There have been moments over the last few weeks when I thought I would never finish this novel. I found it at Indigo in Montreal, started it there, and I seem to have been reading it ever since. It’s not even that long a book, barely 300 pages, but the flight from Canada, a week and a half of commuting, and the entire Worldcon in Glasgow were still not quite enough to get through it.
The problem is, I think, that Poe & Fanny by John May (2004, Plume 2005) is a clotted book. Not clogged with plot, but clogged with detail. May wears his research very heavily indeed, intent on providing us with the full sensory experience of life in New York City in 1845. We learn the nature of the roads and the public transport and the weather and the fact that they still used shillings and the way magazines were sold and the clothes they wore and the décor at the Astor Hotel and the smell of horse manure and how people behaved at the theatre, and a great deal more besides. All of which is part of what attracted me to the book in the first place, and I enjoyed finding all this out, seeing through the eyes of the time. But it does mean that a few pages at a time can produce overload.
The other problem is that this could have been – and perhaps should have been – a biography. May is so concerned to stick religiously to the known characters and experiences of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances ‘Fanny’ Sargent Osgood that they never really come off the page as living, breathing characters. Not that this is a dry recitation of facts, May dramatises his scenes (and becomes evidently more comfortable with the fictionality of his endeavour as the work progresses), but the reality of his characters somehow prevents him making them vivid, making them seem real.
Poe & Fanny (what a dreadfully clunky title that is! Why not ‘Edgar & Fanny’, or ‘Eddy & Fanny’, since that is how Poe is familiarly referred to throughout?) tells the story of 1845. It was a year that began with the launch of Poe’s shortlived magazine, The Broadway Journal, and the publication of ‘The Raven’, which made Poe the most acclaimed poet in America. It ended with him broke, ostracised by the entire literary establishment, and fleeing New York. Mind you, he was always broke; the novel opens with Poe trying to scrounge an advance against a review in order to pay the rent (he ends up drinking the money away), and the year is punctuated by frequent moves to ever cheaper apartments. The Broadway Journal fails, but only after he has borrowed heavily to finance it. His child bride, Sissy, is slowly dying of tuberculosis; while his mother-in-law goes through his pockets when he rolls home drunk in the hope of finding enough to pay off some of the rent they owe. But it isn’t debt or drunkenness that brings his downfall, it is meeting Frances Sargent Osgood. Fanny was a minor poet (though one whose work was sincerely praised by Poe, a critic more noted for ferocious attacks on establishment figures like Longfellow), living apart from her husband. The two have a brief affair, which leaves her pregnant, forcing her to go back to her husband. But a yet more minor poet, Lizzy Ellet, here presented as a mean-minded and jealous gossip, reveals the scandal.
There is a good, solid story in here. Unfortunately, it is told rather solidly and what should have been a glorious flight through the social whirl of literary New York becomes a rather pedestrian plod. This is not a bad book, but it is nowhere near as good as it should have been.
First published at Livejournal, 11 August 2005.