Monday, September 28, 2015

Twain's End

I started reading Mark Twain when I was about twelve years old, and over the decades I have come to read a substantial portion of his novels, essays, and other writing, including even his very long “autobiography.”  Too, I have read collections of his letters, biographies, and books about his books, so I was already pretty much aware that Mark Twain’s personality often bore little resemblance to that of Samuel Clemens.  But still, I was unaware of the scandal involving Clemens and Isabel Lyon until I read last year’s nonfiction account of it in Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman (one of the many books used in Lynn Cullen’s research for Twain’s End).  So when I heard about Cullen’s new novel about Twain’s dedicated effort to ruin the reputation of his longtime secretary, I was eager to get my hands on it.

Twain’s End can certainly be read straight through like an ordinary novel, but it might be more meaningful if one starts with the author’s presentation of her impressive research sources and techniques.  Best of all, Cullen shrewdly uses excerpts from Isabel Lyon’s actual diary as the basic, chronological structure of her novel.  Then, with the basic facts established, it is up to Cullen to speculate about the motives, hidden agendas, personalities, newspaper sensationalism, and half-truths that inevitably shadow a scandal of this nature.   And what Cullen “reveals” about Mark Twain, Clara Clemens, Jean Clemens, Olivia Clemens, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and John Macy is not often pretty.

Sam Clemens originally hired Isabel Lyon as the personal secretary of his ailing wife, but in reality, even from the beginning, she served more as secretary and manager of the day-to-day affairs of the entire Clemens family.  The Clemens family was not a happy one when Lyon entered the picture, and it was certainly not a happy family when she left it.  One daughter, Suzy, was dead; another, Jean, was in and out of asylums; and Clara had a volatile relationship with her overprotective father.  And sadly enough, Olivia Clemens strongly suspected that her husband was physically attracted to his secretary. 

Author Lynn Cullen
Twain’s End is the story of the slowly evolving relationship between Sam Clemens, Isabel Lyon, and Clara Clemens.  As presented by Lynn Cullen, the relationship may have been slow to develop, but it was an inevitable one that finally ran its course because Isabel Lyon was patient enough to bide her time.  In the end, however, Lyon’s dreams were frustrated and denied her.  And when she finally gave them up and married a younger suitor, Clemens cut her off, accused her of embezzlement of his personal funds, and made a concerted effort to ruin her reputation and life.  No one, not a single person, in this sordid story exactly covers himself with glory.

Twain’s End will be of interest to Mark Twain fans yearning to know more about what made the man tick.  I enjoyed much of the story, but found that it left me wishing that more time had been spent on the embezzlement aspect of the relationship and a good bit less on the “romance” itself.  My biggest surprise was the side plot involving Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Sullivan’s cad of a husband, John Macy.  That’s a story (and a side of Keller) that I want to explore more in my reading, so here’s hoping that Lynn Cullen writes a novel about that trio next.

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  1. I'm never sure about novels written about real people an events but this one sounds like a success. I like Twain but I am not that curious about him. However, the Helen Keller/Sullivan/Macy story, I would totally go for that!

    1. It's a big part of the second half of the novel, Stefanie. I think what attracts me to this kind of fiction is the hope that the novelist has researched the subject well enough to capture the real essence and personality of the person. That really does seem to be the case here as the author did a tremendous amount of detailed research before writing the book.

  2. I started reading this earlier and just couldn’t get into it. But when I gave it another go, I decided I must not have been in the right mood the first time. True to Cullen’s other historical fiction, Twain’s End weaves a tale based on facts. I was fascinated throughout the entire book.