Laura Skandera Trombley: Isabel was Mark Twain’s confidant, personal assistant and social secretary during the last years of his life. She is a relative unknown in Twain scholarship because of a falling out that she had with Mark Twain and his two daughters, Clara and Jean. Because of her access to the family--she lived in the same home with Twain during her six years with him--she knew the family’s secrets and they eventually resorted to blackmailing her to guarantee that she would never attempt to claim a place in his life. Subsequent biographers either knew that the family was very opposed to any mention of Isabel or they ignored her due to her working class status and gender. Also, Twain wrote a scandalous fictionalized document about her that some biographers have mistakenly taken as truth.
Question: What was the nature of Isabel’s relationship with Mark Twain?
Laura Skandera Trombley: 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--and he suffered enormously after he was forced by his daughters to fire her.
Question: In this book, you draw on primary documents by and about Isabel that have not been explored before. How did you come across them?
Laura Skandera Trombley: I did primary research for 16 years, traveled from coast to coast working in archives and historical societies, and did a much closer examination of Isabel’s papers than any previous Twain scholar. I discovered that the Vassar College archive held half of Isabel’s journal and the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley had the other half. I am the only Twain scholar who has ever read all of Isabel’s writings. Several years ago, I met with Isabel’s relatives and they released letters and photographs to me that no scholar had previously seen.
Question: Why have these papers not previously been brought to light?
Laura Skandera Trombley: The first Twain scholars were aware that there had been a great deal of unpleasantness in the family during those final years (although they didn’t know what it was about) and didn’t want to air unflattering family secrets. Also Twain’s daughter Clara lived until the early 1960s and there was no possibility that any mention could have been made of Isabel while Clara was still alive due to the animosity she felt toward her father’s former secretary. Subsequent biographers simply accepted the cover story that Twain created; he was a genius, after all, and one of our finest fiction writers, and they were predisposed not to pay much attention to a pink-collar worker’s writings.
Question: How would you characterize Twain’s relationships with women? It’s clear from your book that he relied upon women immensely, yet he managed to alienate his daughters Clara and Jean and viciously turned against Isabel.
Laura Skandera Trombley: As an individual who was obsessed with control, Twain in his last years found himself for the first time in a situation that he could not directly influence through the strength of his sheer will or force of his personality. Jean, his youngest daughter, was very ill with severe epilepsy and no matter the amount of railing Twain did against man and God, the situation was not going to change. Clara, his middle daughter, is a turn-of-the-century example of the perils of being the child of the most famous man in the world, and she was every bit as iconoclastic as her father. Isabel really was an intelligent, desperate woman, determined to improve her social station in life. While Twain cared for them all, in the end his narcissism prevailed and he painstakingly constructed the way he would be remembered by the public. To achieve that end, he sacrificed those closest to him.
Question: Isabel has been cast in many lights: a social climber, a "new woman" with career ambitions, a faithful companion and Mark Twain himself once, late in their relationship, called her a "salacious slut." After writing this book, what is your own opinion of Isabel? What is the most important thing that you wish to set straight in her historical record?
Laura Skandera Trombley: Isabel was an intelligent woman trapped by historical circumstance. She was born to the upper middle class and, due to the deaths of her father, uncle, and brother, she was forced to enter into service. She was shrewd enough to know that her options were limited and she was not satisfied to serve the rest of her life as a nanny or secretary. With that said, she was also genuinely fond of Twain and was his greatest admirer. She showed the most decency among all of the people involved by forgiving Twain’s many wrongs toward her. Those who might cast her as a scarlet woman or sycophant fail to understand how difficult life was for women like Isabel at the time, and how she managed to move forward with her life despite many, many disappointments.
(Photo © John Lucas)
From Publishers Weekly
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