His late-in-life relationship with his social secretary, Isabel Lyon, isn’t something I ever learned about then, even though her closeness to him was fodder for gossip during his lifetime. Several recent biographers have dug into primary sources to reveal her impact on his life, but it took considerable effort. History has downplayed her importance, an act which was initiated deliberately. A year before he died, Clemens and his daughter, Clara, set out to blacken her name, but Lyon never defended herself against their outrageous charges. Why?
This is where Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End comes in. It’s an affecting interpretation of their emotional connection, from their initial meeting in 1889, when she worked as a governess for a neighboring family, through her many years of loyal service, her surprising marriage to Clemens’ business manager, her expulsion from Clemens' household, and his death shortly after.
Although born into wealth, Isabel is a woman of limited means, while under his pen name, Mark Twain, Clemens has become a beloved, world-famous icon. Through her insightful narrative, Cullen demonstrates how his maintenance of this persona affects him and everyone he draws close. The combination of his fame, immense charisma, and the unexpected personal attention he shows her proves intoxicating for Isabel, and he knows it. It’s a reaction he’s come to rely on.
A charming but self-centered man who thrives on praise, Clemens has many personal failings, ones well known to his invalid wife, Livy. And so while Isabel is the novel’s sympathetic heart, the supporting female characters are, well, not always so supporting of her. Nonetheless, they’re beautifully crafted, one and all: frail but wise Livy, whose death crushes him; their daughter Clara, whose repressed demands for independence spill out in dangerous directions; and even the Clemens’ older Irish maid, Katy, who makes it clear she hates Isabel. She has her reasons.
Isabel is one of the rare few who sees how trapped her employer is by the role that ensures his livelihood – as his publicity motto goes, he’s “known to everyone, liked by all” – and aims to lessen his burdens. Cullen doles out the romantic tension between them by degrees, shifting it with every shared conversation.
At the center of Isabel’s existence, always, is Clemens. He’s irascible and controlling, yet also tenderly vulnerable and consistently magnetic. Isabel can’t help being drawn to him, and the novel pulls us into her experiences so deeply that his final betrayal of her and their relationship comes as a shock to the system, even though we're expecting it. In the end, Clemens was less than kind to Isabel Lyon, a woman who was devoted to him, but Twain’s End convincingly shows us why history should be much kinder to her.
Twain's End was published in paperback by Gallery this June ($16, 369pp) I read it from an ARC received at BEA in 2015.