Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Unusual Marriage of the Poes

The marriage which joined Edgar A. Poe to his teenage cousin Virginia Clemm was certainly unusual — and it has nothing to do with their blood relations or the bride's age.

There is a signed document (a not-so-good reproduction is pictured at right) dated May 16, 1836 which serves as the couple's official marriage bond. A deputy clerk named Thomas W. Cleland served as witness and testified that Virginia was, in fact, "of the full age of twenty-one years" (she was 13). The ceremony was officiated by a Presbyterian minister and attendees included Virginia's mother Maria Clemm (the younger sister of Poe's father), Poe's on-and-off boss Thomas W. White, and White's daughter Eliza (a young lady with whom Poe may have flirted for a time). The document from the city of Richmond was made under the agreement "that whereas marriage is shortly intended to be had and solemnized between... Edgar A. Poe and Virginia E. Clemm." It was signed 173 years ago today.

The question is: When did they really get married?

Several months earlier, on September 22, 1835, the Clerk of the Baltimore County Court issued a marriage license for Edgar and Virginia. She was 13; he was 27. There is debate if a marriage really took place (Arthur Hobson Quinn believes it impossible, Kenneth Silverman believes it to be likely). It seems, nevertheless, that the majority side with Quinn: Poe did not marry his 13-year old cousin.*

Instead, he married his 13-and-a-half-year old cousin on this date — May 16 — in 1836.

Those that believe the "secret" first marriage to be the "true" one suggested that the second "marriage" in 1836 was more public because, now only a few months shy of age 14, Virginia was of a more socially-acceptable age to marry. It's the difference between being just a month over age 13 or being just three months shy of 14. Reverend Amasa Converse did not seem to have a problem that the young woman was obviously not 21 years old as was claimed (for most of her life, she was described as "childlike" in appearance, even when in her 20s). The happy newlyweds then spent a couple days in Petersburg, Virginia.

I say this nonchalantly to prove a minor point: Virginia's age at marriage wasn't as shocking then as it seems today. Marriage at such a young age does not appear rampant in this period, but it also doesn't seem particularly uncommon. Poe seems to have been somewhat embarrassed, however, and occasionally (as on the wedding certificate) suggested that Virginia was older or that he himself was younger. For those that want to paint Poe as a pedophile, he did not take advantage of her. Unlike some, I will not psychoanalyze his writing (i.e. "Annabel Lee" or "Berenice") for examples that prove Virginia was, well, virginal. Poe's own words are better suited: most believe he was sincere when he said he slept alone and did not "assume the position of husband" for two years at least. Some suggest the couple never consummated their marriage at all.

Within 11 years of their marriage, Virginia would die of tuberculosis at the age of 24 — and, today, 162 years after her death, most still refer to her as Poe's "child bride," forced to never grow up in historical memory.

*As for the blood relationship, this was not entirely unusual either. I may write about this more in-depth in a later entry.

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