By Lynn Cullen
Simon & Schuster
342 pages, $26
By Thomas J. Reigstad
Henry James once wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett that “the ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness …” James felt that an author could include historical details, but could never faithfully invent or represent “the old consciousness” of a world that no longer exists.
Yet, the genre of historical fiction flourishes today. Witness the recent engaging politically oriented works of Thomas Mallon on Watergate and the last Reagan years. Buffalo’s own Lauren Belfer’s “City of Light” spun a meticulously researched and entertaining tale of our city set at the turn of the 20th century.
Historical novels featuring the lives of authors have been particularly popular. In the last two years, Therese Anne Fowler’s “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” and Stewart O’Nan’s “West of Sunset,” have reflected the surge of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationships and times. And in “The Age of Desire” Jennie Fields revisits Edith Wharton’s affair with journalist Morton Fullerton.
Mark Twain, too, has appeared as a character in historical fiction, most notably in two time-travel novels. In David Carkeet’s “I Been There Before,” Twain returns to Earth with Halley’s Comet in 1985. Then in Darryl Brock’s “If I Never Get Back,” Twain accompanies a modern-day sportswriter who wakes up in 1869. Currently getting some buzz is Pulitzer Prize-winner Oscar Hijuelos’ “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise,” a broadly imaginative take on Twain’s friendship with explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Unfortunately, Lynn Cullen’s “Twain’s End” fulfills James’ indictment of “cheapness” in historical fiction. Cullen’s stabs at historical accuracy and fictional narrative in “Twain’s End” cannot improve upon the tawdry historical record of Twain’s late-career, stormy relationship with his private secretary, housekeeper and companion, Isabel Lyon.
Just a few months ago, the editors of the Mark Twain Project included in volume three of Twain’s “Autobiography” the previously unpublished “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” Twain’s vitriolic screed accusing Ralph Ashcroft, his business manager, and Lyon of disloyalty and malfeasance. Laura Skandera Trombley’s scholarly and highly readable nonfiction examination of Twain and Lyon, “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years” (2010), defends Lyon. So, the darker, caddish side of Twain’s later life has already been amply documented.
Nevertheless, Cullen dives in with a Victorian potboiler that depicts an elderly Twain as a serial lecher. In Cullen’s fictional world, Twain first preys upon his young secretary in Florence, Italy, while his wife, Olivia, is dying. He sneaks lascivious peeks at Lyon’s ankles. In Cullen’s previous historical novel, “Mrs. Poe,” told from the perspective of Edgar Allen Poe’s poet lover, Poe cheats on his sick wife. Seems as though Cullen has a formula for hysterical fiction.
“Twain’s End” jumps back and forth in time and place from 1889 to 1910. Throughout the story, Twain looms as an almost Svengali-like figure in Lyon’s love life. When she first meets Twain, she’s struck by his sexy “arched nose.” After one of their physical liaisons, Lyon is infatuated with his trimness “for a man his age, upright as a youth.” She sees not a sexual predator but both “a boy” and a “tortured man.” On a carriage ride together Lyon breathes in his aroma of “smoke, wool, and man.”
There are enough deep kisses, salacious scenes and scandalous intrigue to stock several Harlequin romances.
Cullen’s writing style is another of the book’s shortcomings. There is the fondness for alliteration. Twain is “the lord of the literary lions.” At breakfast, he glances up, “the silver creamer cradled in his callous hands.” “Twain’s End” also has an abundance of purple prose.
On the other hand, Cullen fleshes out beyond stereotype the love-hate triangle that existed among Twain, his daughter Clara, and Isabel Lyon. The petty jealousies, shifting allegiances, betrayals, and affections account for the most absorbing moments in the novel. Cullen throws an innocently flirtatious Helen Keller into the mix, too. In fact, there are enough parallel couples in the novel – Ashcroft and Lyon (who eventually wed), Twain and Lyon, Twain and Katie Leary, Keller and Anne Sullivan’s husband, Clara and Ossip Gabrilowitsch (who also marry), Clara and Charles Wark (who do not marry, because he has a wife) – to please a Restoration drama playwright.
Toward the end of this melodrama, there is a scene in 1909 in which Twain hosts the Helen Keller retinue at his newly built Stormfield mansion in Redding, Conn. They debate the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with Twain attacking the theory that Francis Bacon wrote them.
Perhaps Cullen is subtly preparing readers for a possible follow-up historical novel on the Shakespeare-Bacon matter, which would surely indulge in a steamy literary “cheapness” on the marriage of 45-year-old Bacon to 14-year-old Alice Barnham.
Thomas J. Reigstad is an emeritus professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” (Prometheus 2013).