May 2011

S. J. Chambers


An Interview with Lenore Hart

Lenore Hart's latest novel The Raven's Bride is a fictional biography of Edgar Allan Poe's doomed child-bride, Virginia Clemm Poe (1822-1847). Hart is known for historical novels focusing on untapped female characters. Her previous novel with St. Martin's Press, Becky: The Lifes and Loves of Becky Thatcher, earned laurels by taking the somewhat irritating, icky girl from Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and turning her into a bad-ass heroine, even at one point donning trousers so she can discreetly search for her solider husband fighting in the Civil War. Virginia Poe, an impoverished consumptive, does not cavort much in this novel, but Becky fans will find similar endearing traits in Mrs. Poe’s character -- she is strong-willed, even if her frontier is simply music and the hearth, and her biggest battle is with her own health and her husband's insecurities.

The tale introduces us to the famously dead wife as, well, a ghost, who, like the characters in her husband's poem and stories, returns to claim her husband for the hereafter. She finds him delirious and dying in a hospital, and before she leads him -- think of it, Beatrice leading Orpheus -- to the afterworld, she tells him how she saw their life, what were her successes and her personal failures, what he put her through, and ultimately how much she loved him.

As someone who has been fascinated with the unsung tale of Virginia Poe, I was unsure what to expect from The Raven's Bride. When it comes to Poe and biographical fiction, the results are mostly camp and is about as interested in getting to the truth of Poe’s life as were Poe’s enemies. To date, over 30 novels have been written about Poe or his work, all which should be taken with a grain of salt. Most of these novels are not chasing the truth of Poe's life, but of his imagination and its world filled with madmen, miscreants, dying maidens, and good ole fashioned weirdoes. His imagination, then, in turn, is often thought to be inseparable from Poe the man, but he was neither mad nor degenerate, and only slightly strange in that we all have our issues and peccadilloes.

Even so, one peccadillo that has been the focus of many Poe fictional biographies is his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm. Much speculation has been given to whether their marriage was ever consummated, and what Poe’s intentions and desires were for a woman so young. But what of the woman’s desires? She is seen as Poe’s poetical prototype -- the young, dying, beautiful woman -- and is often cast in the role of Elenora, Madeline, Lenore, Ulalume, and Annabel Lee, whose archetypical tombs have smothered her into silence. A lot of this has to do with the fact that little is known about her. Because there are no surviving letters by her hand, just one Valentine she wrote her husband in 1846, what we know are the bare facts of her youth, beauty, and of her illness. What we do not know is her intellect, her personality -- what, about her, made Poe so in love with her? These are questions no historical fiction writer can resist answering, and Lenore Hart makes a sincere effort at recovering the woman’s forgotten tale.

While the Virginia in this story was not wholly as I would have envisioned her, the thing one has to realize while reading biographical fiction is that these characters are all based upon the author’s conclusions. It is, after all, fiction, and while sometimes it can get us closer to the truth, it can also take us further away, and it is up to the reader to decide what is fact and what is just a nice story. To discuss the nuances of biographical fiction and the sparse history of Virginia Poe, Lenore Hart agreed to an e-mail exchange discussing what went into crafting her Virginia, and defending the truth she believes she uncovered and what she hopes the reader takes away from The Raven’s Bride tale.

What intrigued you to write about Virginia Poe?

A number of things. First of all, my father was a great admirer of Poe’s works, and I was named for the young woman in his second-favorite poem, “The Raven.” Why not his most favorite? Because that was “Annabel Lee,” and my mother claimed she had responded to that paternal suggestion with, “A good name for a baby cow. Absolutely not!” Second, I am also married to a novelist, so the varied relationships of writers or pairs of artists have always intrigued me. And finally, Virginia seemed a good candidate because I did want to write about her, and because what my excellent editor at St. Martin’s Press, Hilary Rubin Teeman, claims I do best is to imagine full, real lives for historical women who have been short-changed somehow in the previous telling, or in the historical record.

Virginia Poe is famous for being Edgar Allan Poe’s ill-fated child bride, but outside of that very little is known about her. No letters from her survive, and all we know of her are facts of residence, what other’s thought or said about her, and her life in direct reactive relation to her husband’s biography. In short, she is nothing but bones. So, from those bones, how did you go about rebuilding the tissue and flesh of this neglected woman?

Aside from reviewing the clothes, food, architecture, and manners of the period, I reread all of Poe's works, and the biographies, letters, and other related documents. Then I visited the Poe Museum in Richmond, and the one in Philadelphia, plus the Poe Cottage in what’s now the Bronx -- but in his day was way out in the country. How amazing to see this little 19th-century wooden house set on a green with an apple orchard, surrounded by a loud, thriving, urban ethnic ‘hood. Some of the Poes’ furniture is there, including the bed where Virginia died. So that felt very sad and moving.

The hardest part was allowing myself to imagine her personal life beyond Poe's biographies. I knew all the facts and dates: she was small and beautiful, sang and played the piano, and died tragically young. That's about all; except it also became clear they loved each other deeply. But my editor insisted I go beyond that, because Poe still overshadowed her. So I had to think of things she reasonably MIGHT have done, as a nineteenth century woman who couldn’t have a career and was often ill. Then I worried I'd insult her, but quickly came to my senses: she was a person with feelings, desires, and flaws. A life -- only no one had bothered to record it. This was my chance to give the woman her due, and tell a compelling, believable story. This is fiction, after all! So I made myself create adventures, conflicts, traumas, and pleasures she MIGHT have realistically experienced, even if impoverished and coping with no money, Poe's alcoholism, and his poetess groupies. A young married woman whose mother was there in the house every day of her married life -- that alone seemed fraught with conflict! The easiest part for me was creating the childhood scenes, letting her play with friends, get in scrapes, develop a crush on her older cousin, and go through an awkward adolescence, like all of us must in one way or another.

In the novel, Virginia does not approve of the Poe Girl myth her husband is famous for. How do you feel about Poe's surmise that the most poetical topic is that of a beautiful woman, and did it influence Virginia's opinion of it as you created her?

Poe clearly stated his belief in this poetic “rule” in an otherwise brilliant 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” which far predates our time but clearly extols the elements we would still expect from well-crafted fiction and poetry over 150 years later. However, being a man of that early Victorian era, Poe too was caught up in the mania of those times, in both visual and written arts, for the idealized image of women as pale, helpless, saintly, wraithlike invalids: the “Angel in the House.” You can actually see this repeated motif vividly in any number of Victorian paintings. It perhaps sprang from a patriarchal need to ensure women did not rise to any sort of power or independence -- political, financial, or otherwise -- in the public or private spheres.

But also it came from a less selfish if misguided desire, I think. Because back then about half the population was probably infected with tuberculosis, and about a quarter of them would die early of it. No real hope, no good treatment, no cure (eat eggs and mutton, exercise, don’t exercise) -- not back then. TB, or “phthisis” as it was officially called, carried off almost every woman Poe ever loved or knew, from (probably) his mother to Fanny Osgood (after Virginia died). With such obvious mortality always lurking at your doorstep, who would not wish to make some sense of it, or to at least portray the waste as somehow beautiful and romantic and even noble?

Now TB and many other previous scourges are curable, if we take treatment or preventive measures. So aside from the early impact of, say, AIDS, we really have no idea of how acknowledging that common, everyday, everyman’s dance with death might feel -- another difference between us and them. But as for the sufferer -- one who knew quite well the bloody, painful onslaught of consumption was far from the lovely, soft, gentle death of those romantic portrayals -- how would this artistic co-opting of her real experience feel? To have your husband “kill” you over and over again in prose and verse? That is what I tried to imagine and bring out in Virginia’s thoughts and reactions to Poe’s later works, especially. Thus, her savage hatred of “The Raven.” Because to her it said, “We will be apart forever. This was all a waste.”

In both my reading and writing, I’ve always approached biographical fiction skeptically, because inevitably fiction will take on its own laws and has to diverge from the facts. Yet, when I approach these books, I find I am looking for truth. Do you feel like, in writing this novel on a person with minimal facts, that you arrived at the truth of her life? If so, what are those truths you arrived at, and what can people seeking information on Virginia take away from The Raven’s Bride?

Let’s face it: even the historical “facts” are not without flaws. Any record is written by a subjective human being. Who was there? Who lived and who died? Which participant could even read or write? The one who might strive to be absolutely fair and accurate -- or not? In the end, we can’t really know, absolutely. Sometimes things surely get added, or left out, or embellished, or changed -- intentionally or otherwise.

That said, there is of course no way we can know how “true” my take on her is. I set out with no preconceived notions or theory to prove. Only a great curiosity and a wish to serve her memory well. On the other hand, the Reverend Rufus Griswold, Poe-hater extraordinaire and his first biographer, set out with a clear agenda to defame him, out of jealousy and spite, and succeeded wonderfully well. Unlike Griswold, I wanted to do Virginia justice, to (in my mind) imagine her nodding as the scenes unfolded. So I set out to recreate for her and readers the kind of full life she might reasonably have been expected to have, as a poor young married woman who happened to have her life yoked to the dark star of an extraordinary and flawed genius. If anything I wrote felt false, I deleted it.

The truths I think I arrived at are that the Poes loved each other very much. That love can make up for a lot of other shortcomings. That we as a privileged people living today really have very little idea of what true suffering and deprivation is like, nor do I think most of us would have the fortitude and grace to see it through as Virginia did. And that she, in her way, must have been every bit as interesting and extraordinary as him to be able to cope with such a life -- rich in drama and tragedy and artistic mania and Poe’s self-sabotage, but poor in even basic comforts, material goods, just recognition, and the simple gift of enough time.   

Cothburn O’Neal’s The Very Young Mrs. Poe (1956) is the only other novel, to date and that I am aware of, that treats Virginia’s life, and looks at Poe’s biography through her eyes. In reading The Raven's Bride, I found several scenes, especially those with Rosalie Poe and Mrs. Mackenzie reminiscent to that novel. How much influence did O’Neal’s book have on your own?

My standard practice for the novels I’ve written to date is to read other fictional works close to my own topic only after I’ve completed at least a first draft. I discovered O’Neal’s novel, as well as John May’s Poe & Fanny, and a detective novel which I’m afraid escapes me right now, and saved them for after I had sent off a corrected draft to my editor. The detective novel was too cozy and hokey for me; I set it aside immediately. The May novel was well-written but mainly about the “bad boy” Poe and about Fanny [Osgood] -- well, what else! But Virginia was the one I had seen and heard and felt as I worked.

The O’Neal work is much closer to mine, since it is also “her” story though told at much greater distance in third person and through the sensibilities of a 1950s male author. I was engaged with it in some places and bored in others. (My apologies to the late Mr. O’Neal.) A lot of his exposition is rendered in summary punctuated with lots of long, rather too lofty conversations. Little actual action, rather reminiscent of reading Quinn’s biography which was my preferred source, though I also used Kenneth Silverman’s and Dan Hoffman’s [biographies], which was entertaining and thought provoking but of less use for “knowing” Virginia.
To me, Quinn felt like the most respectful, serious biographer, whose main goal did not seem to be to prove something weird about their sex lives. Or that they had none at all. I simply did not believe that. Anyhow, at the time, while waiting for my manuscript back, I compared a few sections of the Cothburn novel with Quinn. Pretty straightforward in pivotal events, which of course we both had to cover. The two novels might feel similar for other reasons: We both write about the same real people and real events, not fictional ones either of us had created out of thin air. We both told the story of HER life. But I opened in a supernatural frame with her ghost returning on the day of Eddy’s death, in an intentional reversal of the Orpheus myth. (OK, with a bit of Ligeia thrown in.) I let the supernatural pop up throughout, not in a horror-story way, but to evoke the themes of death and resurrection to foreshadow the Big Thing I knew I was getting to near the end -- what happens after we die? To us, to our souls, to love.

But the first half of my novel had to be concerned with making her a very real, exceptional child -- one who could be serious and mature and thoughtful and “artistic” enough to see and recognize and fall in love with Poe, the much older man. To create her as a separate person in her own right, not Poe’s underage arm candy. At the same time, they had no money to provide her an education as Neilson Poe had offered. They in fact had only the Richmond MacKenzies to fall back on. And at that Richmond estate would be all the instruments and lessons Virginia might ever hope to get. Mrs. MacKenzie ran a girls’ school in Richmond and was in the business of educating young ladies. The hitch: Poe disliked her adopted daughter, who was his little sister Rosalie. This is pretty well documented; they were estranged. So what better bargaining chip for a doting mother than to trade lessons and culture for command-performance sibling visits while Virginia gets her lessons? I think O’Neal has a similar scheme taking place every single day, which was very unrealistic -- when would Poe ever go to work at the Messenger? So my deal with the devil is, once a week, a tortuous social call for Poe to the MacKenzies to hobnob with Rosalie. Who, sad to say and also documented, clearly idolized her remaining brother. All the way from childhood to after his death, when she used to actually autograph his books!

O’Neal seemed more intent on the idea of Virginia as sacrificial lamb, to shield Poe from reality as she slowly sacrificed herself. Not a stretch, I guess, in the 19th century -- or even in the 1950s when he was writing his novel. It made her seem like June Cleaver with a terminal disease, but of course it was published in 1956, so there you have it. I admit I was confused by his portrayal of them as so often being without care, with plenty of gold coins to spend, of Eddy freely tippling Virginia’s laudanum (I guess O’Neal believed Griswold’s drug-addicts fabrications still), and the memorably creepy scene where he has poor Mary Gove, in real life a kind benefactor, comment suggestively at Sissy’s deathbed about her beauty and their sex lives. Asking “What’s he like as a husband? ” in an aroused husky voice. And she’s squirming in her chair as if having an orgasm. Well, eeew. But, as I said, a different time, those 1950s. Not much like the lives I had researched, or envisioned, but perhaps O’Neal did not wish to unduly depress his readers with just the bald facts. I can relate to that; it was a hard history to draw hope and cheer from, but one tries.

You characterize O'Neal's Virginia as the stereotypical '50s housewife, and in your Virginia I see the strong-willed and ambitious spirit of the 21st-century woman -- while she is realistically kept within the bounds of nineteenth century domesticity, she is willful and, for a lot of the book, determined that she can make her fate. Do you feel it is hard to not project one's current century's ideals on characters that lived in the past?

I think it is easy to project one’s current century’s ideals and mores and thought processes onto characters dwelling in previous eras. But these people are of their times, not ours. This is a misstep the writer must guard against continually as she creates characters -- particularly their dialogue and thoughts. That said, I don’t believe women of the 19th century -- or any century -- were devoid of ambition or talent or adventurousness or desire or lust or just plain old spirit. Imagine, then, how difficult life must’ve been for those who did not have the assurance we do today in those countries where freedom of choice and expression are also a woman’s birthright. How they must have suffered spiritually and emotionally because of it.

That said, some nineteenth century women basically blew off the conventions and disapproval of that patriarchal era. Susan B. Anthony and all the attendees of the Seneca Falls Suffragist convention for women’s rights in 1848; the late 19th-century British world traveler, explorer, and writer Mary Kingsley; the world traveler, writer, and nurse, Jamaican mulatto Mary Seacole. Not to mention the over 450 well-documented instances of women cutting their hair, putting on army uniforms, and fighting as soldiers in the Civil War. Such free-spiritedness, aside from the chaos of wartime, is most easily achieved when a woman has plenty of money. Enough -- then as now -- to do as she liked, and society be damned. Obviously in terms of health status and finances, Virginia could not suddenly fit into this rich or physically adventurous category. Thus the need to give her a rich internal life, some conflicting human desires, and also longed for, achievable goals that fit her time and place. For example, at one point, while her marriage still had yet to be consummated and she was angry about this fact, I made her briefly jump at the chance for a very brief emotional fling with a music shop owner. Sheet music was so damned expensive back then, after all.  

The main way Virginia describes her world is through smells, especially food. Is this a play on the heightened senses that is a prevalent symptom in the consumptive? Or perhaps a preoccupation resulting from her poverty?

First of all, according to studies, smell is of all the five senses the one that most instantly and vividly evokes memories. Yet it is the one authors most often forget to use. Virginia’s “tale” for Eddy is her lifetime memory of her time with Poe. Also, the nineteenth century was a far more malodorous place than we can imagine now. So for several reasons smells -- good and bad -- seemed important. Imagine walking down a city street and smelling human waste flowing in the gutters and garbage rotting at your feet. Or better, fresh bread baking and meat roasting -- yet having at that moment not a cent to buy food! Also vital was the simple concept of breathing. Of “just one more breath.” Imagine loving flowers and longing for the scent of them, and being trapped dying in a bed and knowing you will never dig in the earth or plant a single seed, ever again. Smell has to be important to one who suffers from any lung ailment, I think -- I’ve had my share, and if you can’t smell things maybe you aren’t really breathing after all! So it seemed pivotal in that way too. Virginia does not just entertain Poe with her recollections but relearns, before the story’s end, that her breath, her ability to sing, her voice, her very soul (and at the last even his) depend on air and breath and its life-giving properties, and its essential ability to propel the notes you need to sing, or the words you need to say to set yourself or someone else free.   

There is one event in the couple’s life the novel skims over, and it is the relationship with Frances Osgood. The novel definitely approaches what scholars think Virginia’s attitude to the relationship was, and her reasoning for approving Poe and Fanny’s friendship. However, it does not delve into the more scandalous accusations that Poe possibly fathered a daughter with Fanny -- a drama a lot of writers would find tempting to tackle. You did not though. Why is that?

I thought about it, but I wanted to show mostly events that Virginia participated in. She would not have been there when and if Fanny and Poe got it on, after all. I was using her first person voice, and that was essential. Some critics seem to have missed the whole point of that, complaining I didn’t put in enough of Poe and what he did and thought. Well, please. It’s always all about Poe, and always has been, over and over. He’s had his turn and yet it’s still going on. That’s fine, but this was HER book, as far as I was concerned, not his. To draw the focus away from her for too long and to that kind of scandal did not seem to me to be a good tactic. It was supposed to be her one and only chance to talk to us directly, before she took Poe’s hand in love and reconciliation and moved on forever. Later, after I read a novel where it did explore that supposed liaison -- in quite graphic detail, which normally is a good thing in fiction -- I just felt repelled. It was an icky Jerry Springer moment I had not really wanted to tune in to. A bed too far. So I felt I’d done the right thing -- for me.

S. J. Chambers has co-authored, with Jeff VanderMeer, The Steampunk Bible, a coffee table book that will be released through Abrams Image this May. She is an independent Poe scholar who has focused on the idea of the Poe Girl, as well as his influence and contribution to genre literature and popular culture. She is the Articles senior editor at Strange Horizons magazine, and keeps a website and blog here.