Mrs Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs Poe About ten years ago I was given a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works for Christmas and spent the next few months slowly working through his stories and poems. I was already familiar with the more famous ones, but I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer he actually was and I enjoyed discovering the rest of his work, from the wonderful creepiness of Ligeia and the mystery of The Gold Bug to the satire of The Angel of the Odd and the eerie beauty of Silence: A Fable. By all accounts Poe’s private life was almost as interesting as his fiction, so I was naturally drawn to this new novel by Lynn Cullen with the title Mrs Poe.

I had assumed that the Mrs Poe of the title was Poe’s cousin Virginia Clemm who became his wife at the age of thirteen, but while Virginia does play a big part in the story, the title also refers to another woman – the poet Frances Sargent Osgood, with whom Poe may have had an affair. As the story begins in 1845, Frances is separated from her husband, the portrait painter Samuel Stillman Osgood, and is struggling to earn enough money through her writing to support herself and her young children. Her editor suggests that perhaps the type of poems and stories she writes (children’s stories like Puss in Boots and poetry about love and flowers) are not what people want to read and she should try something darker, becoming “a sort of Mrs Poe”.

However, Frances’ work has already brought her to the attention of Poe himself and when the two are introduced, a friendship begins to form. After this, Cullen’s novel starts to deviate away from the known facts. Poe and Osgood certainly had a relationship of some sort and exchanged romantic poems but it is not known whether they were any more than just platonic friends. In Mrs Poe there’s no doubt that Frances is in love with Edgar, so when she is befriended by his young wife Virginia, who is suffering from tuberculosis, Frances doesn’t know what to think – especially when she starts to experience a series of accidents and misfortunes whenever she’s with Virginia. Does Virginia really want to be her friend or does she have a more sinister reason for wanting to spend so much time with Frances?

The story of the two Mrs Poes is set within the world of nineteenth century American literature, which means there are lots of descriptions of meetings with publishers, salons attended by authors and literary critics, and even some brief mentions and appearances from Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers and poets. This does help to give us a feel for what life was like in the literary world of 1800s New York, but when P.T. Barnum, Samuel Morse and other historical characters began to appear as well, I thought it started to feel too overwhelming.

I have tried two of Lynn Cullen’s books now – this one and The Creation of Eve, the story of female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola – and while they are both entertaining enough, I’m not sure she is really an author for me. I love the fact that she chooses such interesting subjects for her novels, but neither of the two I’ve read have the depth I look for in historical fiction. This one had the potential to be a great story but the focus on gossip, scandal and the social lives of the characters started to bore me. I think with a title like Mrs Poe I had also expected something more gothic and mysterious and was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t – although the story did become a lot more compelling halfway through when Frances began to feel threatened by Virginia.

This book wasn’t a great success for me, but I would still recommend it to other readers who are interested in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

I think most people have probably heard of famous Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But what about Sofonisba Anguissola? In The Creation of Eve, Lynn Cullen introduces us to this talented female artist who was prevented from reaching her full potential simply because she was a woman. Sofonisba, who spent many years in the Spanish court, was not allowed to sign her paintings with her own initials and some of her works were even credited to other people.

At the beginning of the book, Sofonisba is studying in Rome with Michelangelo. She leaves Rome following an affair with another student and travels to Spain where she joins the royal court as lady-in-waiting and art instructor to the fourteen-year-old Queen, Elizabeth of Valois. Here she becomes caught up in a scandal involving the Queen and the King’s half brother, Don Juan.

This book was not quite what I had thought it would be. I was expecting it to focus on the story of Sofonisba Anguissola and was looking forward to learning about her training as an artist and the challenges she faced as a woman working in a male-dominated field. As it turned out though, the book was as much about the relationship between King Felipe II and his young French wife, Elizabeth, as it was about Sofonisba. For much of the book Sofonisba is little more than a passive observer, a witness to the events that are unfolding in the Spanish court.

I thought The Creation of Eve was an interesting and entertaining read but it lacked any real emotional impact for me. Looking at other reviews of this book (as I usually do after writing my own) opinion seems to be overwhelmingly positive, so if you like reading historical fiction revolving around intrigue in royal courts there’s a good chance that you’ll love this book. The novel does appear to be very well-researched. Cullen manages to incorporate a large amount of historical detail, but this never gets in the way of the plot. I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book which tells us which parts of the book are historical fact and which are fiction.

I actually won this book in last year’s Readathon (April 2010) and am glad I’ve finally read and enjoyed it, as I was starting to feel very guilty about not reading it sooner!

Some examples of Sofonisba Anguissola’s paintings can be seen on her Wikipedia page.