s important for me to expand my writing,” I said. “I have things I would like to say.” Which was also true. Why must a woman be confined to writing children’s tales?
He chuckled. “Like which color brings out the roses in one’s complexion, or how to decorate at Christmas?”
I laughed, good Hooker that I am. Still smiling, I said, “I think you might be surprised at what I am capable of.”
His parrot squawked. He fed it a cracker from his pocket, then wiped his hands on his pantaloons, his sights making their habitual rounds from my eyes to my bust and back again. I forced myself to keep a cheerful gaze, although I wished to slap the curl off his forehead.
He frowned. “A beautiful woman like you shouldn’t have to trouble your head with this sort of thing, but what if you came up with something as fresh and exciting as ‘The Raven,’ only from a lady’s point of view?”
“Do you mean something dark?”
“Yes,” he said, warming to the idea. “Yes. Exactly so—dark. Very dark. I think there might be a market for that. Shivery tales for ladies.”
“You’d like me to be a sort of Mrs. Poe?”
“Ha! Yes. That’s the ticket.”
“Will I be paid the same as Mr. Poe?” I asked brazenly. Desperate times call for uncouth measures.
He marked the inappropriateness of my question with a pause before answering. “I paid Poe nothing, since he was on staff. I should think you’d want to do better than that.”
Although already envious of Mr. Poe for his recent success, I felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Perhaps he was independently wealthy, as was Mr. Longfellow or Mr. Bryant, and did not need the money or my compassion. In any case, he was not wed to a philandering portrait painter.
Mr. Morris led me to the door. “The Mirror is a popular magazine, Mrs. Osgood. We’re not interested in literature for scholars. Bring me something fresh and entertaining. Something dark that will make the lady readers afraid to snuff their candles at night. You do that, and I’ll see what I can do for you. Just don’t turn your back on us when you’ve reached the top, as did our Mr. Poe.”
“I wouldn’t. I promise.”
“Poe’s his own worst enemy—he no sooner makes a friend than he turns him into a foe.”
“I wonder what has made him such a difficult character.”
He shrugged. “Why do wolves bite? They just do.” He held open the door, letting in a cool draft. “Give my regards to Mr. Osgood.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will.” If he ever tired of his current heiress and came home.
• • •
I soon found myself on the sidewalk of Nassau Street and, it being a mild day for February, ankle-deep in slush. Gentlemen passed, encased in buttoned overcoats and plugged with top hats. They flicked curious gazes in my direction, not sure whether I was a lady to whom they should tip their hat or a Hooker who had wandered into their inner sanctum. Few females of any sort ventured into the hallowed business precincts of New York—the engine room of what was becoming the greatest money factory in the world.
I bent into the biting wind, ever present in winter in this island city, and rounded the corner onto Ann Street. A landau clattered by, its wheels flinging melted snow. Across the way, a hog rooted in refuse, one of the thousands of pigs who plied the streets, be it rich district or poor. The wet had brought out the smell of the smoke rising from the forest of rooftop chimneys as well as the stink of horse manure, rotting garbage, and urine. It is said that sailors can smell New York City six miles out at sea. I had no doubt of it.
Two short blocks later, across Ann Street from Barnum’s American Museum, with its banners advertising such humbuggery in residence as President Washington’s childhood nurse and the Feejee Mermaid, I arrived upon the shoveled promenade of Broadway. Vehicles poured down the thoroughfare before me as if a vein in the city had been opened and it was bleeding conveyances down the bumpy cobblestones. The din they made was deafening. The massive hooves of shaggy draft horses clashed against the street as they pulled rumbling wagons bulging with barrels. Stately carriages creaked by behind clopping bays. Hackneys for hire rattled alongside omnibuses with windows filled with staring faces. Whips cracked; drivers shouted; dogs barked. In the midst of it all, on a balcony on the Barnum’s building, a brass band tootled. It was enough to test one’s sanity.
Clutching my skirts, I hurried through a gap in the thundering traffic. I landed breathless on the other side of the street, where the Astor House hotel, six stories of solid granite gentility, sat frowning down its noble pillars at me. It seemed aware that I had only two pennies in the expensive reticule on my arm.
Just a month previously I had been one of its pampered residents. I had been among the privileged to bathe in its hot-running-water baths. I, too, had enjoyed reading by the gaslights and dining with the rich and beautiful at the table d’hôte. Samuel had insisted that we take rooms at the Astor House when we had moved to New York from London, to make a good impression.
Had I known of the ruinous state of our ledgers, I would have never agreed to it. But Samuel thought that as the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, I expected no less of him. He could never get over the inequality of our backgrounds, no matter how much I assured him that it didn’t matter to me. I, on the other hand, had gotten over it the moment he first kissed me. I had no care if we took up housekeeping in a soddy, as long as I spent the night in Samuel Osgood’s arms. Samuel, though, could never quite believe this. There is no more prideful creature than a man born poor.
Now, hunched against the icy wind and feeling the pinch of my thin pointed boots and the stabbing of my corset stays, I marched up the assault on the senses that is called Broadway. The loud swirl of striving people and their beasts dazzled the eyes, as did the brightly painted establishments bristling with signs that bragged LIFE-LIKE DAGUERREOTYPES! WORLD’S FRESHEST OYSTERS! MOUTH-WATERING ICE CREAM! FINEST QUALITY LADIES’ FANS! The stench of rotting sea creatures commingled with the sweet scent of perfumes, as did the spicy odor of unwashed human flesh and the aroma of baking pies.
Soon the flapping awnings of tobacconists, haberdashers, and dry-goods emporiums gave way to mansions with ornate iron fences that fringed their foundations like chin whiskers. Although the richest man of them all, Mr. Astor, refused to budge from his stone pile at Broadway and Prince, the fashion was to show off one’s newly minted money by constructing a castle in the neighborhoods north of Houston Street. It was in this vaunted district that I turned westward on Bleecker. In boots made to stroll across a manicured square, not march up a mile and a half of flagstones, I minced painfully past ranks of stately brick houses at LeRoy Place, in many of which I’d had tea. Near the writer James Fenimore Cooper’s ostentatiously large former home on Carroll Place, about which his wife liked to complain often and loudly that it was “too magnificent for our simple French tastes,” I veered right onto Laurens Street.
With an end in sight, I picked up my pace as much as my cursed corset and destroyed feet would allow. I hobbled elegantly by a tumbledown row of stables, smithies, and small wooden dwellings meant for those who served the denizens of the palaces around them, until at last, a block short of Washington Square, I came to Amity Place, yet another enclave of new four-story Greek Revival town houses caged in by black ironwork fences. From a third-story window, through an oval that had been cleared in the frost by the sun, peered two young girls.
My heart warmed. I opened the wrought iron gate, climbed the steep flight of six stone steps, and pushed open the door.
Five-and-half-year-old Vinnie was running down the narrow staircase as I entered the hall. “Mamma, did he buy your poem?”
“Hold on to the railing!” I exclaimed. Behind her, my elder daughter, Ellen, three years older than her sister and worlds more cautious, took the stairs at a more judicious rate.
Vinnie threw herself against me. A loud crash descended from an upstairs room, followed by a wail and the exasperated voice of my friend Eliza.
Ellen made a safe landing and held out her arms to take my mantle and hat. “Henry is being bad.”
I glanced above her. “Yes, I can hear him.”
“Mamma,” Vinnie demanded, “did the man buy your poem?”
“He didn’t buy that one. But he did ask to see more.” I opened my gloved palm, upon which lay two peppermint drops. I had taken them from a dish on Mr. Morris’s desk when I had waited for him to arrive.
Vinnie’s grin revealed a newly naked arch in her upper gums. She popped in the candy.
Ellen shifted my things in her arms, then took her piece. Not yet seven and she was as somber as a Temperance lady on Christmas. “You should write more stories for children,” she said as I peeled off my gloves. “They always buy your children’s stories.”
“I’m trying to spread my wings. What do I say about birds who don’t spread their wings?”
The candy rattled against Vinnie’s remaining teeth as she moved it to her cheek to speak. “They never learn to fly.”
“You don’t need to fly, Mother,” Ellen said. “You need to make money.”
How did she know these things? At her age, I was dressing paper dolls. Blast you, Samuel Osgood, for stunting her with worry and spoiling her childhood. I could spin all manner of tales about his care and concern for us and she always saw right through them.
“What I need to do now is to help Mrs. Bartlett,” I said cheerfully. “Vinnie, how is your ear?”
She gingerly touched the ear with the tuft of cotton sprouting from it. “Hurts.”
Just then, a young boy in a rumpled tunic trampled down the stairs, followed closely by a plain but kindly looking gentlewoman of my age, who was in turn followed by a pretty red-cheeked Irish maid carrying a toddler.
“Fanny!” cried Eliza. “Thank goodness you’re back. I have news!”
Although I had lived with Eliza Bartlett and her family for several months, my heart still swelled with gratitude at the sight of her. She and her husband had taken me in when the Astor House had turned me out. It seemed that prior to decamping for lusher pastures in November, Samuel had not paid the bill for the previous three months. After I showed up on Eliza’s doorstep with my shameful story, she made no verbal judgment, just said, “You’re staying with us.” Nor did she speak up when our other friends inquired about Samuel, but silently sat back and let me lie about his imminent return. She thus saved me from the pity that our circle would have rained upon me for being the abandoned wife of a ne’er-do-well. I would have gained their sympathy but lost my place and my pride.
She took little Johnny from her maid. “Mary, please take Mrs. Osgood’s things downstairs to dry and Henry along with you. Henry: be good.” To me she exclaimed, “Goodness, you look frozen. Why didn’t you take a hackney home?”
“What is this news?”
She removed little Johnny’s hand from inside her blouse. “Mr. Poe is coming!”
She laughed. “No. Not unless he wishes to change a diaper. He’s going to appear at the home of a young woman named Anne Lynch—this Saturday! And we, my dear, are invited.”
I found my excitement to meet the renowned writer was tempered by the fact that I had just been encouraged to be his competitor. “Wonderful! Do we know this Miss Lynch?”
Eliza gave little Johnny to Vinnie, who’d been silently begging for him with open arms. “She’s new to this city from Providence—she’s a friend of Russell’s family. She stopped in his shop and told him she was attempting to start a salon—not just for the usual bon ton but for artists of all kinds, rich or poor. I daresay she might have a chance at success after having snagged Poe.”
“I wonder how she lured him in.”
“She might come to regret it. He’s sure to be horribly ruthless. Poe doesn’t like anything.”
It was true. I had seen his reviews in The Evening Mirror. Prior to “The Raven,” he was best known in literary circles for his poisoned pen. For good reason he was called the Tomahawker, happy as he was to chop up his fellow writers. He regularly tore in to gentle, gentlemanly Mr. Longfellow with a savagery that made no sense. In truth, I had wondered about his sanity even before Mr. Morris’s accusation, or at least his motives for such abuse.
“The gathering is to be at seven. Say that you’ll come with me. I told her about you—” She saw my wince. “That you are a poet.”
Bless you, Eliza. “I’ll go, if the girls are well by then.”
Vinnie jogged little Johnny on her hip. “I will be!”
“There you have it,” I said with a nonchalance that I did not feel. If I became his competition, I, too, might soon be on the wrong side of the dangerous Mr. Poe.