"Mark Twain's Other Woman", A Book Review

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
A review of Laura Skandera Trombley's "Mark Twain's Other Woman, The Hidden Story of His Final Years."

Submitted: January 20, 2016

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Submitted: January 20, 2016

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Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth was not published until 1962. I remember reading that the tone of the work didn’t mesh with Twain’s popular image as a humorist and a figure that was held in both personal and professional esteem. Letters questioned religion among many things and today would be characterized as an old man’s rant against the vagaries of life. As a freshman in high school, I wondered what could have turned one of the most successful American writers so bitter.

Laura Skandera Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman, The Hidden Story of His Final Years answers those musings and in the process tells the story of Isabel Van Kleek Lyon who served as Twain’s  personal assistant from  October 1902 until April 15, 1909. Trombley, a recognized Twain scholar and the author of a cultural biography of Twain, dusted off Lyon’s “original daily reminders, diary, notebooks, date book, and letter book” as the main source for her work. “She had exhaustively recorded the events of each day she had spent in Twain’s presence,” Trombley tells the reader. 

These sources had never been mined by other scholars who over the years had access to the same material. As we learn from Trombley, Twain was more obsessed with his legacy than a U.S. president at the end of his second term. So much so that he stipulated that parts of his autobiography were not to be published until 100 years after his death. So overlooking Lyon’s story played into the hands of Twain and complied with the wishes of Twain’s daughter Clara who didn’t die until 1962 at the age of eighty-eight.

Trombley’s book is all about secrets and the necessity to keep them in the Gilded Age. Both Twain and Lyon had to keep secrets about their families. And Lyon was constantly on guard to conceal her true inner feelings from her boss for fear that she would be viewed as unstable or incompetent. Twain’s two daughters’ lives were the constant source of high drama as they attempted to achieve some sense of self-identity beyond the long shadow that Mark Twain cast, and in the process Lyon’s job became increasingly entwined with the two girls’ lives.

Much of Lyon’s energy was expended tiptoeing around Twain, who Lyon referred to as the “King”. It was her job to run the household and insulate the author from things he would rather not deal with which included Clara and Jean (his wife Olivia died in 1904). This required the rationing of information made available to Twain.

So what about the “other woman” status as mentioned in Trombley’s title. First, you need to know that Lyon was Twain’s junior by 29 years. From Lyon’s writings, some things are made quite clear, such as Lyon is enthralled with Twain’s intellect; Lyon is very ambitious and is constantly concerned with her emotional and financial future; Lyon is not interested in being a spinster. What is not clear in the passages of Lyon’s writing that Trombley quotes is whether there is more to the story. Lyon appears to be self-editing. The most blatant evidence of this is the need for Trombley to decipher crossings out that appear often in the text of the various sources. But the restraint goes beyond the obvious.

Trombley tells Isabel Lyon’s story with the skill of a novelist and the refinement of a scholar. She doesn’t give the end away which creates tension for the reader. So were Twain and Lyon lovers? Remember, this is a book about secrets.


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