The Real Women in Edgar Allan Poe’s Life

Surprise!   It’s a bonus post for this year’s Gothic Romance Week!   Continuing with the Edgar Allan Poe theme, I wanted to do a post not on his work, but on the women we know inspired it!   I will only be discussing here his mother and the women to whom he was either married or engaged.   If I chose to go into all of the women in his life, this post would likely go on forever.

I will begin by briefly mentioning his mother.   Eliza Poe was an actress who died when Edgar was very young.   Since she was an actress who had great acclaim for portraying leading ladies in Shakespeare’s works, Edgar grew up watching his mother play death scenes and come back to life when she was off stage.   This led to a period of confusion for the young boy when she died of consumption and did not return to him at that time!   It is a tragic event that certainly would impact his later life deeply, especially when he would lose his wife to the very same disease!

Edgar Allan Poe’s wife was named Virginia Clemm.   She was actually Edgar’s first cousin and she resembled his mother quite a bit, even sharing the name Eliza as a middle name.   Edgar connected with Virginia when he lived with his aunt on and off for several years before the marriage.   It is shocking for a modern audience to hear that Poe’s wife was his first cousin, even more so when we learn that they married when Edgar was 27 and Virginia was only 13.   However, I do want to note that back in the Victorian age, and earlier, marrying a cousin was not seen as really taboo.    I will point out that in Mansfield Park Jane Austen had the main couple be cousins and that was released only 22 years before this marriage took place!   It would also not have been a problem that Virginia was only 13, because that was marriageable age, or near it, and her mother approved of the match!   

Their union seemed to be a relatively happy one, up until she contracted consumption.   Since she was otherwise young and healthy, she had a long drawn-out bout of the illness, which took about five years to be fatal.   I should note that there was an incident of scandal during their marriage, due to his reported flirtation with another poet, who was married herself, compounded by the fact that yet another poet became enamored with him.   It seems that Virginia knew of and likely encouraged his friendship with the married poet, Osgood, so it likely did not harm their relationship.   It is known that the final loss of his wife was something that Poe dreaded for years, as consumption (or as we call it today tuberculosis) can make people come to the brink of death several times before they actually die.   This probably further inspired him to write about women who rise from the dead!

After losing his wife and mourning, Poe met another poet by the name of Sarah Helen Whitman.   They first met in 1848, the year after Virginia died.   Being that both were poets, they exchanged passionate letters and seemed to share a common morbid fascination.   In the video I linked below, there was even mention of her wearing a beautiful coffin pendant!   She was older than Edgar by some years, but this did not deter him from his passion.   He had a history of falling for older women in his youth (whether in a romantic sense or in searching for a maternal figure).   When he proposed, Whitman initially said no, but he convinced her to accept.   Their engagement was not a long one, as Poe did not stop his drinking as he assured her that he would, leading Sarah to end their engagement!

The final woman of Poe’s life I will be looking at is the woman referred to as his first and last fiancee.   Her full name was Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, but I will be calling her Elmira from here on to avoid confusion with Whitman.   Now, one of the sources which I linked below explains that there is not a lot of proof of what actually happened during their relationship, which is historically true, but being a romantic I am going to tell the story as it is usually told!   Elmira and Edgar first met when they were just teenagers.   Edgar was 17 and Elmira 14 and it is stated that they became engaged after knowing one another only a few months before Poe would leave  Richmond for the University of Virginia.   Her father (who did not approve of the match, either because he disliked Poe or thought her too young) would intercept all of the letters the pair wrote to one another during his time at school and burn them.   This left both of them writing passionate love letters believing that neither was writing back!   Elmira would end up marrying a man named Alexander Shelton believing that she had been jilted by Poe.   

It is believed that she did not learn about the letters Poe had written her until after this marriage.   They would disappear from one another’s lives for many years.   In 1849, when both were widowed and Poe had broken his engagement with Whitman they were reunited!   The story goes that Poe showed up on her doorstep in the summer of 1849 and wanted to rekindle the romance.   The two are said to have become engaged a short while after this, with Poe convincing her after her initial hesitation.    Edgar Allan Poe would die mysteriously on October 7, 1849, meaning that they would never marry.   So yes it is true that the bulk of their romance is based on speculation and a myth that has surrounded them ever since.   But is that not the most romantic way to have a story of the first and last love of this most enigmatic of poets play out?

I hope that you have enjoyed this bonus Gothic Romance Week post on the real women in Edgar Allan Poe’s life.   Who do you think inspired which works?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!    

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a drawing of Elmira.   I found the image at                   

Further Watching/Reading