On January 30, 1847, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe died after a five-year battle with tuberculosis at the age of 24. Though she is often referred to as Edgar Poe's "child bride," it's important to note that after 11 years of marriage, we can presume she grew up a bit.
We don't tend to talk much about her character; not even I have a personal opinion if she was a strong woman, intelligent, artistic, or good at housekeeping. She has sort of been relegated to a background character in the life of Poe. Even so, discussing Poe requires discussion of his wife, and that discussion can be romantic, awkward, confusing, or apologetic. The truth is, yes, Poe married his first-cousin when she was 13 (he was 27). No, it was not unusual to marry your cousin in those days and, from what I've seen, especially among poorer families in the South. But, just to make a point, others who married their first cousins include two signers of the Declaration of Independence (a couple others opted for second cousins), writer H. G. Wells, and (fellow bicentennial) Charles Darwin. As far as the age difference, women did marry young in those days. But, I would quickly point out that Virginia was unusually young for marriage, even at this time period. I can't dispute that.
Of course, there has been dispute as far as the kind of relationship Mr. and Mrs. Poe shared. The doting husband called his wife "Sissy" as a nickname, and many scholars believe they shared more of a sibling partnership. Many also believe that the couple never consummated their marriage (especially if you believe "Annabel Lee" stood in for Virginia as the "maiden there lived whom you may know"), while others suggest that they held off until a more appropriate age.
My personal opinion is that Poe was madly in love with his wife. But, to Poe, love was not physical but poetic and, because he existed on this higher plane of artistic passion, his relationship can't compare to our modern definitions of marriage. Even if their relationship was sexual (which I believe is possible, but I fall into the camp that believes it didn't happen right away), it was not the primary part of their marriage. This relationship was based on love - and there's nothing wrong with that, especially for a 19th century coupling. When she died, of course he was devastated.
Nevertheless, there is a rumor that Poe never got over the death of his wife, and that her sickness and death defined all of his writing and forced him to become an alcoholic. I would dispute some of these rumors, if you don't mind.
First, though much of Poe's writing emphasizes death and, more specifically, deaths of women, not all of them do. One of his most famous, for example, "The Tell-Tale Heart," shows no signs of illness or of women dying. Further, Poe's use of the theme of dying women is for artistic purposes - as explained in my last blog post on "The Raven." As far as Poe never getting over Virginia's death, well, there is likely some truth to that - just as they say today, you never truly stop loving someone. But, Poe was looking for his second wife even while Virginia was still alive and, in some cases, was encouraged by Virginia to do so.
Drinking, of course, is always a contentious discussion with Poe. I would argue that his drinking problems first manifested as a university student (anything unusual about college students experimenting with alcohol?) and, sure, he drank throughout his life. But, it was after Virginia's death that Poe joined a temperance society and took a vow of sobriety. We can argue about this for quite some time and never really find the source of Poe's drinking, how much he drank, how affected he was by alcohol, etc.
All this aside, here's to Virginia Clemm Poe, to whom this blog is respectfully dedicated today.