Often the hardest thing for a historical novel to do—especially one centered on a real and very famous figure—is surprise its reader. After all, we know how the stories of people like Anne Boleyn and Joan of Arc and even Edgar Allan Poe end. With Mrs. Poe, Lynn Cullen weaves a dark, sensuous love triangle between three real people, and in the midst of many real historical details, she creates something truly and wonderfully surprising.
Cullen’s narrator is Frances Osgood, a struggling writer separated from her husband and trying to support her two children in 1845 New York City. The whole town is under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe and his poem “The Raven,” and when Osgood gets the opportunity to meet the famous author, she finds herself just as captivated by his personal charms as by his literary ones. Their friendship quickly becomes something more, and the pair begin to trade romantic poems and steal quiet moments together, even as Osgood grows closer to Poe’s wife: his young, sickly cousin, Virginia. As Osgood’s relationship with both Mr. and Mrs. Poe grows more complex, Cullen weaves a dense, taut web of secrets and schemes that, like so many of Poe’s own tales, leads us into uncanny territory.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the novel is Cullen’s ability to take Poe, someone often seen as a figure of absolute mystery even by his fans, and sculpt him into a finely drawn character through historical details and her own deft prose. The effect is heightened by Osgood’s narration. She is an even stronger character than the captivating Poe, and sweeps us along with her in ways both inviting and terrifying.
A different historical novelist might have been carried away by the mysterious celebrity of her characters. Cullen is never intimidated, and the result is a novel filled with thrillingly real people. Devotees of dark historical fiction will devour Mrs. Poe, but so too will fans of Gothic romance and forbidden love stories. This is an invigoratingly creepy historical novel propelled by brilliant pacing. If you like books that send a little shiver up your spine, don’t miss it.