Monday, March 2, 2009

Poe misses his foster-mother's funeral

Today, March 2, in 1829, a young Edgar Poe rushed home to Moldavia, the estate of the Allan family in Richmond. Frances K. Allan (nee Valentine), his foster-mother, had died on February 28 after a long illness (a local newspaper called it "lingering and painful"). Just under two months before, Poe had been promoted to the rank of Sergeant-Major at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The trip home was the equivalent of a less than 2-hour drive by car today.

The past couple months, young Edgar frequently had been writing home to John Allan, his uninterested foster-father, often requesting information on Frances's health. Allan seldomly replied at all and, when he did, did not offer much information. In one letter, he asked Allan to give "My dearest love to Ma." It's hard to tell how aware Edgar was of his foster-mother's impending death. The day she died, he dutifully reported to roll call, seemingly oblivious. When he finally was granted leave, he arrived too late: her funeral was the day before, and she was buried at Shockoe Hill Cemetery (March 1, 1829).

The death of Frances was an important turning point in the Edgar Poe-John Allan relationship. Allan softened for a bit and he bought Edgar a fresh black suit. He also agreed to help him secure discharge from the Army so that he could enroll at West Point. As Edgar wrote, he also "promised me to forgive all." This raised Edgar's spirits considerably and he again began to refer to Allan as "Pa" (after years as "Sir") and reported he felt "much happier than I have for a long time."

Of course, Allan's reconciliation with Poe would not last forever, and Allane soon realized he had no need to continue the relationship. Allan was, after all, never a true father — only a guardian. It was Frances who cared for the boy. And, of course, that is why Poe struggled so much with her death.

Frances Allan apparently could not have children and high society women of Richmond in those days often visited sick or impoverished families as their "charitiable duty." Frances may have seen an advertisement in the November 25, 1811, issue of the Richmond Examiner, referring to a traveling actress who had taken ill and was appealing "to the kindhearted of the city." Mrs. Eliza Poe died the next month, leaving behind three orphaned children. Frances begged John Allan to take in one, and so young Edgar Poe was brought into the Allan household, though he was never legally adopted.

Frances was a doting foster-mother, unlike her cold and distant merchant husband. As Poe later said to John Allan, "Your love I never valued - but she I believe loved me as her own child." Poe's early romance Sarah Elmira Royster wrote that "He was devoted to the first Mrs Allan and she to him." More on the second Mrs. Allan another time, perhaps.

Ultimately, consider this: By the age of 20 years old, Edgar Poe had already outlived two mothers.

1 comment:

lila jane said...

I'm amazed that Poe had so much love from even a foster mother. Nurturing mothers in that time period were rare. So many children lost mothers and mothers lost children. One statistic I read for the 1850s or so was that a mother could expect half her children to live to adulthood. It was true for Mary Todd Lincoln. Two children died in childhood (Eddie, Willie) and one died in adulthood (Tad). Only Robert lived a long life. His mother was the bane of his existence!
Great post. Thanks. Keep it coming.
Lisa Waller Rogers