In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?
What becomes immediately clear is that Mark Twain / Samuel Clemens is an asshole. An emotional vampire with a cruel temper who absolutely loves himself (slash hates himself). A man who takes perverse delight in controlling those around him — withholding affection from his family, playing friends off against eachother, lording his literary reputation over people to coerce them into his desires, and when emotional manipulation doesn’t work, he resorts to brute force: locking his daughter in a room for 3 weeks because a man dared to make a call on her.
The main character of Twain’s End is his secretary Isabel Lyon. She is a smart woman who is totally cognizant of the contents of the paragraph above, yet she still falls in love with him. This is why the the book fails for me, why I gave up on finishing it. The dynamic of ‘servant/X in love with married master’ feels done to death in general, but for it to work, especially when the recipient of the ill-gotten devotion is so obviously a jerk, the writer really needs to sell me on why the hell he is so magnetic. Clemens isn’t charming or witty enough to be the guy who sleeps with the only woman in the room. Lynn Cullen set herself the unenviable task of trying to pull off the mordant voice of Mark Twain and doesn’t really succeed. The ‘salacious slut’ line from Twain’s actual letter makes me go ‘Wow! Such vitriol!’. You could maybe see a man with that kind of command of language getting away with Clemen’s abuses, but the novel as-is mostly just elicits an indifferent shrug.