Stoke Newington – Old Rectory (Public Domain)
During Edgar Allan Poe’s bicentennial in 2009, a great debate raged between partisans in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore over which city had the strongest claim on Poe. Though Poe was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, London also has a strong claim to him. The last week of June 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Poe’s voyage to Britain where he lived as a boy for five years in and around London, the city of his mother’s birth.
Poe traveled with his foster parents John and Frances Allan from whom he eventually took his middle name. John Allan, a dour old Scot, had lived in Richmond for 20 years when he returned to Britain in an effort to re-establish his import business following the War of 1812. Landing in Liverpool in late July 1815, the little family first visited Allan’s relatives in Irvine and Kilmarnock, Scotland before travelling on to Edinburgh before arriving in London in early October.
Robert Burns had lived in Irvine just a few years before young Poe’s arrival, and the lore of Burns was still ripe amongst the locals. In Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott was the toast of the town. Eventually, Poe settled for his last two years in England at the Rev’d. John Bransby’s Manor School in the village of Stoke Newington, now deep in the heart of London, where William Cowper, the poet and hymnist, had lived and only died a few years earlier.
England and Scotland provided a rich seed bed in which young Poe’s imagination could flourish and grow. In London, the Allans lived first at no. 47 and then at no. 39 Southampton Row, Russell Square in Bloomsbury. Before attending Bransby’s school,
Poe boarded for three years at the school of the Misses Dubourg in Chelsea. John and/or Frances Allan took a number of trips around England while living in London, including visits to the Isle of Wight for the sea air, Cheltenham for the waters, Dawlish and Sidmouth in Devon to visit friends, Brighton, Manchester, the great territory between London and Scotland which they crossed several times to visit John Allan’s family, and the final trip from London to Liverpool on the way back to Richmond. The Allans left ten year old Poe in Irvine to spend the entire summer of 1819 with relatives.
Few figures in public life have taken on such a massive mythology as Edgar Allan Poe after his death, but he must bear the full blame because he had the poor judgment to die before his most bitter literary enemy. Rufus Griswold (a name for which Dickens would have given his right arm) created the myth of Edgar Allan Poe through his notorious obituary of Poe, and then through his memoir of Poe which appeared in most editions of Poe’s works for decades.
Taking its que from Griswold, The Leisure Hour of London published a vicious attack on Poe in 1854 that included a sarcastic condemnation of Poe for failing to give so much as an allusion to England in any of his writings. Though Poe rarely gave a geographical location for any of his seventy-five stories, he actually set at least ten of them in England. England’s closest rival was Charleston with three stories. Beyond actual settings for stories, however, his time in England influenced Poe’s literary imagination in a variety of ways.
His years in England and Scotland provided a wealth of resources upon which Poe would draw for the rest of his life. His education in French, Latin, mathematics, and literature gave him an educational background that allowed him to excel in his later studies and which established a pattern of inquiry that enriched his writing. From Bransby he acquired a love for botany that appears in “The Landscape Garden” and “The Domain of Arnheim.”
Bransby also loved field sports which gave Poe the background to write a series of columns on field sports for Burton’s Magazine when he was its editor. Beyond his educational experience, however, young Poe had the opportunity of wandering the streets of the greatest city in the world. He drew upon the routine of being ushered about London by the Dubourg sisters when he wrote The Man of the Crowd, his experiment with investigation the year before he created the first detective story in 1841. In that first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Pauline Dubourg makes a guest appearance.
Beyond the everyday experience of London, however, Poe could lose himself in the fabulous collection of the British Museum just around the corner from the Allan house in Russell Square, a collection augmented in 1816 by the addition of the Elgin Marbles which would stoke Poe’s classical imagination. The recently acquired Rosetta Stone may have sparked Poe’s lifelong interest in cryptography which played the central role in The Gold-Bug. The collection of mummies may have been the origin of his comic tale A Few Words with a Mummy.
He drew upon his time at the Manor School in creating William Wilson in which the school played a major role. Poe used the Allans’ address at 39 Southampton Row, Russell Square in his comic Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling. He also set his satire Peter Snook in London. He set his grotesque King Pest the First in London during the plague. His science fiction tale The Balloon Hoax begins in Britain and ends in Charleston following a trans-Atlantic airship flight. His brief piece Cabs compares the London cab with what New York had to offer. For The Fall of the House of Usher and Ligeia, Poe drew on the countryside and the great houses in various states of decay to lay his scene.
My personal favorite London setting comes in the romantic comedy A Succession of Sundays (aka, Three Sundays in a Week). Besides being one of his funniest stories (one-third of all Poe’s stories were humorous), it also illustrates his fascination with science and his respect for the intelligence of woman.
He did not stop at making the point that those who circumnavigate the globe one way will lose a day, while those who travel in the opposite direction gain a day. He went farther to state that time is relative in a universe without any privileged space. He would pursue this idea until he laid out many of the basic concepts of relativity theory in Eureka which he published in 1848, the year before he died.
It was also in London that Mr. Allan bought Edgar a magnificent brass telescope with which to view the stars. The telescope now forms part of the collection of the Poe House in Baltimore. For Poe, however, it was the beginning of an adventure that ended in Eureka in which he also laid out the basic principles of an expanding universe that we now call the Big Bang Theory.
For the romantically minded, however, we can only speculate that in the course of his five years in London, young Poe would have visited the Tower of London where so many people lost their heads, and where the little princes were entombed within the walls. Here he would have seen the ravens that have their feathers clipped so that they may never fly away.
It is fitting that the English championed Poe and defended him against Griswold’s slanders. John Ingram wrote his own biography of Poe and issued a four volume set of Poe’s works in 1875. The Library of the British Museum also discovered the first known copy of Poe’s first book of poetry, Tamerlane. In 1909, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle held a great banquet in London to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Poe who had created the kind of story that earned Doyle a fortune and provided a literary form at which the English continue to excel and without which America would not have prime time television.
Read more essays on Edgar Allan Poe: