Poe’s Lost Letter to Mary Shelley

Some details of Edgar Allan Poe’s life will be forever shrouded in mystery (pardon the pun). These facts are known: Poe traveled with his foster family to Great Britain in 1815. He attended school in Irvine, Scotland, then in Chelsea, then in Stoke Newington (near London). He and the Allans returned to Richmond, Virginia in 1820. So (although he was only about 9 years old) Poe was in or near London when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published there in 1818.

We also know that Washington Irving encouraged Poe and other American writers in their careers. They undoubtedly knew each other and extant correspondence between them can be found online. Irving met Mary Shelley when they were both in London in 1826. (There is some evidence that she may have had a romantic interest in him, but it was not mutual — however that is tangential to the matter at hand.)

In 1840 Poe announced plans to start a new periodical American literary journal that he would own and edit. (The first proposed name was The Penn, later changed to The Stylus.) He tried to raise financial backing and he solicited artwork and submissions. Sadly, he was never able to bring his plans to fruition before his death in 1849.

The following letter was recently offered at auction from a private, and anonymous, collection. It has not yet been authenticated.

Mrs. Mary Shelley, London

Dear Madam,

I have imposed on my friend Washington Irving to deliver this letter to you on my behalf. I have a favor to solicit of vital interest to myself. If I am acting improperly or uncourteously I trust that you will on no account hold him responsible. I have taken advantage of the favor he holds in your eyes and I in his.

I have been lately preparing to publish a new American journal — The Stylus — and will proceed forthwith when additional financial backing is secured. My current pursuit however is in soliciting submissions of articles to be published in said journal. Mr. Irving and some others have already agreed to write one or two articles.

My plans for The Stylus include having correspondents in London, Paris, and Berlin who will make regular contributions to the journal. It is beyond my wildest hopes that you would consider acting in such capacity in either London or Paris — your love for both cities is well-known. If not that, perhaps you have an article or two that would be of interest to American readers? Mr. Irving may act as courier if you have some trifle you would submit.

In any case I have a more personal reason for this letter. Please indulge me to relate this brief anecdote that I have never shared with a single living soul. Not even our friend Mr. Irving knows this tale, although you certainly have leave to share it with him if you so desire.

When I was 10 or 11 years old I attended the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School outside London. Chief in my memories of the place — and little else I must admit — were the libraries available to me then, filled with the most wonderful volumes both classic and contemporary. It was there that I became acquainted for the first time with the triple-decker of your novel, Frankenstein. Of course, since that missive was published anonymously it was not until many years later that I knew to whom I owed such inspiration as I have drawn from it throughout my life.

For indeed it has been and always will be a great inspiration to me. While some of my works have a tendency toward the macabre (as I flatter myself you may have heard), none I would wager have ever had an effect on another person as compelling as your novel has had on me. I would, in fact, go so far as to state that had the young Edgar Poe never stumbled across your novel at such an impressionable age and loved and feared it so, then the older Edgar Poe might never have written a word — and certainly not the words with which I am most closely associated.

If I may be so bold and, perhaps, indelicate I must relate also that I consider your late husband to be among a very few of whom I regard as the sole poets. Your efforts on his behalf to publish his posthumous poems and to maintain his reputation make me admire you all the more.

My journal will be held to the highest standards and if you deign to participate you will be in the most esteemed company including Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russel Lowell, &c. Selfishly, I feel that much of my future depends on your granting or refusing me this favor. I conclude with only this: whether you reply or not I will always hold you in the highest regard and owe you the greatest of debts for my literary career.

With High Respect,

Yr. Mo. Ob. St.

Edgar A. Poe

New York, 1846

It is not known whether this letter was ever delivered to Mary Shelley and no reply has ever been found.

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4 Comments

  1. er Stoke Newington is actually in London. Former haunt of bank robbers and The Kray twins, it both houses an orthodox Jewish community and has become yuppified, with now lots of media types living there. Still a slmu in my eyes though!

    • Thanks, Marc. I based that bit on this statement from Wikipedia, “He was subsequently entered at the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School at Stoke Newington, then a suburb 4 miles (6.4 km) north of London.” Apparently “then” is a key word, indicating that the neighborhood has since become part of the expanding city.

      I’ve never heard of the Kray twins before, but they look like excellent fodder for some more stories!

      ~Tim

    • Thanks, Catherine. I spent way more time researching it (reading biographical info, some of Poe’s letters, comparing dates/places, etc.) than such a short piece was probably worth. Just one of those ideas that caught my imagination and I couldn’t let it go….

      ~Tim

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