TV REVIEW: “Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women”, Wednesday, October 21st, BBC4, 9pm

Tragedy and great art appear to be well-acquainted bedfellows in the history of culture. People seem to harbour a notion that, in order to truly produce immortal prose, poetry or art, artists have to have suffered lives that know no happiness, to experience a deep grief of the soul –  and this is the fire in which that immortality is forged. If that is indeed the case, then the subject of this BBC4 documentary, Edgar Allan Poe, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of literary greats.

There’s absolutely no question that Poe endured a very hard life – in equal measure it was as a result of some events being completely outside of his ability to influence but also there was much where he lost conscious control. Alcoholism was a recurrent feature of his life and, indeed, played a major role in his death – it started in his teens, possibly as a result of his inferiority complex gained through his social circumstances and his relationship with his uncaring adopted father. When his adopted mother died, his father cut him off completely without any means of supporting himself.

In this programme, however, crime-writer Denise Mina explores the relationship that this tortured soul had with the women in his life, namely Eliza Poe (his mother), Virginia Clemm (his first, and only, wife), Frances Sargent Osgood (poet and darling of the New York literary scene), and Sarah Helen Whitman (eccentric poet, essayist, transcendentalist, and Spiritualist). Through his often damaged encounters with these women, his writing took on the dark and malign shapes it did, implying that had he NOT had them the Poe we would know today would have been very different, if we’d have known about him at all.

Mina makes a very strong case here – certainly all these women are separated from Poe either through tragedy or the strict social mores of the day. He first tasted death at just two years old, when his mother Eliza died of tuberculosis: she was an actress, a profession that was considered just a notch above prostitution. Not a great start in life then. To a small child, his mother constantly ‘dying’ on stage and yet miraculously coming back to life afterwards was normal. Consequently, reanimation of the dead is a frequent theme in his work, and it would be fair to say that his early theatrical experiences, tied in as they are with the first woman in his life, is where it all started. This notion appears to have bled into real-life – certainly, according to this programme, he did have trouble understanding why his mother never came back after she died for the final, and very real, time.

Another recurrent theme, which is also played out in real life, is loss. Poe loses his first (and only) wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm, to the same disease that took his mother – tuberculosis – after a long, five-year battle with it.  Her death was hastened, it appears, by revelations (through malicious letters sent to her by the noted poetess and love rival, Elizabeth Ellet) of his dalliance with another fêted poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Then, after the breaking-off with Osgood and Virginia’s death, there came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet, who was described as being full of ‘eccentricities and sorrows’, much like her erstwhile suitor himself.  However, bad luck was to dog Poe yet again in this potential match, as Whitman’s mother disapproved of the engagement, even threatening her daughter with disinheritance should she get married to him.

All powerful stuff, which coalesced and was funnelled into a rare literary talent. Poe was, in many ways, caught between the word and his weakness for the bottle – desperate expressions of needing to seek relief from the pressures that life brought with it, in particular his life. The atmosphere of 19th century America is well evoked, and the sense of poverty and struggle, for Poe personally and by extension the greater society around him, is palpable. Writing has never been a secure profession, and it was even less so back then. Effectively, Poe was the first professional Victorian writer, the advent of magazines in the 1830s allowing people to see the possibilities of being authors and getting paid for it. Ironically, despite Poe’s popularity, tapping as he did into the primal fears of his readers, he died penniless and in bizarre circumstances.

Poe has influenced an enormous catalogue of writers since, like Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne and Denise Mina herself. He was a genuine literary pioneer, mining the veins of rich source material to be found in the deepest, darkest and blackest corners of the human mind. He brought the Gothic to the masses and made it popular. Mina strongly brought out those qualities which elevated him above many others digging in the same seam, and, furthermore, emphasised just why his writing is so powerful, by tying his disatrous relationships into the themes evident in his stories. Death and loss were constant themes in his own life; naturally, he sought to exorcise their influence on the written page. People responded, and shot him to fame. But fame can destroy as well as enrich: additionally one has to be prepared for it, no matter how much one craves it. Poe definitely craved it, but equally I think he was totally unprepared for what it brought him.

My only criticism: the soundtrack, composed mostly of long excerpts from 80s goth bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim. Okay, so I make no bones about being an ex-goth, even to admitting that I saw some of these bands myself – however, I felt that hearing the strains of the songs from my younger days jarred somewhat with the subject matter, in terms of the time period covered. It seemed like whoever edited it heard the word ‘Gothic’ and thought it would be clever idea (or perhaps ironic) to use them. Ultimately though, I guess it’s just a minor quibble, tied to personal taste.

After watching this I ended up wishing that the BBC would commission more of these type of programmes and not just for tHalloween. Horror is, for me and for many like me, a year-round interest, and I for one would love to indulge in watching documentaries about horror in general and horror-writers in particular. The quality of this programme just goes to show what can be done when producer’s and programme commissioner’s minds are put to it. Maybe we should give them a hint by showing our approval for these welcome efforts.

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