As famous as Edgar Allan Poe is, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his passing have never been solved. As for Poe’s young wife, Virginia, there is no doubt about how she passed. What’s less well known is what her tragically short life was really like.
Virginia married Edgar Allan Poe, her first cousin when she was just 13 years old. He was 27. From then on, she experienced the stages of life in rapid succession. She went straight from childhood to marriage before she had outgrown her favorite toys and games. She contracted tuberculosis when she was nineteen. By 24, she was gone.
Who was Virginia Clemm? What was her marriage to Edgar Allan Poe really like? And what did people think about a marriage between two first cousins, one twice the age of the other?
Cousins in Love
When Virginia met Edgar Allan Poe for the first time, she was nine, and he was already an adult. Poe had just received a court martial from West Point, just the latest in a string of disappointments.
Before that, he had dropped out of university after a single term and left the army. His adoptive father, a wealthy merchant, didn’t take the news of his court martial well and wrote him out of his will.
Having already lost both his parents when he was a baby, Poe was not left with many options. He ultimately decided to move in with his older brother, grandmother, and aunt (Virginia’s mother), who all lived in Baltimore.
At that time, Poe was already 22 years old. Yet, despite the 13-year age difference between him and Virginia, the two cousins developed a close bond.
Poe affectionately called Virginia “Sissy,” while she called him “Eddy.” The pair walked together, and Poe taught her math and the classics.
Early on, their relationship was more like that of siblings than lovers. Poe even referred to Virginia’s mother, Maria, as his own and devised his nickname for her – “Muddy.”
Poe and Virginia grew so close during this time that he even felt comfortable asking her to deliver love notes to another young girl he was courting.
After four years of living in Baltimore, Poe’s grandmother died. Since the entire household had been financially dependent on the pension she received as a widow of a Revolutionary war officer, Poe had to go look for a job. He found one in Richmond, but a letter soon caused him to run back.
Neilson Poe, one of Edgar’s other cousins, had written to Virginia’s mother inviting Virginia to live with him and his wife until she was older. Neilson was most likely trying to protect the young Virginia, whom he correctly suspected Poe was in love with.
Upon learning that Virginia might be taken away from him, Poe wrote a letter to her mother describing his anguish. He wrote, “My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away – I have no desire to live and will not… I love Virginia passionately, devotedly.”
With that declaration, Poe returned to Baltimore and married Virginia less than a month later. Virginia was 13 years old.
Virginia the Child-Bride: Was It Normal?
It’s hard not to cringe at somebody marrying their 13-year-old cousin. But, of course, cultural norms were not what they are today. What did people really think of Poe’s marriage back in the 1830s?
Marriages between cousins weren’t seen as improper back then. But, on the other hand, 13 was unusually young for a woman to get married.
The marriage certificate lists Virginia’s age as 21, which means they would have had to lie about her age. But Poe has no qualms about lying.
In fact, he continued to lie for years about his own age. He liked to pretend he was younger than he was while making Virginia seem like she was older.
Of course, one of the aspects of their marriage that perhaps feels most uncomfortable is the idea of Edgar Allan Poe having a sexual relationship with a minor. But there is reason to believe the couple wasn’t initially having sex.
According to one acquaintance, Poe was a husband in name only for the first two years of marriage and even slept in a separate room.
When it came to Virginia, he apparently “could not think of her as his wife, as any other than his sister.” The same acquaintance says it wasn’t even Poe’s idea to marry Virginia, but rather his friends who had noticed their affection.
The Truth About Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Clemm
There is no doubt that Poe felt some kind of connection to Virginia, but exactly what his feelings were is impossible to guess. While married to Virginia, the woman who he claimed he had “no desire to live” without, Poe spent a lot of time away at social gatherings or out drinking.
During this time, he wrote short stories about men who fall madly in love, only to be disappointed in marriage.
In stories like “Morrella” and “Ligeia,” the wife ultimately grows ill and dies, leading some scholars to see parallels between these fictional women and Virginia.
Virginia’s condition worsened as Poe’s literary fame grew until she passed away in 1847. While Virginia was still alive, rumors circulated about Poe’s extramarital affairs with other women, namely the poets Fanny Osgood and Elizabeth Ellet.
Virginia apparently gave no credence to these claims and even encouraged Poe’s friendship with Osgood.
Once Virginia died, it didn’t take long for Poe to begin courting other women. One of those women was Sarah Whitman, to whom Poe confessed that he had never truly been in love before, implying he had never really been in love with Virginia.
Unfortunately for Poe, he didn’t have much time left to find a romantic partner. He lived for just two years longer than Virginia. Eventually, history would remember Poe as a literary genius. Virginia, meanwhile, would be best remembered not for her life but for her tragic end.
Rein, David M. “POE AND VIRGINIA CLEMM.” The Bucknell Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1958, pp. 207. ProQuest, https://login.bucm.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/poe-virginia-clemm/docview/1289917114/se-2.
Peeples, Scott. “Afterword: Loss of Breath: Writing Poe’s Last Days.” The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe. Boydell & Brewer, 2003. 155-64. Print.