It was one day in 1887 that Clemens received evidence that his reputation as a successful author and publisher — a man of wealth and revenues — had penetrated even the dimness of the British Tax Offices. A formidable envelope came, inclosing a letter from his London publishers and a very large printed document all about the income tax which the Queen’s officers had levied upon his English royalties as the result of a report that he had taken Buckenham Hall, Norwich, for a year, and was to become an English resident. The matter amused and interested him. To Chatto & Windus he wrote:
I will explain that all that about Buckenham Hall was an English newspaper’s mistake. I was not in England, and if I had been I wouldn’t have been at Buckenham Hall anyway, but Buckingham Palace, or I would have endeavored to have found out the reason why . . .
But we won’t resist. We’ll pay as if I were really a resident. The country that allows me copyright has a right to tax me.
Reflecting on the matter, Clemens decided to make literature of it. He conceived the notion of writing an open letter to the Queen in the character of a rambling, garrulous, but well-disposed countryman whose idea was that her Majesty conducted all the business of the empire herself. He began:
HARTFORD, November 6, 2887.
MADAM, You will remember that last May Mr. Edward Bright, the clerk of the Inland Revenue Office, wrote me about a tax which he said was due from me to the Government on books of mine published in London — that is to say, an income tax on the royalties. I do not know Mr. Bright, and it is embarrassing to me to correspond with strangers, for I was raised in the country and have always lived there, the early part in Marion County, Missouri, before the war, and this part in Hartford County, Connecticut, near Bloomfield and about 8 miles this side of Farmington, though some call it 9, which it is impossible to be, for I have walked it many and many a time in considerably under three hours, and General Hawley says he has done it in two and a quarter, which is not likely; so it has seemed best that I write your Majesty.
The letter proceeded to explain that he had never met her Majesty personally, but that he once met her son, the Prince of Wales, in Oxford Street, at the head of a procession, while he himself was on the top of an omnibus. He thought the Prince would probably remember him on account of a gray coat with flap pockets which he wore, he being the only person on the omnibus who had on that kind of a coat.
“I remember him,” he said, “as easily as I would a comet.”
He explained the difficulty he had in understanding under what heading he was taxed. There was a foot-note on the list which stated that he was taxed under “Schedule D, section 14.” He had turned to that place and found these three things: “Trades, Offices, Gas Works.” He did not regard authorship as a trade, and he had no office, so he did not consider that he was taxable under “Schedule D, section 14.” The letter concludes:
Having thus shown your Majesty that I am not taxable, but am the victim of the error of a clerk who mistakes the nature of my commerce, it only remains for me to beg that you will, of your justice, annul my letter that I spoke of, so that my publisher can keep back that tax money which, in the confusion and aberration caused by the Document, I ordered him to pay. You will not miss the sum, but this is a hard year for authors, and as for lectures I do not suppose your Majesty ever saw such a dull season.
With always great and ever-increasing respect, I beg to sign myself your Majesty’s servant to command, MARK TWAIN. Her Majesty the Queen, London.
The letter, or “petition,” as it was called, was published in the Harper’s Magazine “Drawer” (December, 1889), and is now included in the “Complete Works.” Taken as a whole it is one of the most exquisite of Mark Twain’s minor humors. What other humorist could have refrained from hinting, at least, the inference suggested by the obvious “Gas Works”? Yet it was a subtler art to let his old, simple-minded countryman ignore that detail. The little skit was widely copied and reached the Queen herself in due time, and her son, Prince Edward, who never forgot its humor.
Clemens read a notable paper that year before the Monday Evening Club. Its subject was “Consistency”— political consistency — and in it he took occasion to express himself pretty vigorously regarding the virtue of loyalty to party before principle, as exemplified in the Blaine-Cleveland campaign. It was in effect a scathing reply to those who, three years, before, had denounced Twichell and himself for standing by their convictions.121
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00