In Twain's End, Cullen does a terrific job of exposing
Isabel Lyon’s love, prejudices, and lifelong loyalty to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). From the poverty-riddled, intensely emotional world she shares with her mother to her appointment as a secretary for a man
known as “The King,” Isabel comes vividly to life, a non-conformist who treasures her freedom but is constrained by the social proprieties of the Edwardian period. Ensconced in Samuel’s house in Stormfield, Redding,
Isabel learns quickly the rules of his game, developing a love for the great and wealthy humorist that burns inside her all the way down to her toes.
No one else alive has had the privilege of such an intimate view of this man with his wiry body, almost-defiant virility, and “scrappy knowingness” that constantly
thrills her. Even at the ripe old age of seventy-four, Clemens holds himself with “an amused confidence.”
The novel begins with a pivotal scene:
the arrival of Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Anne’s husband, Mr. Macy. Both teacher and student are clearly enamored
of this great and charismatic man who is at present the best-paid writer in the world and considered to be the Lord of Literary Lions. Courted internationally by royalty and men of mark, Clemens has made a boon companion of the rich and powerful in New York,
though he considers himself nothing more than a Mississippi steamboat pilot. These early scenes establish the complicated connection
between Samuel, his spoilt daughter, Clara (“who pretends that she would ever lift a finger to please him”), and interloper
Isabel, whose unrequited attraction to the great humorist hides a desire for something more than just “a legal contract.”
Throughout these early years, Isabel aches for an acknowledgement of their mutual devotion, wanting desperately for Samuel to claim her. As
Isabel speaks to Mr. and Mrs. Macy and Miss Keller about her and Samuel’s recent trip to Bermuda, Clara sits across the room glowering, waiting for her father’s attention. Isabel feels constantly self-conscious, fully aware that Samuel is putting her before Clara, as well as before his other daughter, Jean, and his long-suffering, ailing wife, Olivia.
Beautifully written by Cullen, whose fluid prose communicates more period detail than the best of
other historical fiction, Clemens emerges here as the omnipresent tragic, egocentric, put-upon man the author intends him to be. In 1889 in Hartford, Isabel is only twenty-nine when, as governess to the Whitemore family, she’s invited to a Friday night card game at the home of Samuel Clemens. With her own father a successful business man who once owned a mansion in Tarrytown,
Isabel is well aware that she is expected to do more than just marry well. It’s not surprising that
Isabel sees a reflection of her father in Samuel, his “handsomeness almost violent and possessing an energy that seemed to seize the room.” From the outset,
Isabel is determined not to let this comedian unnerve her: “she might be just a governess but she was no one’s joke.”
Writing from he point of view of Isabel, Clara, and Isabel’s status-conscious mother, the ever-snobbish Mrs. Lyon, Cullen deftly moves us through the years from 1902 to April 1910, to a sojourn in Florence
and a honeymoon of sorts in Bermuda. All the while Isabel beholds her boss, at first a little shyly yet always flattered and mindful of her role as witness to a great and baffling man’s work. Clara threatens Isabel, who regularly scolds herself for not having been aware sooner of the young girl’s feelings. The core of the novel is how
Isabel must come to terms with her attraction to Samuel and her fractured relationship with Clara. Clearly
Isabel wants Samuel with every scrap of her being; from the beginning, she tells us that she would even throw reputation and propriety out the window because he means that much to her.
The novel is ultimately an Edwardian societal commentary, a story that grows more feverishly luminous as Samuel’s health declines and he finds himself questioning his marriage to frail Olivia, who ends up bedridden for much of the later part of their marriage. At the same time, Clara falls hopelessly in love with her own married man, a secret that
Isabel (to her detriment) tries to keep from Samuel. Poor, greedy, headstrong, tempestuous Clara. Even her best attempts at a singing career are bound by Samuel, a man once so vibrant that he electrified any room he entered, be it a parlor, a ship’s dining room, or a concert hall.
There’s history here and something personal, familial perhaps, and also a grudge, especially from Katy, Samuel’s bitter, loyal housekeeper who attempts to sabotage
Isabel’s fragile balancing act at every turn. There’s also a sense of Samuel’s apprehension that might alter the steady hum of Mark Twain’s reputation as Cullen unfurls an extraordinary assortment of characters who shuffle like cards on a table. The novel has a sense of inevitability as we read into Twain's End the shadows of Samuel’s deplorable behavior towards
Isabel, his fear of loving and of being loved, and Isabel’s own fragile and unrequited sense of hopelessness and
need to excavate herself from lifelong notions of regret.