Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 19 October 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Another Twain't this way comes, and a familiar feeling of dread descends. Twain'ts can be pastiches, or they can be historical fiction, or they can simply borrow Mark Twain's characters or plots (and even Twain himself) to go about their business of being something akin to--but not actually--Twain. When they are good they can be very very good--Jon Clinch's Finn (2007) comes to mind-but when they are bad they can be dreadful.
Twain's End is a historical novel centered on the tortured relationships between Mark Twain, Isabel Lyon, Clara Clemens, Jean Clemens, Katy Leary, Ralph Ashcroft, and others during the last years of Twain's life. That story was first told by Twain himself (who was not sympathetic to Lyon in 1909), ignored by Albert Bigelow Paine (in 1912 and 1935), but told again by Hamlin Hill (who was sympathetic to Lyon in 1973), Karen Lystra (who was not so sympathetic to Lyon in 2004), Laura Trombley (who was sympathetic to Lyon in 2010), and Michael Shelden (who marshalled enough evidence to erase any sympathies for Lyon or Ashcroft in 2010). It has proven to be one of the most controversial episodes in Mark Twain's biography, and Twainians take sides, and become passionate. Was Lyon a thief who kept Jean away from her father in order to seduce her employer? Was she a devoted innocent secretary who was treated unfairly by Twain? Did Lyon and/or Ashcroft conspire together to manipulate Twain in an attempt to take over his estate? Did Clara have an affair with Will Wark, her accompanist? Did Twain and Lyon have an affair? Who drank, what did they drink, and when did they drink it? That feeling of dread just keeps descending.
Lynn Cullen is a successful writer of historical fiction about women associated with more famous historical figures, with several very good books to her credit, including a novel about a female student of Michelangelo, a story about the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and a novel about Poe and two of his women. Historical fiction does not have to stick to facts, but to achieve a sense of authenticity it can't ignore them either. With so many of the facts in this story in dispute or unproven, a novel like this one could easily flounder. Cullen enumerates the sources she read in preparation for this novel. She reviewed much of the literature on this episode of Twain's life, but she makes no mention of Hill's book nor Shelden's biography, and a reviewer of one of her previous books called it "swoon-worthy." I don't swoon easily, but I can't shake that feeling of dread. The darkness is visible.
There was no need to worry. Readers will quickly sense they are in the capable hands of a seasoned writer telling a tale populated with characters who are well-motivated to do exactly what they do--whether or not all of the action jibes with known historical facts--and whether or not the reader agrees with Cullen's reimagining of events. That does not mean there are no moments when the romance edges into swoonish territory, or some facts beg for minor adjustment, but the story stands on its own and the characters ring true. Among the distortions of facts that beg correction are Helen Keller arriving at Stormfield by sleigh (she arrived by carriage), Twain being given opium (he was given morphine), angelfish pins being made by Tiffany (they were made in Norway), or Lyon not liking Twain's whiskey (this did not keep her from drinking it in truly startling quantities; even late in life she could still drink her visitors under the table). Cullen also imagines Livy being aware of Lyon's designs on her husband in 1904 (there is no evidence of this), a Twain whose skirt-chasing drove away servants (there is no evidence of this either), that Twain's first choice of a name for Stormfield was "Twain's End" (it was "Innocence at Home"), that Jane Clemens sold her husband's body to a medical college (the family doctor did perform an autopsy), that Livy had memories of Hawaii (she never set foot there), or that Halley's Comet streaked across the sky (comets do not streak like shooting stars or rowdy British soccer fans). But even when stacked up, these are trivial and immaterial to the main action of the story.
It is Cullen's skill at utilizing historical details and her talent for setting up convincing scenes that drives her narrative and snares her readers. The fictionalized dialogue during a card game in chapter four is clever, authentic, and entertaining, and the dramatic unfolding of events on the night Stormfield was visited by burglars is so good it pains me not to spill the beans, but I'm no spoiler. Cullen also provides interesting twists on the story about Jean attacking Katy Leary and the sleighing accident involving Clara and Ossip, and she even pays fitting homage to an image from The Great Gatsby. She also includes verbatim extracts from original newspaper accounts and Twain's Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript of 1909 (which appears in full in the third volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain, just published), borrows phrases from Twain's letters ("author-cat"), inserts some modern jargon just for fun ("irrational exuberance" and "curb your enthusiasm"), and even sneaks in some literary allusions for good measure. Her reference to the dancing of the can-can (The Innocents Abroad) is accurate, as is Twain's complaint about heaven being devoid of sex. Other details are also historically accurate, like Twain reading Eve's Diary to Helen Keller, the unfinished fountain under the pergola at Stormfield, the trip to Halifax by Clara and Lyon, the mention of a book from Mark Twain's library, and Lyon's abrupt eviction from the Lobster Pot.
By now, some Twainians may be wondering about the plot and exactly
what action takes place in this story. More examples of Cullen's use of historical
facts and her fanciful reimaginings of them could be mentioned, but some are
central to the plot and can't be discussed without revealing the outcome.
All I can say is that those questions posed earlier do get answered, and whether
the reader agrees with Cullen's conclusions--and I don't--this Twain't is
a provocative and entertaining read. Dread be gone!