In Lynn Cullen’s latest novel, Twain’s End, Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, comes across as a cantankerous, controlling, capricious, and arrogant old man – at least around those closest to him.
What a blow! In his day, he was the most famous man in America because of his stories and his quick wit. He made people laugh. I have always thought of him as clever, a talented writer, a humorist, and a supporter of abolition and women’s rights – which he was. But in Cullen’s book, I don’t see much of that person. He was mainly just difficult with occasional bouts of charm.
Twain’s End, recently published by Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, is about the relationship between Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, and Isabel V. Lyon, his secretary in his later years after his wife could no longer handle those duties. Isabel is born rich and is well educated–raised to be married to a man of means. But the family is left poor when her father dies deeply in debt, and she ends up in service. She works for Clemens from 1903 until 1909. About half his age, Isabel is infatuated with him, which may explain why she stays with him.
Isabel first meets Twain/Clemens, as Cullen often refers to him, when employed as governess to a neighbor’s children. The man of the house, Mr. Whitmore, asks her to join him to fill out the table of a regular Friday-night card game at Twain’s home. An excellent card player, she agrees. Cullen introduces Twain/Clemens to us in her own delicious way:
Mr. Clemens–Mr. Whitmore introduced him by his pen name, Mark Twain—squinted at her as if sizing her up. Or maybe he was just squinting from the smoke snaking up from the cigar wedged between his fingers. At fifty-three, he was handsome in an almost violent way, his gray eyes too piercing, his cheekbones too raw, his arched nose somehow sexual. Although he was only sitting there and smoking, his energy seized the cramped room.
And when he speaks, Cullen writes, “His speech was as slow as a lion licking his claws.”
Always seen with a cigar, Clemens is a rough-hewn, Missouri-born, former riverboat pilot; an egotistical man who runs roughshod over his household, keeping his daughters under a tight rein. Isabel eventually comes to think of him as The King. Cullen portrays him well as a complicated character. Like his two names, Twain/Clemens, he is two people: kind, funny, loving or cruel, jealous, and acerbic.
Cullen makes her characters and scenes come alive in this tale of a household that caters to the whims of a very dominant man. I could feel his energy and imagined what it would have been like to be in the same room with the great Mark Twain and listen to his famous wit. When asked about his daughter, for example, he responds:
“Clara? She’s with her mother. The two are as thick as thieves. As huddled together as they are night and day, I suspect that they’re forming an in-house chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union against me. Miss Lyon and I are forming our own club in response: the Goats Among Sheep.”
Clemens isn’t the only difficult character in the household. Isabel also has to put up with the antics of Clara Clemens, a strong personality like her father (but not nearly as much) and so envious of him. She’s a mezzo soprano with a pretty voice, but, even when the moment should be hers onstage, her father steals the show. And Clara tires of people calling her father Mark Twain, and warns off anyone who might call her Clara Twain. Isabel must also put up with a hostile housekeeper, who may have romantic feelings for Clemens despite her loyalty to Clemens’ wife, Livy.
Livy is quite ill by this time and has been ordered to bed by doctors, although she isn’t unaware of what goes on her household. Livy even once comments, “We were all happier when Suzy [their daughter who died at age 23] was alive.”
And, yet, Isabel stays and endures hostility and mercurial moods–devoted and faithful and paid little for her services. Did she think she couldn’t find another position, or was she just smitten? She is the one person I didn’t understand.
Much of Cullen’s research for this book came from Isabel’s journal, which shows an intimate insight into the final years of Clemens’ life. She includes a vignette of a visit by a charming and effervescent Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan Macy, and Annie’s husband John. Twain’s End opens with this visit and ends with it, a mirror image of how the implied triangular relationship among Keller and the two Macys reflects the jealousies simmering in the Clemens’ household, jealousies that boil over when Twain rewards Isabel for her tireless service by publicly flaying her.
Cullen is also the author of Mrs. Poe, an Indie-Next pick and a national bestseller. Like Twain’s End, Mrs. Poe is about the relationship between a famous man with a dying wife and another woman. Cullen’s other novels are Reign of Madness, The Creation of Eve, and I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, and she has written several children’s books.
What feelings do you have about Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain after reading his books and short stories? Is it unsettling to read bad things about a beloved person?