10/19/15

Novel about Twain Speculates, but Perhaps Too Much


Twain's End  (2015)
Lynn Cullen
Threshold Books, 352 pages, #9781476758961
* * *

This novel has the virtues and drawbacks of all literary imaginings involving famous people. Cullen strikes the right tone concerning Samuel Clemens' lonely final years–ones marked by misanthropy, crankiness, and disappearance into his created Mark Twain persona. The danger, though, lies in putting words into the mouths of historical personages, only some of which we know they actually said. The danger doubles when speculating on relationships for which there is, at best, fragmentary evidence.

Cullen imagines a fatal attraction between Clemens and his personal secretary, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who worked for him from 1902 into 1909. Cullen's is a fictional embellishment of work done by Karen Lystra in Dangerous Intimacy (2004) and Laura Skander Trembley in Mark Twain's Other Woman (2010). Each suggested the relationship between Lyon and Clemens might have crossed the line between flirtation and consummation. Both Lystra and Trembley are scholars constrained by evidence, hence they could only suggest; as a novelist, Cullen goes further and presents Lyon as Clemens' crutch, muse, and lover in his dotage. (Or, more accurately, a semi lover as he was 68 when his wife Livy died in 1904, and a less-than-virile 70 when Cullen places him in the arms of the then 42-year-old Lyon.)   

Here's what we know from the historical record: that Lyon called Clemens/Twain "The King" and was deeply infatuated with him. Whether his outsized persona so dazzled her that she also desired him physically is another matter altogether. Rumors of an affair circulated as early as 1906, when Lyon accompanied Twain to Bermuda, and resurfaced a year later when she went to England when Twain received an honorary doctorate from Oxford. Whispers that he planned to wed Ms. Lyon embarrassed Twain and probably led to tension that drove Lyon into the arms of Twain's business associate Ralph Ashcroft, whom she married in 1909. Cullen conveniently ignores pretty credible evidence that Lyon and Ashcroft enjoyed carnal relations in Twain's Redding, Connecticut home. She also ignores something else we know: that Lyon struggled with alcoholism.

 Again, we are back to the problem of biography versus literary imagination. Perhaps Twain and Lyon did have a fling or two, but at present the evidence is lacking. Many scholars (including myself) doubt anything happened beyond Clemens' known fascination with youth, pretty women, and flatterers; and I sincerely doubt any romantic attachment occurred while Olivia Clemens lived. Cullen is more convincing stripping the sheen off the Mark Twain image. As she—and biographers such as Michael Shelden–show, Clemens, who died in 1910, was an embittered man for the last decade of his life. He had reasons: his favorite daughter Susy's early death, Livy's frailty and passing, the egoism and recklessness of daughter Clara, and daughter Jean's epilepsy. (Jean drowned in her bathtub in 1909.) To the degree Clemens was ever happy, it was whilst holding court as Twain–and he vigorously protected what we'd today call the Twain "brand." Lyon definitely played a major role in burnishing that brand; in addition to her secretarial duties, she effectively ran the Clemens household from 1902 onward, right down to paying servants' wages, doling out allowances to Clara and Jean, acting as hostess for scores of visitors, and overseeing renovations to both Clemens' home and her own cottage on the grounds.

In the novel, Lyon is the book's Jane Eyre-like heroine, Clemens/Twain a vain egomaniac, and his daughter Clara a mash between Machiavelli, the Wicked Witch of the West, and a libidinous seductress of a married man. Cullen's other villainess is housekeeper Katy Leary, Clara's co-conspirator. She is right about Clara, Twain's only surviving offspring but hardly a credit to her parents or herself. Clara is almost certainly the one who orchestrated Clemens' decision to fire Lyon in 1909—ostensibly for theft, slander, and misuse of family funds, though there is not a scrap of evidence to suggest any of this. She likely had a hand in her father's 400+ page screed against Lyon, which included the charge that she was a conniving "slut." Of that remark, the first part is more convincing than the second. Lyon may well have flattered the aged Clemens in order to keep her comfortable position. She and Ashcroft may also have schemed to get a portion of his anticipated estate. (Clemens didn't encourage loyalty with the parsimonious wages he doled out.)

 By now you are aware that I've delved more into history than to Cullen's novel. Call it another hazard when fictionalizing someone as famed as Twain. As a novelist, Cullen must try to take us places we haven't already been, but there are places in which she transgresses the border between history and histrionics. Twain's End is a good read, but an uneven one that's best when Cullen sticks closer to the record and turns down the romantic steam–some of Lyon's swooning for Clemens is particularly over the top.   

Cullen gets so much of the general ambience of Twain's final years correct that the book makes for fascinating reading in that regard. She takes needed revisionist sandpapering to Twain's heroic sheen. Overall, I give Twain's End a qualified recommendation. If you choose to read it, it's best to adhere a sticky note to the cover that reminds: "This is a fictional work loosely based upon historical figures." Cullen has done her research; much of what she writes is plausible. But there's just no getting around the real person problem: novelists can speculate; a scholar can conclude only what evidence allows. Read Twain's End because it's an entertaining, but never forget that Cullen has filled in historical blanks with imagined answers.
Rob Weir

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