The women associated with Edgar Allan Poe have been far too many – it would be the best lineup yet if there were, at that time, a 19th century version of “The Dating Game”. Fanny, Annie, Sarah Helen, Sarah Elmira, Mary, Marie Louise, Eliza… I really couldn’t care less how they managed to get involved with the great poet, to be honest. I could only point my interest to the woman he actually married – the young and beautiful Virginia Clemm.
Anyone who has read the life (or parts of it) of Edgar Allan Poe KNOWS for sure that Virginia is Poe’s first cousin, and that she was 13 when he, at 26 or 27, married her. By today’s standards, the marriage was a bit odd but for the time, their relationship was not particularly unusual, though she was slightly young (15 years old was a more common marrying age).
These first-hand witnesses all described Virginia as a beautiful, accomplished, charming young woman of great virtue and integrity, who won over everyone in her acquaintance, and who was clearly adored by her husband. If you read all the accounts given by Poe’s acquaintances, particularly the male ones, the impression is given that, if anything, his “child-wife” was considered a damn sight too good for him. Certainly, she gave him the only happy, stable, romantic relationship he ever knew, and was the only one among his real or alleged sweethearts who loved him wholeheartedly and unselfishly.
Several theories about the Poes still circulate: Maria Clemm (the sister of Poe’s father) may have suggested the pairing and hastened the marriage; the couple may not have consummated their marriage; they may have behaved more like brother and sister than husband and wife (Poe nicknamed her “Sissy”). One theatrical version of the Poes suggests that young Virginia had a sexual fetish for horror stories and sought Poe as a husband (making her the aggressor in the relationship). Friends said they didn’t share a bed for at least the first two years of marriage. By all contemporary accounts, Virginia was beautiful and Poe was devoted to her. He once described her as “a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before.”
Amidst all these, why has she gotten the worst press of them all?
The fastest reply of any random person hearing the story for the first time would definitely include the words,”but they’re cousins!”, or “…she was 13?!”, and <insert spiteful comment here>.
True, some biographers are hard on the poor girl, but the novelists are even worse. The image of a puerile Virginia vacuously coughing in the background, and further burdening her already bedeviled husband with an unsatisfactory marriage, has been a staple of endless piles of bad fiction.
I refuse to see Virginia that way. This definitely included Poe himself. His August 1835 letter to her and Maria Clemm indisputably proves that Poe desperately loved Virginia and was terrified she might reject him – and unlike the round of engagements-a-go-go he was said to have pursued after her death, he could not have had any ulterior motive in seeking her hand.
The love story of Edgar and Virginia ended rather tragically (she only lived to be 24). Regardless of the malice and scandal these two have caused (then and now), how they saved each other from the demons that surround their lives as cousins and as husband and wife is, in my humble opinion, the most selfless kind of love any human has ever shown.