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  • Marthe Cuvelier

Mapping William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe

Marthe Cuvelier

Marthe Cuvelier is a student at the University of Antwerp (Belgium), and is currently completing a semester abroad at Lancaster. After having obtained her bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and Literature, option English – Theatre, Film and Literature, she now continues her studies by doing a master’s degree in English Linguistics and Literature.

For this mapping assignment I chose a short story called William Wilson, written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was published in 1839 and tells us a part of the life story of a man called William Wilson. We follow William Wilson from his primary school to his later schools and eventually his voyages across Europe, shown on this map.

William Wilson appears to have a doppelgänger who follows him around wherever he goes. He meets this doppelgänger for the first time in his primary school. They have the same name, arrived at the same date and have the same birthday: 19 January 1809 – which also happens to be Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. He grows older and leaves this school, while his double also leaves on the same day. He continues his studies in Eton and Oxford and later leaves for the continent. Everywhere he goes, he is followed by the doppelgänger. The double always prevents him from performing mischievous actions; the double stands in the way of Wilson’s evil plans, yet manages to never show him his face. Even though the double has followed him around everywhere, Wilson has not seen his face since primary school. Eventually they meet again in Rome, at the fictive Palazzo of Di Broglio. Wilson now finally sees the double’s face and is shocked to see it is an exact duplicate of his own face. William Wilson kills his doppelgänger in an act of fury and as he is dying, the double tells Wilson: ‘In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.’ This doppelgänger can quite easily be seen as a representation of Wilson’s conscience, as this figure always tries to prevent him from performing evil deeds.

The map shows that Wilson travels a lot and visits far-off places. I have used different colours in mapping his movements for clarity. In using different colours for different routes, I hoped to make it easier to see how the places are connected.

It’s interesting to note that of all these places, Poe himself has only visited the Manor House School at Stoke Newington and London. The Manor House School was Poe’s primary school and it now no longer exists. Poe was a student there for a couple of years, while his adoptive family lived in London. He soon moved to the United States with his adoptive family, never to return to Europe. He thus never visited any of the other cities on this map and never went to Eton College or Oxford University. Other places in the text are entirely fictional, as we shall see shortly.

The plaque marking Poe’s former school.
The plaque marking Poe’s former school.

Poe starts by describing Wilson’s ‘earliest recollections of a school-life’, which are connected to his primary school. This school can be found ‘in a misty-looking village of England’, a village with many trees, ancient houses, avenues and shrubberies. Poe describes it as ‘venerable’ and ‘old’. This village is probably the hamlet Stoke Newington, a London suburb. He continues to describe the school, owned by a certain Dr Bransby. Poe’s primary school, Manor House School, was owned by a Reverend Bransby at Stoke Newington.

The Manor House School where Poe was a student no longer exists but now there is a plaque on the wall where this building used to be. It was at the centre of the small village, close to the church, but still mainly surrounded by fields. In the story, the school is owned by Dr Bransby, who is also the pastor at the nearby church. This coincides with one of the principals of Poe’s real primary school, Reverend Bransby, who was, as his title already informs us, also a clergyman. Dr Bransby’s Academy is thus clearly inspired by Poe’s real primary school. Dr Bransby’s academy is described as a ‘large, rambling, Elizabethan house’, an old and irregular building, an incomprehensible maze. The real Manor House School, however, was an ordinary eighteenth-century square building, according to scholar James Hutchisson (Poe, 2005, p. 11). We can thus state that Poe significantly transformed the appearance of the school and made it more Gothic, as houses in Gothic novels often have a mysterious architecture. Most of Poe’s stories follow the genre of the Gothic novel, and here he has ‘gothified’ an existing place, one of the few places he actually visited.

In the story, Wilson describes the school in detail, saying that these details are trivial but at the same time very important, as they are ‘connected with a period and a locality when and where I recognise the first ambiguous monitions of the destiny which afterwards so fully overshadowed me.’ Because of his experiences there, he connects a meaning to this place, which renders it important to him.

Ordnance Survey First Series, Sheet 7, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0
Ordnance Survey First Series, Sheet 7, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

According to Wilson, he and his schoolmates took brief walks ‘through some of the neighboring fields’ on Saturdays. On the Ordnance Survey map from 1856 we can see that around Poe’s time, there were indeed many fields in the street where his school should be. Now, on the place where his school used to be, we find a busy street completely full of buildings and there are no fields anymore.

In the story, Wilson also mentions a church that he and his schoolmates regularly visit. He writes that, on Sundays, they go to ‘the morning and evening service in the one church of the village’. As Saint Mary’s Old Church was the only church that existed at that time in Stoke Newington, Poe was probably referring to this church. I have chosen a different colour and thickness for this route as he regularly walks along it, whereas I presume that the other movements he performs, for example going from Vienna to Berlin, he only performs once.

After having spent five years at Dr Bransby’s Academy, William Wilson spends some months ‘at home in mere idleness’. I have identified this ‘home’ as 47 Southampton Row, Russell Square, London, because that is where the Allan family lived during the years Poe attended the Manor House School.

As Wilson gets older, he travels further and further from home. He goes on to study at Eton College, followed by Oxford University.

After the double’s exposing of Wilson’s evil plan to cheat at gambling, our main character hurriedly and ashamedly travels from Oxford to the continent, an attempt to flee from his doppelgänger.

This attempt, however, fails. For years, Wilson flees from the double’s tyranny ‘to the very ends of the earth’. We can see this on the map. We see that Wilson travels very far to many different places, which shows us his desperation to break free from his double. Yet, in today’s standards, it is difficult to describe these movements the way Poe describes them, ‘to the very ends of the earth’, as Wilson still remains in Europe. The farthest place he flees to is Egypt, while it was already possible in those days to travel to Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. Poe indicates – perhaps sardonically – that the ‘ends of the earth’ are found at the edges of Europe.

But no matter how far he goes, his ‘evil destiny pursued’ him and Wilson states that he ‘fled in vain’. He then gives us twice an enumeration of all the places he fled to, and these two enumerations are not exactly the same, which poses some problems for mapping the text. He first mentions meeting his double again in Paris, then how the double stepped between Wilson and his ambition in Rome, and then he mentions that the double followed him to Vienna, Berlin and Moscow too. In the second enumeration he mentions Eton and Oxford again, followed by the double’s thwarting of Wilson’s ambition at Rome again. He then mentions how the doppelgänger also thwarted Wilson’s revenge at Paris, his passionate love at Naples and his greed in Egypt. He thus mentions visiting Rome and Paris twice. However, both times he speaks about Rome he mentions the double thwarting his ambition there, so I assume he only went to Rome once. He also mentions Paris twice and I assume he visits Paris twice as his descriptions about what happens there are different. The first time he mentions Paris he just says that the double was there as well, as he had only just arrived when he had ‘fresh evidence of the detestable interest taken by this Wilson in my concerns.’ The second time he speaks of Paris he mentions trying to take revenge on him there, ‘him who thwarted (…) my revenge at Paris’. That is why I have chosen to put Paris on my map twice.

Poe just mentions all of these places in an enumeration and remains quite vague. He is not concrete about where exactly Wilson runs into his double again and what his mischievous plans are. By listing multiple different cities spread across Europe (and Moscow and Egypt), Poe just wants us to understand that the double will follow Wilson wherever he goes. Poe mentions Egypt as one of the places Wilson flees to, but he does not even specify which city or area of Egypt. Perhaps Poe did not know a lot about Egypt and just wanted to show the reader Wilson’s desperation, show that he went quite far to escape his double, even to ‘exotic’ and foreign lands.

A problem with mapping this part of the story is that we do not exactly know the order of the cities and countries Wilson visits. The fact that Poe mentions two enumerations that differ does not make it easy to clearly see where Wilson arrives first and goes to next. In order to create this map, I have used the structure of the text as a guide for ordering Wilson’s travels. The lines on the map indicate that this order draws a boundary around the map of Europe, as Wilson quite often stays in the centre of Europe and the farthest places he visits are to be found on the edges of Europe. Poe thus creates a circumscribed space in which Wilson contains himself. Wilson first arrives in Paris, after which I presume he goes to Rome. Then he leaves Rome and goes to Vienna, after which he visits Berlin. From Berlin he moves to Moscow, only to go back to Paris again, presumably. When he leaves Paris after his failed revenge attempt he goes to Naples where the doppelgänger blocks his ‘passionate love’. After that Wilson goes to Egypt where the double prevents him from performing mischievous actions.

Wilson then tells us about the ‘last eventful scene of the drama’, which takes place during carnival time in Rome, where he attends a masquerade at the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio. This duke and his palazzo are completely fictive. We can also find a Duke Di Broglio in Poe’s only play, called Politian. Di Broglio is a fictive name which in Italian means ‘intrigue’ or ‘plot’. The fact that this place is completely imaginary of course makes it quite hard to map. However, as this is an important location and should definitely be put on this map, I have decided to map Palazzo Venezia instead. This palazzo can be found in Rome, like Poe’s imaginary palazzo, already existed in Poe’s time and is quite famous, so it could be possible that Poe based the palazzo Di Broglio on this Palazzo Venezia. At palazzo Di Broglio Wilson probably wants to woo the young wife of Di Broglio but again his double appears and eventually Wilson kills him.

William Giraldi remarks that it makes sense that Wilson visits this carnival as here, ‘social rules are suspended and people can freely engage in aberrant behavior’ and we have already seen that Wilson’s behaviour is often immoral (The Annotated Poe, 2015, p. 135). It is also interesting to remark that, at a masquerade, Wilson finally sees the face of his double.

Besides the fact that the palazzo Di Broglio is fictive, there was another problem in mapping this location. In his previous enumerations, Poe has already mentioned Rome and said that the double thwarted Wilson’s ambition there. This could refer to the night of the masquerade, as the double prevents him from wooing Di Broglio’s wife. However, as other places followed Rome in Poe’s enumerations and this incident is described by Poe as the last event, I will assume that Wilson visits Rome twice and meets his double there both times.

It is also interesting to mention that Wilson’s doppelgänger has visited every location marked on this map as well, naturally, but he has never visited Wilson’s home in London. This could perhaps be explained by the fact that Wilson only spent a few months there.

Byam Shaw’s illustration for Poe’s William Wilson in “Selected Tales of Mystery” (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the frontispiece with caption “A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio”.
Byam Shaw’s illustration for Poe’s William Wilson in “Selected Tales of Mystery” (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the frontispiece with caption “A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio”.

In mapping this text there were thus some difficulties. For example, the palazzo Di Broglio is fictive and Poe is not really clear on the order in which Wilson visits all these European cities and how many times he visits Paris and Rome. However, mapping the locations Poe mentions shows us how far Wilson flees from his double and thus how great his desperation is. The map also tells us that, even though Wilson is clearly anxious to flee from his doppelgänger, he still remains mostly in the centre of Europe, which could perhaps give us a hint of the manner in which Poe viewed the world. By looking at the map we can notice that Wilson travels quite a lot and visits many cities, while Poe barely writes about most places. By not speaking more extensively about these places, it might be harder for the reader to realise how far Wilson travels. This map thus helps to show the reader the extent of Wilson’s travels, which might not be as clear in the text.


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