Friday, October 16, 2015
"Mostly He Told The Truth": The Mystery of Mark Twain's Lioness Part 2
Well, this post has been a long time coming. Part 1 sketched out the dispute, and noted that there have been three versions of the story of Isobel Lyon and Mark Twain: Lyons's version, ably laid out by Laura Skandera-Trombley in Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (2010) (as I'm giving Trombley something of a hard time on this, it's a pleasure to be able to unstintingly praise her Mark Twain in the COmpany of Women); Jean Clemens's version, told equally well in Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years (2006). Lystra has two advantages over Trombley: she delves more into the financial records, and is not saddled with a primary source (Lyon) whose credibility she defends even while acknowledging that she rewrote her own diary to make herself look better.
As of my last writing, I had not read the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript ("A-L Ms"), in which the great wordsmith's own account is finally published. Now--well, it's complicated. You can dismiss Hamlin Hill's blanket rejection of the A-L Ms and of Clemens's acuity when he write it. The heart-wrenching essay, "The Death of Jean" he wrote after the A-L Ms had already made me skeptical of Hill's view. The A-L Ms itself is far more complex than Hill is willing to allow. Boxed as she is into her role as Lyon's champion, Trombley must likewise reject it; she does so, but also rejects Twain's political musings of the same era, which shaped my own political outlook and are some if the best parts of the Autobiography. Lystra is closer, I think, focusing on Twain's profound guilt for his daughter Jean's incarceration in medical treatment facilities, and banished from her family. (Clara, more fortunately, was sent to Europe to spend money.)
The A-L Ms is a strange document, and reflects its author's ambivalence toward sexuality in women--he could idealize "My Platonic Sweetheart" while writing admiringly of women's greater sexual prowess than men's in pieces posthumously published in Mark Twain in Eruption(1940). And his complex attitude towards women can be seen in his half-admiring, half-contemptuous dissection of Mary Baker Eddy. Max Geismar's observation that Twain seems a little fascinated, even a tad drawn to Eddy, rings true, even as he denounces her.
So too in the A-L Ms, Twain veers from contemptuous to admiring of Lyon. He acknowledges the pleasure he took in her company, he acknowledges her attractiveness to him. In a particularly memorable passage, he berates Ashcroft for marrying her without love, as a convenience. He in one breath accuses her of complicity in this loveless marriage, and in the next reproaches him for his coldness, her for her self-deception.
Trombley in her book, and in an interview reprinted on her Amazon page says that "The two were emotionally intimate confidants. Isabel was charged with handling every aspect of Mark Twain’s life. Isabel decided who was allowed to see Twain, what he would eat, what he would wear, etc. Twain was utterly dependent upon her--physically, intellectually and emotionally." He admits as much in the A-L Ms. Explicitly.
The A-L Ms is interesting because of how Twain must dance around the story. He revs himself up to the great admissions, but then backs off to the subsidiary issues--how Lyon used far more of his money for her clothing needs than the admittedly low salary he paid her, instances of her obtaining control over his life, and those of his household staff. And then starts revving himself up to a big disclosure--that he valued her so much that he slighted his own children. He says it again and again, but struggles with it, and dances away from it. Vituperation, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was a way he could work of his less-acceptable emotions, like guilt or shame. And he was famous for it--there are cruel passages and even scurrilities in his notebooks about others who he felt had wronged him--Elisha Bliss, who published him, James Paige, to name but two. He was a good hater, and gets off some cruel lines about isabel Lyon. And yet has a tenderness toward her in other passages.
Reading between the lines, I think it's clear that he loved Lyon in a way, not necessarily a consciously romantic way, a way that he felt that he couldn't acknowledge without betraying his life-long love for his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens ("Livy" to the family.) He couldn't move on, and she seems to have desired marriage to him. She was, in effect, urging him to move on and he punished her for that.
That Ashcroft used her--that seems to be a unanimous opinion; nobody gives him a good press--was her second misfortune.
Lyon appears to have appropriated, with Clemens's tacit consent, some money, and some more without it. If she though that he was going to marry her, as she seems to have for some time, she might have viewed it as doing nothing wrong.
We'll never know, of course. It might have been all very different. yet Lyon was loyal to him after his death, never speaking harshly of him.
For what it's worth Lyon denied that use was in love with Clemens or he with her to Hal Holbrook--yet she still smoked, 48 years after his death, the pipe he gave her, and, as Holbrook writes, and Trombley notes, Lyon spoke warmly of him, and helped him more than anybody else to gain a sense of her. As Trombley quotes Holbrook, Lyon insisted that the reformer employer be remembered "as a very serious-minded man. A man who felt deeply about the world around him and the people in it, an extremely sensitive man, and that his sense of humor came from this well of seriousness." (Trombley, 261)
As Plautus wrote, "Love is very fruitful, both of honey and gall."