In 1908, a couple of years before his death, Samuel Clemens, known around the world as novelist and humorist Mark Twain, decided to leave New York City and have a new home (eventually called Stormfield) built for him near the little town of Redding, Connecticut. He left most of the details of consulting with the architect and overseeing the construction to Isabel Lyon, who had been his secretary for six years. Isabel was given a cottage on the property for herself and her mother, and a room at Stormfield--right next to the master bedroom.
Not long after moving to Connecticut, Twain fired Isabel Lyon and her new husband, who had been his business manager, and spent the rest of his life accusing her of a wide variety of crimes and offenses, including embezzlement, drunkenness, and attempts to seduce him. He took back her cottage and composed a 400-page manuscript detailing his grievances against her.
Two nonfiction books have been written about Isabel in recent years (Dangerous intimacy : the untold story of Mark Twain's final years
and Mark Twain's other woman : the hidden story of his final years
), and their authors have reached entirely different conclusions. Lystra takes the claims in Twain's manuscript at face value, while Skandera Trombley suggests that his break with Isabel may have been part of a deal with his daughter Clara, whose love affair with a married man he had recently discovered. We will never know the complete truth about the Clemens-Lyon relationship, so Lynn Cullen is justified in writing this fictionalized account based on Isabel's journals. Not surprisingly, she joins Skandera Trombley in concluding that Isabel was more sinned against than sinning.
The plot of Cullen's book centers on a weekend at Stormfield in early 1909, a few months before Isabel was fired, when Helen Keller, then in her late 20s and almost as much of a celebrity as Mark Twain, comes for a visit, accompanied by her companion and teacher Anne Sullivan Macy and Anne's husband, John. It soon becomes clear to Isabel that Helen has fallen in love with Mr. Macy, and that he encourages her feelings, much to his wife's disgust. In the course of the visit, Isabel also realizes that her situation and Anne's are quite similar. Their celebrity employers treat them either as dear friends or as servants, and they must adjust their own behavior and reactions dozens of times a day.
In an extended flashback, we learn how Isabel came to be Mr. Clemens's seemingly indispensable secretary and assistant. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, the daughter of a Columbia professor, but just as she was about to make her society debut her father's sudden death revealed that he had been living on borrowed funds. With few marketable skills to support herself and her mother, Isabel became a governess, and it was in this capacity that she first met Sam Clemens when she was 25 and he 54, while she was working for one of his friends in Hartford. Isabel sat in on a number of whist games with Sam, and she obviously made an impression, because 13 years later he invited her to come to New York as his wife's secretary.
The Clemens family Isabel encounters in 1902 is sadly changed from the lively Hartford days. Eldest daughter Susy has been dead for six years, youngest daughter Jean is increasingly handicapped by epilepsy, and wife Livy is a bedridden invalid, so isolated that Isabel does not see her for months at a time. Middle daughter Clara, frustrated in her ambitions for a singing career by her father's restrictions and her mother's need for a companion, is heading for a nervous breakdown. It is clear to Isabel that many, if not all, of these ailments stem from the stress of living day to day with "the most beloved man in America". Though nominally Livy's secretary, Isabel spends most of her time assisting Sam, and before long she realizes that she has fallen in love with him, and her feelings appear to be reciprocated, though nothing overt occurs until after Livy's death in 1904. Even then, she can never be entirely sure of his intentions.
Most of the novel is told from Isabel's point of view. However, the one major character whose inner thoughts remain unrevealed is the great man himself. In Cullen's portrait, he is a dual personality: Sam is a much darker and complex character than the "Mark Twain" persona he created for himself and then refined with his wife's help and advice. He is haunted by his difficult childhood and terrified that if people knew what he was really like, he would lose the love and admiration that he needs so desperately.
Cullen's take on Isabel Lyon is nuanced and compelling, but the real Isabel is an enigma. Did she remain silent in the face of damning accusations out of guilt, or, as Cullen would have it, out of love and loyalty? Cullen tells us in an afterword that in the 1950s when Isabel was a very old lady living in a Greenwich Village apartment, actor Hal Holbrook requested an interview with her while preparing his solo Mark Twain show. He got the interview--on the condition that he promised never to reveal anything she talked about. Clearly, she was satisfied to let Mark Twain's millions of readers draw their own conclusions about her.