There’s only one known portrait of author Edgar Allan Poe’s child bride, and it’s a painting of her corpse. Her name was Virginia Clemm, and she was his cousin. When Poe, age 27, married her, she was just 13.
One of the most scandalous details of the biography of Edgar Allan Poe, author of horror stories and dark gothic poetry, was his marriage. Marrying your barely teenaged first cousin is the stuff of crude jokes today. But was this the case in Poe’s time?
In order to answer that, in the spirit of cultural relativism, we need to ask two very basic questions.
Question #1: Why did Edgar Allan Poe marry Virginia Clemm?
Poe did not grow up with his blood relatives. He lost both parents by the time he was three years old, and he and his siblings were separated. Poe was raised as the unofficially adopted son of a wealthy merchant who had previously been unconnected with the Poe family.
As a teenager and young adult, Poe briefly attended the University of Virginia, briefly enlisted in the army, and briefly enrolled at West Point.
His West Point failure was the final straw for his adoptive father, who discontinued all support, both financial and emotional. Penniless and homeless, Poe moved in with his older brother in 1831. His brother just happened to be living in Baltimore with Poe’s grandmother, his aunt, and his young cousin, Virginia.
Virginia Clemm was born in 1822. When she first met Poe, after his aborted attempt at an army career, she was just seven years old. She was nine years old when he moved in with her mother and grandmother.
Poe biographer Karen E. Lange writes, “Poe came to depend on his new family. Poe’s cousin, Virginia, was 14 years younger than he was and had not been to school, though she had been taught to sing and to play the piano. Despite this the two developed a close friendship. Poe called Virginia ‘Sissy.’ She called him ‘Eddie.’ Virginia looked up to Poe, and he tutored her. They went for walks together. After a time, Virginia’s mother began to treat Poe like a son, and Poe started to behave toward his aunt [Maria] as if she were his mother, calling her ‘Muddy.’”
Poe also used young Virginia as a love-note courier during his fruitless attempt to hit on a neighbor.
The carefree days of tutoring and note-passing soon ended, however. First Poe’s brother, then his grandmother, died. With the death of his grandmother in 1835, the family lost an essential source of income (her late husband’s pension).
In early August 1835, Poe moved away from his aunt and cousin to take a job in Richmond, Virginia. But just weeks later, at the end of August, Poe received a letter that shook him to his core.
“Neilson Poe, a well-to-do cousin of Poe’s and Virginia’s, invited Virginia to stay in his Baltimore home and attend school,” Lange explains.
Unlike Edgar Allen Poe, lawyer and newspaper editor Nielson Poe’s intentions toward Virginia appear to have been purely protective in nature.
“Presumably Neilson meant to rescue Muddy from her poverty, but he reportedly also hoped to prevent Virginia from marrying at so young an age, keeping open the possibility of her marriage to Poe a few years later, if they both still desired it,” speculates Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman.
Poe responded by immediately and thoroughly freaking out, drinking heavily and shooting off hysterical missives to Muddy and Virginia.
“I am blinded with tears while writing this letter — I have no wish to live another hour. … I love, you know I love Virginia passionately devotedly. I cannot express in words the fervent devotion I feel towards my dear little cousin — my own darling,” he ranted to his aunt. “The tone of your letter wounds me to the soul — Oh Aunty, aunty you loved me once — how can you be so cruel now? You speak of Virginia acquiring accomplishments, and entering into society — you speak in so worldly a tone. Are you sure she would be more happy. Do you think any one could love her more dearly than I?”
And to his juvenile cousin, he wrote, “My love, my own sweetest Sissy, my darling little wifey, think well before you break the heart of your Cousin, Eddy.”
In short order, he either resigned or was fired from his brand-new job and hastened back to Baltimore.
“On September 22, he and Virginia took out a marriage license, and perhaps were privately married. On this point the records are unclear, and later accounts differ, although the likelihood is that they wed,” writes Silverman.
To recap: over the course of a single month, Poe dove head-first into serious alcoholism, lost his job, and married his 13-year-old cousin. That was one hell of a month, no matter what century you’re living in.
Question #2: How did Edgar Allan Poe marry Virginia Clemm?
If you want to marry your underage first cousin nowadays, you’re going to have a tough time pulling it off. At least, in Richmond, Virginia, where Poe and his child bride filed their marriage certificate and were officially wed.
Minors aren’t allowed to get married in the state of Virginia these days because they aren’t considered to be capable of demonstrating full competence and consent: “If you’re a minor who hasn’t been emancipated, you should not be able to obtain a marriage license in Virginia.”
It’s cool if you and your cousin want to hitch your wagons, however: “You are free to marry your first cousin.”
That’s the law today. But what about in the 1830s?
“They joined as blood relatives, Virginia being the daughter of his father’s sister,” writes Silverman. “First cousin marriages were not unusual at the time; but Virginia’s age was. Opinion about the appropriate marrying age for women differed, and women in the south married younger than those in other sections. Yet to marry at the age of thirteen was extremely rare and, as Neilson Poe did, most people would have considered Virginia far too young. For Poe, however, her age constituted part of her appeal. Even earlier he had flirted with his fourteen-year-old cousin Elizabeth.”
It’s believed that Poe married Virginia secretly in Baltimore, then publicly on May 16, 1836, in Richmond. “A Presbyterian minister openly married him to his cousin Virginia. This was probably a second ceremony, designed to make public in Richmond when Sissy was fourteen what had already been done in Baltimore when she was thirteen, and much too young,” Silverman concludes.
Still, this doesn’t indicate definitively that it was considered wrong, at the time, to marry your teenaged cousin. But Poe and Virginia’s marriage certificate does.
Look closely at the boilerplate text at the bottom and you will read:
[Name of bride] is of the full age of twenty-one years
The age of the bride was clearly a condition of signing the marriage certificate, as it’s part of the standard printed text, not an addition made by Poe, the officiant, or the notary.
Not only did Poe lie about his bride’s age in writing, he lied about it in person as well.
“Poe cared about the public impression he might create by marrying a child. He sometimes handled the problem by simply misrepresenting her age. A few months before the marriage he told [Baltimore novelist John Pendleton] Kennedy that Virginia was fifteen,’” states Silverman.
He also had a habit of aging himself down, according to Silverman, making the difference in their ages seem less stark. “Poe rather experienced himself also as a child. … In his claims to precocious genius he even emphasized his immaturity. Born in 1809, he several times gave the year of his birth as 1811 or even 1813, making himself seem two or four years younger than he was.”
Poe might have succeeded in shaving a few years off his true age, but there was no hiding Virginia’s extreme youth. She was described by contemporaries as very childlike in appearance and behavior.
“After the marriage, Poe’s sister, Rose, sometimes took her to [a local] school where she seemed ‘as much of a child as any of the pupils, joining in their sports of swinging and skipping rope,’” writes Silverman.
Even Poe couldn’t deny that his new wife was not a grown woman.
“Virginia’s immaturity mattered in a more personal way too,” Silverman notes. “Reportedly, Poe later said that for two years he occupied a room alone and did not ‘assume the position of husband.’ The statement is secondhand, and ambiguous enough to leave it uncertain whether he had sexual relations with his wife even after the two years.”
So now, we come back to the portrait of Virginia, dead at age 24 of tuberculosis that was in no way ameliorated by the extreme poverty she and her husband lived in throughout their short marriage.
As Michael J. Deas writes in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, “The portrait is rendered with poignant simplicity, the palette consisting largely of earth colors. … The vacant expression of the face and listless tilt of the head betray the grim circumstances under which the portrait was painted. Begun in the hours following Virginia’s death from tuberculosis on January 30, 1847, the likeness is said to have been commissioned only when it was realized no portrait of her in life existed.”
In true Poe style, he wrote to her, before the portrait was painted, in June 1846, “Keep up your heart in all hopefulness, and trust yet a little longer — In my last great disappointment, I should have lost my courage but for you — my little darling wife you are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life.”
Less than eight months later, she was dead.