From the bestselling and highly acclaimed author of Mrs. Poe comes a fictionalized imagining of the personal life of America’s most iconic writer: Mark Twain.
In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?
In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen reimagines the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.
Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings and letters, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End explores this real-life tale of doomed love.
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Twain's End by Lynn Cullen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen is a 2016 Gallery Books publication. I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher as an XOXpert, the official street team of XOXO After Dark.
Before beginning this novel, I took the time to do a quick internet search on Isabel Lyon and her relationship with Sam Clemens, aka, Mark Twain.
Well, the story is certainly a curious one. The few facts we have indicate Isabel was very close to Sam Clemens as his personal secretary, many believing she knew the man better than anyone. It is possible the two came close to marrying at one time, but something went horribly awry, leaving historians much to debate about the meteoric rise and the epic fall from grace of Isabel Lyon.
This novel boldly speculates on the relationship between Isabel and Sam Clemens for the seven years she served him and his family.
MARK AND ISABEL
Isabel had already taken a blow by losing her status and wealth, which forced her to take work as a governess, which eventually took her to Philadelphia and into a position as a secretary, supposedly for Olivia Clemens, Sam’s fragile wife. But, Isabel never worked for Livy, but instead began taking dictation for the autobiography of the great Mark Twain, the most beloved man in America.
The man we meet, through Isabel Lyons’ perspective, is Sam Clemens, the man behind the myth of Mark Twain. Isabel knew family secrets, the nature of the marriage between Sam and Livy, the relationship with his surviving children, but also witnessed his alter ego, Mark Twain, perform for guests, which included Helen Keller, a meeting that is an interesting mystery in itself. The contrast is startling, and the author did a great job of making the distinction between the private man and his larger than life alter ego.
The portrayal of Isabel here paints a picture of a woman ensnared in the complicated relationships in the Clemens household, torn between her professional position, her reputation, and her personal feelings for Sam, and his pursuit of her. Their relationship blurred lines, and obviously extended beyond professionalism, a situation all those in the household, including the staff, and Livy were aware of.
To me, there is no doubt Isabel was dazzled by Sam Clemens, in love with him, going so far as to nickname him, “The King”, writing about him in her diary, praising him lovingly.
But, it was Clemens’ middle child, Clara, a most difficult girl, who may have been behind the demise of the tight relationship between her father and his secretary.
Clara plays a large role in this story too, as she was also caught up in her father’s public role as Mark Twain, sucking all joy from her life as she struggles to create her own way, wishing to be appreciated for her unique talents and accomplishments, but found herself living in her father’s shadow, with him controlling and manipulating her personal life as well.
In the end, Isabel married another man, and within a month was fired from her secretarial position, and became the subject of a 429 page manuscript Twain penned and threatened to publish, in which he accused Isabel of stealing from him, and assassinating her character, calling her a "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction."
What really went wrong between Clemens and Isabel will never fully be known, as Isabel never spoke out or defended herself against Twain’s accusations, but in real life, did visit with actor Hal Holbrook, although she insisted their conversation remain private.
Some believe Isabel, who was so trusted by Clemens he actually gave her power of attorney, was indeed guilty of trying to isolate him from his daughters, was stealing from him, and trying to seduce him, as he claims in his manuscript. Others, however, believe Sam was attempting to besmirch her character due to the volatile information she possessed regarding Clara’s adulterous affair, or that Clara herself negotiated a trade in which she promised to give up her married lover if her father gave up Isabel. His choices thereafter were made on behalf of his family, and to protect the reputation that was so very important to him.
This story is plausible, the result of extensive research by the author, and fits with the proven facts about Mark Twain.
Anytime a speculative account is written, it can spark controversy, but when an author is bold enough to delve into the personal life of one of our most beloved authors, a man so etched into our consciousness, it’s a huge risk to take, and will no doubt offend many whose loyalties lie with the mustached man in the white suit who wrote the beloved classics we enjoyed in our youth. But, the truth is, that man is really a myth, a made up person, something even Sam Clemens will admit to. Still, we all wish to hold onto images, even if we know they are created personas who only came out to play in the public arena.
PORTRAIT OF ISOBEL LYON
Personally, I took no offense to the author’s view of Sam Clemens, and if you put the novel into perspective and remind yourself that it is a work of fiction, which should be approached with a critical eye, then your ideals on Mark Twain should not be tarnished.
However, I do think it prudent to read some of the books the author used in her research, and if you are curious about the Twain- Lyon manuscript, you can read it in the third volume of the autobiography of Mark Twain.
I can’t decide on which side of the fence I want to land on. It is quite possible Isabel saw a golden opportunity and seized it. It is also entirely possible that she grew to believe he would not marry her and thus made what looked like a spur of the moment decision to marry Ashcroft. When Ashcroft, who was a business associate of Clemens’, wrote a letter to Sam demanding he defend Isabel against Clara’s campaign against her, things turned really ugly. It is also possible the whole sordid mess was a cover-up to keep Clara’s adultery from becoming public knowledge.
Clemens’ took six months to write this manuscript against Lyons, which seems a little excessive, so I have to wonder why he took this alleged betrayal so hard, and if, as it’s been pondered upon, losing Isabel led to his death within a year of firing her.
Overall, I think the author did a great job of piecing together the facts about the relationship between Clemens and Lyon, and gives up a detailed accounting of how things may have actually played out. It is a fascinating read, very absorbing and certainly thought provoking, and has me itching to read more about Mark Twain and any other material detailing this most puzzling relationship.
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BEHIND THE BOOK- LYNN CULLEN DISCUSSES TWAIN'S END
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her recent novel, Mrs. Poe, a national bestseller, has been named a Target Book Club Pick, an NPR 2013 Great Read, and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta surrounded by her large family, and, like Mark Twain, enjoys being bossed around by cats.