From the bestselling and highly acclaimed author of the “page-turning tale” (Library Journal, starred review) Mrs. Poe comes a fictionalized imagining of the personal life of America’s most iconic writer: Mark Twain.
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?
In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen “cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale” (Booklist) about the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.
Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings, letters, photographs, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End triumphs as “a tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and a last chance at love” (People).
This reading group guide for Twain’s Endincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynn Cullen. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Isabel Lyon worked as the private secretary to Mark Twain for nearly seven years, the devoted and tireless companion of America’s most beloved author. In 1909, with Twain’s blessing, Isabel became engaged to Ralph Ashcroft, his business manager. Just one month later, both Isabel and Ashcroft were fired, their dismissal followed by a scathing 429-page rant penned by their former employer that called 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 took their tirade against Isabel to the newspapers, erasing her years of devoted service to the Clemens family. In Twain’s End, bestselling and highly acclaimed author Lynn Cullen reimagines Isabel’s dramatic shift from Twain’s indispensable secretary to a woman he set out to destroy. Based on Isabel’s diary and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End explores this real-life tale of tangled relationships and doomed love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Samuel Clemens often talks about his dual personalities—Sam Clemens and Mark Twain—occasionally saying he wishes to be rid of the latter or even that he hates him. How much do you believe an author’s life is caught up in their identity as a writer? Do you think Sam Clemens uses Mark Twain as an excuse for his behavior, or do you think his fame and renown as Twain fuel the behavior?
2. Samuel Clemens, Clara, and others tell Isabel that Sam is completely dependent on her. Do you believe his affection for her stems in large part from that dependency?
3. Do you think Sam’s attraction to women stems from their beauty and youth, or do you think that other factors, like their status of subservience to him, play a role? Consider the invalid Olivia, or Isabel, whose fortune was gone and financial need great. Do you suppose a need for power and status fueled his passions? How much of his childhood and background plays a role, if at all, in his psychology?
4. Do you think that Sam would have married Isabel on his return from England if the reporter’s question concerning marriage rumors had not been denied? Do you believe Sam ever had intentions of marrying Isabel, or was he too conscious of his reputation?
5. Why do you think Mrs. Clemens speaks so candidly with Isabel about Sam’s roving eye without admonishing Isabel for her flirtation? Why do you imagine she tells her about his propensity to break hearts and hurt people that are close to him? How much of this is said out of kindness, and how much of it is a warning? Do you think she spoke so openly with her husband’s previous interests?
6. How do you explain Isabel’s passion for Sam despite her knowledge of his philandering, his status as a married man, and her role in his family? Do you think she ought to have left her role as his secretary? How soon should she have left her position for her life to have taken a different trajectory? How do you think it would have turned out differently?
7. Thinking of her daughter singing before a crowd with her husband in attendance, Olivia Clemens feels troubled, as she believed “Clara hadn’t a chance. No one did, really, against Mark Twain. Not even Youth himself.” What do you think of Mrs. Clemens’s attitude toward the power of her husband’s alter ego? Do you think she means to say that no one can compete with the popularity of Mark Twain, or is she getting at something more?
8. What do you make of Olivia Clemens’s situation? How would you characterize her relationship with Sam? Is her husband truly the cause of her illness? If so, why has she persisted in living with him and tolerating his actions?
9. The story of the young Sam discovering Jennie and his father together sheds light on Sam’s sense of guilt, but in what other insights does it offer on his personality? On his understanding of himself?
10. What do you think is the largest draw for Isabel: Mr. Clemens’s wit, charm, intellect, status, or his unavailability? Do you think their closeness sealed her affection and she would have been equally as passionate had Sam been less famous or even not famous at all?
11. Why do you think the author chose to write the final chapter from the perspective of Mrs. Lyon instead of Isabel?
12. How much did you know about Samuel Clemens’s life before reading this book? How has your reading of Twain’s End impacted your perception of the man? Of Mark Twain and his books?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Select a work by Mark Twain as a group. Research when it was written and discuss the characters, the setting, and the themes in the context of the events of Samuel Clemens’s life. How did your knowledge of the man behind the pen name influence your reading?
2. Read Mrs. Poe, Lynn Cullen’s previous work of historical fiction that looks at another American cultural icon, Edgar Allan Poe, and his forbidden love. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two books and their themes.
A Conversation with Lynn Cullen
This is the second novel in which you have delved into the life of a major American literary figure. How has the experience of writing Twain’s End compared to that of writing Mrs. Poe?
My aim as a novelist has always been to examine some of the difficulties we face as humans through the lens of the lives of misunderstood or marginalized historical figures. I’ve been less interested in writing novelized biographies of famous characters than in using their experiences to write stories that make readers think. Although I work hard at not bending the facts that I uncover during my research, ultimately, I am a novelist, not a biographer. To this end, I seek the unknown in my characters’ personal lives so that I can tell a fictitious story within these gaps.
Twain’s End was a departure for me in that I made less use of these gaps in the known facts than usual, largely because there were fewer gaps. As I did for Mrs. Poe and all my novels, I visited the site of every scene in the book to give the settings an authentic feel. I familiarized myself with Mark Twain’s works, like I did with Poe’s, to get a feel for their thinking. But for this book, I had the added advantage of having access to Isabel Lyon’s diary, written during her years with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. Between her observations and Twain’s writings and quotes, I had much more primary source material from which to construct a novel than I’ve ever had. My challenge, therefore, was to connect the dots in the material, draw my conclusions, then illustrate my theories. Samuel Clemens’s and Isabel Lyon’s real lives were so fraught with the extremes in hardship, success, pain, and joy that my main mission became to lay out their experiences so that they might speak for themselves.
How did you come to choose Mark Twain as the subject of your book?
I have long admired how in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain staunchly yet craftily took to task those who defended and justified slavery. I marveled at Clemens’s wit and his compassion for the underdog. Who doesn’t love Mark Twain, the clever curmudgeon with the heart of gold? Yet when I did a little digging and saw how viciously he turned on his loyal secretary, repeatedly attacking her even though she never defended herself, I was curious to know who the real Sam Clemens was and why Isabel Lyon—and his wife and daughters—put up with him.
How much did you know about Mark Twain before beginning your research for this story? How has your appreciation and understanding of Samuel Clemens and his character evolved since writing this book, particularly with respect to his relationships with others?
Like most Americans, I was mainly familiar with Mark Twain from reading Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in elementary school, so when first getting to know the real Sam Clemens in order to write this book, I was furious with him. I had thought he was a hero and here he was a bully and a fake! But after spending a year and a half trying to get inside his mind—a daunting, sometimes even sickening proposition with as volatile a man as Sam Clemens—I actually came to love him even more than when I started. In fact, I now feel a bit protective of him. It wasn’t my intention to make people hate him by exposing his flaws. I was simply trying to show the man as he actually was, at least in my mind, with good traits and bad like most of us. I believe he was a good and loving man at heart, or at least he wanted very much to be one, but he struggled with what today we would call an “anger management problem,” exacerbated by a mercurial temperament, extreme sensitivity, and a traumatic childhood. Yes, he did carefully nurture a public persona that belied the private man, but I don’t hold that against him. Can we blame him for promulgating an image that became universally “Liked by All,” when it brought him the love, admiration, and wealth he so desperately craved?
So much of your book deals with the conflict between Samuel Clemens’s personal identity versus that of his status as a writer and the mythos surrounding his fictional persona, Mark Twain. As a novelist, how do you relate to this dual existence, your identity as a writer versus your identity otherwise? How much does your writing define you?
Ha, my writing is me. My novels allow me to speak my mind in ways I can’t in real life. I’m not someone who is comfortable with conflict and argument yet in my books I can sneakily and thoroughly express my beliefs, questions, and desires through my characters, with the added luxury of being able to revise these thoughts until they’re spoken with an elegance not possible when blurted off the cuff. In addition, my characters can act or feel in ways I only dream of in real life. They can correct the mistakes they’ve made—I create chances for them to do so. All in all, writing allows me to be my better self—fantastic therapy! I understand how Clemens allowed Mark Twain to become his voice and reveled in it, only to be horrified when he realized that his own creation forced him to stay in costume, so to speak, if he wanted to remain beloved.
You currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia. How has your Southern home played into your decision to write about iconic Southern writers?
I have lived in the South for more than thirty years, long enough to understand how deep the wounds of slavery still run. Although he lived over a hundred years ago, Samuel Clemens’s examination of these scars is still relevant. I’m especially interested in his insights into how it felt for someone from a slave-owning family to reject an institution that his parents—his whole town, his very world—sanctioned. He knew the stories that people had to tell themselves to accept the inhumanity among them. He lived the pain of watching as the mask of civility was ripped from the people he loved. He was angry at this hypocrisy, angry at how mankind disappointed him, and he wrote powerfully about it. Yet he was considered a humorist! As he said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.”
What do you wish most for readers to take away from their reading of Twain’s End?
My intention in writing this book was not to destroy the reputation of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. I hope readers will find him all the more admirable for becoming such a widely beloved figure, revered for his humor and self-depreciating wit, while struggling with trauma and loss. I also wanted to set the record straight about Isabel Lyon. I’m furious that her nearly seven years of devotion, and her continuing loyalty in spite of being ruined, has been rewarded with infamy and sneering. She thought that her service would vindicate her—that truth would be enough. I want readers to realize that’s not often the case. Truth is rarely enough.
You also write children’s books. What are the differences in the writing process for children’s stories versus adult stories? What is the transition like from one genre to the other?
I write my children’s books with as much care and attention to historical detail as my books for adults. In both, I take great pleasure in sharing with my readers the almost unbelievably bizarre yet true bits that I unearth in my research. The main difference is that adult books take a minimum of a year and a half to construct, with months on end of eight-hour writing days, while children’s books require a fraction of this to write, depending on their length. The children’s book world is completely separate from its adult counterpart so one usually has to start fresh when trying to make the leap from children’s to adult. I was lucky in that my young adult novel, I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, got enough critical attention that my way into adult books was eased, although it could hardly be called a leap to success in the adult world since Rembrandt’s Daughter was my fourteenth children’s book—my “trudge” into might be more like it. Ironically, I wrote I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter as an adult book and was disappointed when it was published as a young adult novel. Little did I know that it would be the gateway to finding my dream agent and publisher for my adult work. The secret ingredient for the success of both genres? Great editors and top-notch publishers. I’ve been super-lucky to have both.
Mrs. Clemens describes Sam as having a “burning desire to tell the truth.” Do you think writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is really all some form of the pursuit of truth? What is the truth you sought to share with Twain’s End?
A theme I fervently wanted to convey through Twain’s End is that when spoken with conviction, falsehoods and accusations carry the same weight as truths. Whoever speaks the most loudly is believed, not necessarily the one who speaks the most honestly. As Isabel Lyon found out, having the truth on your side is not enough.
Do you have any new projects that you are working on?
I have my sights on painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, pioneer art photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and is the bestselling author of The Sisters of Summit Avenue, Twain’s End, and Mrs. Poe, which was named an NPR 2013 Great Read and an Indie Next List selection. She lives in Atlanta.
“Reputation-squaring novel. Cullen splashes a surplus of fuel onto her incendiary raw material.”
– New York Times Book Review
“The extraordinary relationship between…Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel…[a] fascinating interpretation of this early 20th century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Cullen brings a formidable and fascinating novel of thwarted love. Readers will be enthralled by the story.”
– RT Book Reviews, four-star review
“Intelligently drawn…Cullen expertly portrays both Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain… fans of historical fiction and biographies will enjoy.”
– Library Journal
“Twain’s End remains a book that is a joy to read. Ms. Cullen is the Bronte of ourday.”
– Huffington Post
"A tender evocation of a vain, complicated man's twilight years and last chance at love."
“Twain's End is a well-researched love story and history…readers will savor this accessible view of the enigmatic Mark Twain.”
– Shelf Awareness
“[Cullen is] a wonderful writer…Twain's End should be on your reading list.”
"Cullen has a knack for weaving in small details to create rich fictional portraits of real-life figures."
– Atlanta Magazine
"A fascinating book about a complicated writer."
– The Missourian
“We're riveted as Twain comes alive—faults and all—but in the end we're captured and captivated by him. Heartbreaking, passionate, profoundly interesting and readable. Cullen has once again jettisoned herself to another time and place and delivered historical fiction fans with an utterly fascinating read."
– New York Times bestseller M.J. Rose
"Every room radiates withd eliciously calibrated tension and hidden desires in Twain's End. It is in its psychological truths that the novel succeeds most brilliantly, revealing the inevitable wounds in a relationship between a famous person and an ordinary one, and what happens when the balance of power changes. A riveting read."
– Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CHALICE
“The breadth of research and faithfulness to the subjects is evident in Twain’s End. With clarity and honesty, Cullen resurrects one of America’s most complicated and well-known writers and his intimates in vivid, fascinating, and sometimes shocking ways. Twain’s End is more than a study in character; it is a cautionary tale of the spoils of fame and power, and those intoxicated by it. Captivating.”
– Erika Robuck, bestselling author of HEMINGWAY'S GIRL
“The utterly fascinating and heartbreaking story of the aging literary lion Mark Twain and his intelligent, beautiful devoted secretary Isabel who loved and understood him… a rich novel which will sweep you into a remarkable world.”
– Stephanie Cowell, author of CLAUDE AND CAMILLE
“Mark Twain's last decade roars with intrigue and yearning as Lynn Cullen brings our attention to his complicated relationship with Isabel Lyon, his personal secretary who has been long overlooked. A great read for fans of Z and The Paris Wife. Cullen illuminates the darker, outermost corners of Samuel Clemens's later years, the caged lives of his daughters, his dying wife, and a woman ‘Mark Twain’ was never meant to love.”
– Suzanne Rindell, author of THE OTHER TYPIST
"Twain's End is an unflinching, clear-eyed view into the last years of one of American’s most beloved authors. Ms. Cullen delves deep and gives us a glimpse into the pain that shaped the mask worn by Samuel Clemens. Brilliant and insightful. I hated to reach the end."
– Susan Crandall, bestselling author of THE FLYING CIRCUS and WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD
"Lynn Cullen is both a masterful writer and literary detective. Meticulous research and keen curiosity led her to piece together a fascinating account of the last seven years of Mark Twain’s life. Though the story of Isabel and Sam took place over a hundred years ago, its concerns remain with us today: the corrupting nature of power and fame, the corroding legacy of slavery in America, the ways in which childhood wounds continue to cripple us throughout our adult lives, the fact that love is sometimes not enough when it comes to the relationships between women and men. To the public, Twain might have been 'Known to Everyone, Liked by All,' but to those closest to him, he was a troubled and difficult man. Cullen shows Mark Twain 'warts and all,' yet we—and the utterly sympathetic Isabel Lyon—still love his irascible spirit, a spirit that nearly leaps off the page. In short: Twain's End is a fabulous read; I loved this book."
– Susan Rebecca White, author of A PLACE AT THE TABLE
“Twain’s End is an exquisitely nuanced portrayal of the American icon and the woman who dared to love him. With superb attention to detail, and deep understanding and care for her protagonists, Lynn Cullen brings this deliciously complex story to life, delivering everything we expect in a modern masterpiece.”
– Anne Girard, author of MADAME PICASSO
"With Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen has once again proven herself a master of historical fiction. This remarkable book explores the life of Mark Twain as seen through the eyes of the women in his household. As each interacts with the legendary Twain, the reader is allowed glimpses of the man—Samuel Clemens—living behind the well-known persona who rode in on a comet’s coattails and made the entire world laugh. Lynn Cullen is an outstanding writer, and Twain’s End is an exceptional book."