The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Mystery of Mark Twain's Lioness (Part 1)

The recent publication (just yesterday, in fact), of Laura Skandera-Trombley's book,
Mark Twain's Other Woman is significant in that it presents a well-sourced, sympathetic account of Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon who started out as his wife's social secretary, and subsequently became his personal secretary in a relationship that was both unconventional and intense--on both sides. The relationship ended with charges of embezzlement and more on Twain's part, and ferocious countercharges by Lyon's recently-acquired husband, Twain's business manager. Lyon, interstingly, never spoke out against the man she called "the King." After making the papers, and causing a social scandal, it was forgotten for 60 years after Mark Twain's death.

Trombley's book is well written, and her use of Lyon's voluminous papers adds details to a period in Twain's life that his too often been relegated to the unremitting darkness of myths of Hamlin Hill's overtly hostile biography God's Fool (1973) (which revived the Lyon story) or the equally unrealistic sunniness of Albert Bigelow Paine's important but hagiographical authorized biography, published in 1912. Trombley is, like Hill, a supporter of Lyon's, but, unlike Hill, has an abiding affection for Twain.

However, her overt championship of Lyon leads her to make all credibility calls in her favor, even though Lyon's own diaries (as Trombley notes) were heavily edited by her and her 1906 daily reminder, at least, exists in multiple, inconsistent forms, devised "with the intention of either misleading anyone who would read he reminder or as a backup in case the original was stolen." (p. xvi).

Additionally, Trombley is rather prone to disparage Twain's later writings in a way that denies their political influence on antiwar protestors as late as the Vietnam era. Where she disparages these works, such as "The War Prayer" and "King Leopold's Soliloquy" as "shrill" and marred by a "constant note of misanthropy" (pp. 64, 62), writers such as Maxwell Geismar found them bracing and inspirational enough to compile a book length anthology of them, which I have owned since I was a teenager, and which helped me form my own political outlook.

A more skeptical view of Lyon's account is taken by Karen Lystra in her 2004 book Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Lystra rebuts Hill's uncritical acceptance of Lyon's last version of events, and deploys the unpublished diaries and a manuscript by Twain's youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, whom she asserts Lyon banished from her father's house in order to maximize her chances of marrying him. Lystra's book is an important corrective to Trombley's championship of Lyon. In championing Jean, Lystra carefully examines the transactions between Twain, Lyon, and Twain's business manager Ralph Ashcroft (who married Lyon in 1909). Lystra is both more detailed and skeptical on these transactions than is Trombley; where Lystra asserts that Twain's notary who notarized his power of attorney in favor of Lyon routinely notarized documents without Twain's presence (an inappropriate, but not uncommon, practice even today), Trombley relies rather naively on the boilerplate statement used in all notarizations that the document was signed in the presence of the notary as conclusive.

Another questionable move on Trombley's part is her acceptance as if uncontroversial of Lyon's claim that Jean Clemens attacked on two occasions the family's long-time servant and friend Katy Leary. (82, 96-97) Lyon's account is questioned quite acutely by Lystra, who suggests that Lyon misinterpreted Jean's own statement of what happened, and embroidered it based on stereotypes of epileptics which were common in these years. Trombley simply treats Lyon's observations as self-evident, and suggests it indicates that Jean suffered from postictal psychosis. (82). Well, perhaps. If it happened--it is unhelpful that Trombley does not address Lystra's critique of Lyon's account, which is uncorroborated by Jean's papers, or Katy Leary's account of life with the Clemens family. It's not that Lyon cannot be right absent corroboration; however, the fact that she is a somewhat unreliable narrator and the unpleasant denoument of her relationship with Twain suggest that Lystra's critique deserves to be considered. It's Trombley's decision not to do this which is troubling, especially as she is certainly aware of it--she cites Lystra as a source at least twice in the footnotes, and in fact provided a blurb for the book's jacket in 2004.

While both Jean and Lyon have modern champions, the one voice which has not been heard in all of this is Mark Twain's. He left behind a 429 page manuscript, commonly known as the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript," which has not been published to date. It is only known in snippets, when quoted by Hill, Lystra or Trombley. They have widely varying estimations of it; Hill cites it as evidence of senility, Trombley calls it "bizarre" (p. xiv), while Lystra defends Twain's accuracy and acuity in writing it, as well as depicting it as a great effort to come clean about his own guilt in banishing Jean for years while under the sway of Lyon. Until the manuscript is published, there is no way to know whose characterization is more apt; the great writer, one hundred years after his death is voiceless in this riveting drama. One thing I'd say about his mental capacities in his last months (assailed by Hill), however is this: Twain's last essay, The Death of Jean, written in the days after her death on Christmas Eve 1909, and a mere five months before his own death, is powerful, moving, and has all the hallmarks of Twain at his finest.

(edited and expanded)

Next: A Tentative View of L'Affaire Lyon


Anonymous said...

Fascinating story, however, you are right to question Ms. Trombley's conclusions. See a balanced and scholarly review of her book at:

Anglocat said...

Thanks for the link, I found the review informative. Best of all, it led me to a story that affirmed that the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript will be published in the forthcoming edition of the Autobiography.