By Samantha Smart
Annabel Lee, Berenice, Ligeia, Helen, Eulalie — so much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work revolves around women. Like his work, so much of Poe’s life revolved around women. These real life ladies had a profound influence on Poe and likely inspired the fictional females that dominate his work. Understanding both the real and fictional women of Poe’s world is fundamental to appreciating his work. The following objects from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection create a window into Poe’s world of women and promote greater insight into his work.
The first of these objects is a portrait of Maria Clemm. Maria was Poe’s aunt and later, his mother-in-law. Following being kicked out of West Point, Poe moved in with Maria, his grandmother, and his two cousins. Poe’s biological mother died of tuberculosis when he was a child; thus, Maria likely filled a maternal role in Poe’s life. Maria was also surprisingly one of the few women of Poe’s life to outlive him. His time with the Clemms was especially important because his grandmother’s pension paid their rent, allowing Poe to focus on his writing.
The photograph below depicts the house where Poe lived with Clemm and his cousins. When Poe lived in the house, now known as the Edgar Allan Poe House, it was a duplex located on the outskirts of Baltimore. The house is significant in that it is where he first lived with his cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm. Virginia was thirteen when she married twenty-seven year old Poe. It is unclear exactly what kind of relationship the couple had — many scholars debate over whether their marriage was ever consummated. However, it is clear that Poe loved her. He was heartbroken when she died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Virginia and her untimely death are often credited with inspiring such works as “Annabel Lee.”
Of all Poe’s works, “Annabel Lee” seems to have particularly taken on a life of its own. The 1912 and 1920 illustrations of “Annabel Lee” and “Beautiful Annabel Lee” demonstrate a continued passion for the poem long after it was first published in 1849. Annabel Lee is portrayed uniquely in each of the illustrations. The 1912 version presents an ethereal blond woman, while the 1920 version depicts a woman with dark hair and 19th century garb — not unlike Virginia Clemm. Though they have different visions of her, artists over the years clearly share a fascination with the character. However, artists are not the only people inspired by Annabel Lee. The Annabel Lee Tavern in Baltimore pays homage to the poem and all things Poe. Some Poe fans have even gone so far as to name their pets after the beloved character.
A far less well known woman of Poe’s life is Elmira Royster Shelton. Elmira was Poe’s teenage sweetheart during his time in Virginia. Her father disapproved of their relationship and she later married another man. When Poe died in 1849, he had reconnected with Elmira and the two were planning to marry. The engagement ring Poe gave to her is engraved with his name. In the decades after his death, Poe and his work grew in fame and recognition. His legacy was solidified with the creation of the Poe monument illustrated below. The remains of Poe, Virginia, and Maria were all transferred to the monument so the three could be united in death. The effort to unite them acknowledges the critical role the women of Poe’s world played in his life and work.