Mark Twain is an American institution in a white linen suit.
Think Mark Twain and you think tall tales, homespun humor, Mississippi River adventures, and those rascally innocents, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But the Mark Twain in Twain’s End, the new historical fiction book from talented author Lynn Cullen, is far more complex—much, interestingly enough, like Twain’s two most beloved characters themselves, Tom and Huck.
Cullen’s novel is called a reimagining of the tangled relationships among Twain (Samuel Clemens), his devoted private secretary Isabel Lyon, and business manager Ralph Ashcroft, who married Isabel just a month before Twain fired them both and then went on to publicly slander Isabel, write damning letters to friends, and force her to give back a cottage home he deeded to her, for reasons still disputed.
It was, “a vengefulness that was breathtaking in its viciousness,” says Cullen in her Author’s Note.
Such a curious event would make most writers wonder, and it did, indeed, pique Cullen’s interest. But what really prompted the author to choose Twain for her next book? Cullen explained it to Wren Cottage:
“Conflict drives a novel, and I wasn’t expecting to find much of it in the life of the wry humorist who wrote homespun Americana like Tom Sawyer. But when I read in Ron Powers’ biography of Mark Twain that young Sammy Clemens’ parents sold their only slave, a house servant named Jennie, when Sammy was six, and that they chose, of the assorted slave dealers in Hannibal, the one infamous for selling his ‘wares’ down the Mississippi to certain death in the fields around New Orleans, I was hooked. I wondered what had provoked Sammy’s parents to wish death upon the woman who had served them since their marriage. More importantly, I wondered what damage might have been done to Sammy by his witnessing his parents’ cruelty toward a woman who’d had an important hand in raising him.
“Then, in the next biography I tackled, Michael Sheldon’s Mark Twain, Man in White, when I read that Clemens abruptly fired the person with whom he was closest at the time, his secretary Isabel Lyon, an alarm went off. Who was this man? I then looked for biographies specific to the relationship between Clemens and Lyon. One, Karen Lystra’s Dangerous Intimacy, takes Clemens at his word when he called Lyon almost unimaginably nasty terms. The other, Mark Twain’s Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley, presented a case for Twain’s change of heart as a cover-up for the scandal caused by his daughter, Clara.
“I had to figure out for myself why he turned on Isabel so viciously after she had done so much for him; after I had read her diary, her complete devotion was obvious. I put together a case that might explain why he sacrificed the person closest to him. I believe that the traumas in his life, and his great need to be adored by the public, had a part in it.”
Cullen is not a historian. Her interest was not in finding out definitively how the relationship between Twain and Lyon had unraveled, but in piecing together facts into an engaging story based on Twain’s final years—one based possibly on the real-life story of a doomed love affair between the enduring American writer and the cultured woman who had served him, assisted him with his papers and his autobiography, and may have known him better than anyone.
Cullen’s research for this task was meticulous and included Twain’s own letters, Lyon’s diary, and pilgrimages to places the two had traveled together, such as Bermuda and Florence, Italy.
Impeccable research, however, is only part of a good book. Cullen, author of the acclaimed Mrs. Poe, knows how to weave facts and observations into memorable scenes, believable dialogue, and a plausible storyline. “Often, I based the action on Isabel’s entries, fleshing out the scenes with my imagination and nuggets from my research,” Cullen explained. “In some cases, I used snippets of Lyon’s and Clemens’ own words.
“Clemens’ incomparable gift for clever sayings was a novelist’s dream; at times I plugged them into my characters’ conversations and then embroidered around them.”
The result is a compelling book about scandal, family secrets, reputations preserved, the real man behind a towering American myth, and a woman esteemed and then verbally savaged.
Twain once wrote that “everyone is like a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Twain’s End gives readers a glimpse at the dark side of the moon for Samuel Clemens.