Lenore Hart's novels include Waterwoman, Ordinary Springs, The Treasure of Savage Island and Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher. She teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes Univesity, and at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Cape Cod. She lives in Virginia with novelist David Poyer and their daughter, Naia.
The Raven's Bride: A Novelby Lenore Hart
When eight-year-old Virginia "Sissy" Clemm meets her handsome cousin, Eddy, she sees the perfect husband she's conjured up in childhood games. Thirteen years her elder, he's soft-spoken, brooding, and handsome. Eddy fails his way through West Point and the army yet each time he returns to Baltimore, their friendship grows. As Sissy trains for a musical career, her
When eight-year-old Virginia "Sissy" Clemm meets her handsome cousin, Eddy, she sees the perfect husband she's conjured up in childhood games. Thirteen years her elder, he's soft-spoken, brooding, and handsome. Eddy fails his way through West Point and the army yet each time he returns to Baltimore, their friendship grows. As Sissy trains for a musical career, her childhood crush turns to love. When she's thirteen, Eddy proposes. But as their happy life darkens, Sissy endures Poe's abrupt disappearances, self-destructive moods, and alcoholic binges. When she falls ill, his greatest fear– that he'll lose the woman he loves– drives him both madness, and to his greatest literary achievement.
Part ghost story, part love story, this provocative novel explores the mysterious, shocking relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and young Sissy Clemm, his cousin, muse and great love. Lenore Hart, author of Becky, imagines the beating heart of the woman who inspired American literature's most demonized literary figure– and who ultimately destroyed him.
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As someone who appreciated Edgar Allan Poe's stories from my first reading of them as a teen, I was intrigued by the premise of Lenore Hart's newest book, The Raven's Bride, a fictionalized account of the short life of Poe's young wife, Virginia "Sissy" Clemm. I'd even heard Hart share vignettes from her book (a work-in-progress at that time) during faculty readings at Wilkes University's creative writing program, finding her scenes entertaining and memorable. Who wouldn't appreciate fly-on-the-wall glimpses into the master mind of the most haunting stories ever published: "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Black Cat"? My only misgiving before reading the entire work was this: Could a story centering on Poe's wife--not the tormented artist himself--intrigue over the span of a full-length novel? Unlike Becky, Hart's novel immediately preceding The Raven's Bride based on Mark Twain's fictional character Becky Thatcher, Hart had the added challenge of rendering an accurate accounting of a real person's life while telling a robust story from his wife's point-of-view. Poe aficionados will be pleased to know that Hart remained scrupulously faithful to history's record of the lives of Edgar ("Eddy") and his wife "Sissy," including many of the expected milestones of Poe's writing life--the sales of his first and most well-known tales and poems; his relocations up and down the East Coast, to Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York; and even his reputed drinking binges, as he both chased and reclaimed a career in publishing until two years before his death. Hart accomplished all this while crafting a story that surprised, entertained, and chilled, employing some of the conventions of Poe's own gothic tales. Yes, it is part ghost story that captures rather than strains the imagination. Wholly, it is a consummate love story that begs the reader to consider whether true love ends with death--or only begins there. But The Raven's Bride is is too intricately crafted to be just a love story. Poe and Virginia's love is too complex, tinged with sacrifice and slavish devotion, foreboding martyrdom and doom. Virginia was only thirteen when Edgar proposed. She herself contributed no single work to the annals of American literature. She never worked--it wasn't seemly--she only sang and played pianoforte a little and therefore never contributed to their household income even though they nearly starved to death more than once. Considering all these variables, Virginia Clemm was still remarkable and worthy of Hart's novelization. Had Virginia Clemm not devoted her life to her cousin and husband "Eddy," he might have extinguished his own flame at even a younger age than he did, and the world wouldn't have the body of work that generations of readers have loved because it's always "been there." Some later writer would have had to invent the detective story because Poe wouldn't have been around to do it. Poe staved off death from alcoholism or suicide because of the abiding love of his adoring cousin. I've read books where accomplished writers become so bogged down in their historical research that they lose the story. This is not that kind of book. The reader has a front row seat to many of Poe's literary triumphs and his most crushing defeats. It's the kind of book that makes you feel smarter while you're reading it.
Of the fictionalized accounts written about the young Mrs. Poe, this one uses a first-person perspective to breathe life into the character and to provides a creative rendering of her thoughts and desires within the confines of the factual records of her and Edgar's life together. In this tale Sissy grow into Virginia, a woman with ambition and desire -- so much desire that it is she who does the seducing in the tale. Once the unusual marital pact is sealed between the Poe, Sissy and her mother, the story becomes a compelling and quick read. Most readers will think they know the ending, but. . .maybe they really don't. Also, note the historical detail woven into this novel, such as wristband garters to keep blouses and shirts free of ink blots. Details make this story all that more real to the reader, so real that they might not know the difference between fact and fiction. .
As a young reader, I just thought I should put in my two cents' worth on this novel. I'm 19 and a college freshman, and everywhere around me in popular culture and young adult literature are ridiculous excuses for literature like Twilight and its thousands of equally uninspired spinoffs. People think teenagers want to read vapid, plotless rags about pale angst-ridden psychopaths biting each other. Well, sorry -- that's not my style, or in fact the style of any of my friends. So I am overjoyed whenever I come across a book like this one which can attract and hold the attention of readers of any age and which contains not only realistic and dynamic characters, but also an engaging plot and setting and plenty of humanity. After 19 years (more or less) of avid reading, I'm pretty selective and not fazed by much, but I found that every time I picked up this book, I ended up either laughing, crying, or practically yelling advice at the characters. I'd pick up the book in a public place and be discreetly wiping my eyes on my sleeves five minutes later. I sympathized wholeheartedly with Virginia and the terrible choice she had to make between maintaining love and experiencing certain things -- it's one I've already had to make a few times in my life, albeit not on as large a scale. I could also empathize with Eddie's crushing fear of losing his loved ones and his struggles as a creative person in a commercial world. And yet despite all the hardships endured by the characters, there are many moments of tranquility and happiness that make the reader feel that all their struggles were worthwhile. My friend walked into the room at one point and asked what I was grinning about, to hear me exclaim "Eddie got her a kitten! THAT'S ADORABLE." Historical fiction is not exactly my usual fare, but I enjoyed every minute of this book, mainly because the author handled its historical aspect so well. Attention was given to historical detail, but not so much that it became dry or boring at any point. The couple moved from city to city and house to house a lot, but all of the places managed to feel like home. The supernatural aspect was also a great touch, helping to give the story a timeless and uplifting feeling. And I greatly admired the way Hart brought Virginia so completely and vividly to life, giving her emotions, hopes, and fears that any young girl, and in fact any human being, can relate to no matter their time period. Even better, Virginia isn't some vacant, staring doll like Twilight's Bella, into which any reader can insert her own personality in order to live out the cheap, trashy fantasy. I would actually consider her a wonderful role model, unlike lots of contemporary young adult heroines. It restores a little bit of my faith in humanity. I guess I've been going on for a while, but there you have it -- beautiful story, intriguing supernatural twist, dynamic characters, wonderful writing. Leave the trashy vampire fiction on the shelf. Read The Raven's Bride!
For decades, the mention of Virginia Clemm was practically a side note to the novel that is Poe’s literary legend – she is thought to have inspired his writing and to have been the love of his life – but she was no more real to readers than a paper-doll, dressed and curled, pretty and voiceless. Well, not anymore. In her new novel, The Raven’s Bride (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), Lenore Hart creates a fascinating, fully-fleshed out Virginia “Sissy” Clemm and actually blows full life into a character that has only ever been mentioned as a taboo reference to a great author. The book begins the way I like a good story to start: with dead ghost girls. Virginia “Sissy” Clemm is watching Edgar Allen Poe dying in a hospital bed. Right away, Hart covers the obvious spoiler – Virginia Clemm dies young. Rather than letting it linger as a known fact in an fresh, unknown narrative, Hart begins the story in a way that at once captivates the reader and acknowledges that yes, Poe’s wife died young. But guess what: she’s there, as a ghost, on the night that he is dying, and her story only begins there. Without telling too much (I have a horrible habit of blurting out all the goodies about books I loved), I will give away that readers will first see the grown Poe meet the rambunctious, adorable Sissy Clemm when she is 8 years old. We see Poe’s interactions with her over the new few years and trust me – it’s nothing like you might imagine. From the moment we meet her at her mother’s house in Baltimore, it is obvious that a silent, helpless, cardboard girl is nowhere to be found in this book. Hart so fully engages her in her own thoughts, plots, jealousies, plans, ambitions, and hobbies that something magical happens: as the story progresses, you realize you are fully immersed in the story of an ambitious, charming, yet realistically flawed girl, and that the larger-than-life literary figure known as Poe is simply another supporting character. One other mentionable about The Raven’s Bride: Lenore Hart’s creativity and style makes historical fiction feel fun, fresh, and interesting – not an easy task for readers who aren’t automatically drawn to fiction based on real life people (done wrong in this genre, and they’re a complete snooze-fest). The dialogue, the varied settings, the biographical tidbits woven in unobtrustively, and the wholeness of Sissy Clemm’s character as a woman of her own accord creates a world that fully sucks you in. It’s obvious that Hart did her homework to create such an authentic experience for her readers, but that isn’t what makes this novel memorable and enjoyable: it’s Hart’s carefully interwoven details that seamlessly blend the true with the imagined. If that’s not perfect historical fiction as a genre, I don’t know what is.