A resident of Stoke Newington early in his life, Edgar Allan Poe remains one of literature’s most heralded names.
Poe’s lasting allure is demonstrated by the man who, since 1949, on the anniversary of the writer’s birthday, has been placing a bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s Baltimore grave. Despite great media efforts, to this day the man has never been identiﬁed.
There have been numerous books offering theories on Poe’s mysterious early death (alcoholism, drug abuse, cholera, rabies, kidnap, violent assault, drugging and involvement in an election scam have all been put forward to date), and his start to life was also marked by tragedy. His father deserted the family in 1810 when Poe was one year old, and in 1811 his English mother died of tuberculosis. His previously wealthy grandfather had by this time been reduced to poverty and could only take on the oldest sibling. So, as a result, Poe and his sister were adopted – young Edgar going to the family of John Allan, a successful tobacco merchant.
When Poe was just six years old, the Allan family moved to England and Poe began his education in Chelsea. Then, in 1817, he moved to the Manor House School in Stoke Newington, which was situated where Edwards Lane meets Church Street – the current home of The Fox Reformed Wine Bar.
In William Wilson, Poe describes this period of his life and calls Stoke Newington ‘a misty-looking village of England’, noting the resounding sound of the church bell. Although the landmarks and road remain, this was a very different place to the hustle and bustle of today, and Church Street was lined with grand old residences – Poe describing his school as a ‘huge old house’. It is strange now to imagine Stoke Newington as a picturesque village far detached from the urban sprawl of London.The school was run by Rev John Bransby who was, by all accounts (with the exception of Poe’s), very popular with the students. In his reports of Poe, Bransby said that he ‘liked the boy’ though he was concerned that he was spoiled by his parents through excess pocket money: the child was ‘intelligent, wayward and wilful’.
The fact that Poe was spoiled in his formative years is interesting when considering his increasingly fractious relationship with his adoptive father, who was a tough disciplinarian and became infuriated with Poe’s wayward behaviour. It culminated with Allan refusing to pay a gambling debt, and the two severed all contact until a deathbed wish to Poe from his adoptive mother pushed them to attempt reconciliation. However, following Allan’s remarriage, their relationship deteriorated again and they didn’t speak until Allan lay on his own deathbed.
This relationship is something that clearly affected Poe greatly; there was to be a ﬁ nal sting in the tail when news arrived that no will could be found. As a result, Poe inherited nothing, having gone through his education in the belief that he would inherit a fortune. In fact, the writer suffered from poverty for most of his life. In 1831, he returned to Baltimore and moved in with his aunt, a home he returned to throughout the remainder of his turbulent life. It was here that he met his aunt’s daughter, Virginia, whom he married in 1836, when she was just 13 years old. He had published his ﬁ rst poetry in 1830 and followed this up with ﬁ ve short stories in 1832. Though often producing disturbingly macabre work, he went on to become the best known US poet at the time, although reportedly it was for his short ﬁ ction that he wanted to be recognised. Today, he is credited as being the founder of the detective story.
From the age of 25, Poe became increasingly troubled and sought refuge in destructive alcohol and opium binges. However, this didn’t affect his prodigious literary output, and he also held a series of editorial positions, being one of the ﬁ rst to recognise the potential of periodical publishing as a popular medium.
Tragedy struck again in 1842, when Virginia burst a blood vessel while singing and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Years of ﬂ uctuating ill health followed and she eventually died in 1847. This hit Poe extremely hard and, while he still achieved literary success, his life spiralled further out of control, despite his late engagement to childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster. Then, in 1849, after getting on a train to New York and disappearing for several days, he was found in the street in an incoherent state. Four days later he died in hospital.
It is the mystery surrounding Poe that sustains the fascination in his life, though it is pleasing that the quality of his work remains central to this interest. One thing is for sure. If Edgar Allan Poe was still in Stoke Newington today, he would have a story or two to tell.
Tom is Managing Director of local publishing company Legend Press (see next page)