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 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.