Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXCIV

Winter in Tedworth Square

Mrs. Clemens, Clara, and Jean, with Katie Leary, sailed for England without delay. Arriving there, they gave up the house in Guildford, and in a secluded corner of Chelsea, on the tiny and then almost unknown Tedworth Square (No. 23), they hid themselves away for the winter. They did not wish to be visited; they did not wish their whereabouts known except to a few of their closest friends. They wanted to be alone with their sorrow, and not a target for curious attention. Perhaps not a dozen people in London knew their address and the outside world was ignorant of it altogether. It was through this that a wild report started that Mark Twain’s family had deserted him — that ill and in poverty he was laboring alone to pay his debts. This report — exploited in five-column head-lines by a hyper-hysterical paper of that period received wide attention.

James Ross Clemens, of the St. Louis branch, a nephew of Frau von Versen, was in London just then, and wrote at once, through Chatto & Windus, begging Mark Twain to command his relative’s purse. The reply to this kind offer was an invitation to tea, and “Young Doctor Jim,” as he was called, found his famous relative by no means abandoned or in want, but in pleasant quarters, with his family still loyal. The general impression survived, however, that Mark Twain was sorely pressed, and the New York Herald headed a public benefit fund for the payment of his debts. The Herald subscribed one thousand dollars on its own account, and Andrew Carnegie followed with another thousand, but the enterprise was barely under way when Clemens wrote a characteristic letter, in which he declared that while he would have welcomed the help offered, being weary of debt, his family did not wish him to accept and so long as he was able to take care of them through his own efforts.

Meantime he was back into literary harness; a notebook entry for October 24, 1896, says:

“Wrote the fist chapter of the book to-day-‘Around the World’.”

He worked at it uninterruptedly, for in work; there was respite, though his note-books show something of his mental torture, also his spiritual heresies. His series of mistakes and misfortunes, ending with the death of Susy, had tended to solidify his attitude of criticism toward things in general and the human race in particular.

“Man is the only animal that blushes, or that needs to,” was one of his maxims of this period, and in another place he sets down the myriad diseases which human flesh is heir to and his contempt for a creature subject to such afflictions and for a Providence that could invent them. Even Mrs. Clemens felt the general sorrow of the race. “Poor, poor human nature,” she wrote once during that long, gloomy winter.

Many of Mark Twain’s notes refer to Susy. In one he says:

“I did not hear her glorious voice at its supremest — that was in Hartford a month or two before the end.”

Notes of heavy regret most of them are, and self-reproach and the hopelessness of it all. In one place he records her accomplishment of speech, adding:

“And I felt like saying ‘you marvelous child,’ but never said it; to my sorrow I remember it now. But I come of an undemonstrative race.”

He wrote to Twichell:

But I have this consolation: that dull as I was I always knew enough to be proud when she commended me or my work — as proud as if Livy had done it herself —& I took it as the accolade from the hand of genius. I see now — as Livy always saw — that she had greatness in her, & that she herself was dimly conscious of it.

And now she is dead —& I can never tell her.

And closing a letter to Howells:

Good-by. Will healing ever come, or life have value again?

And shall we see Susy? Without doubt! without a shadow of doubt if it can furnish opportunity to break our hearts again.

On November 26th, Thanksgiving, occurs this note:

“We did not celebrate it. Seven years ago Susy gave her play for the first time.”

And on Christmas:

London, 11.30 Xmas morning. The Square & adjacent streets are not merely quiet, they are dead. There is not a sound. At intervals a Sunday-looking person passes along. The family have been to breakfast. We three sat & talked as usual, but the name of the day was not mentioned. It was in our minds, but we said nothing.

And a little later:

Since bad luck struck us it is risky for people to have to do with us. Our cook’s sweetheart was healthy. He is rushing for the grave now. Emily, one of the maids, has lost the sight of one eye and the other is in danger. Wallace carried up coal & blacked the boots two months — has suddenly gone to the hospital — pleurisy and a bad case. We began to allow ourselves to see a good deal of our friends, the Bigelows — straightway their baby sickened & died. Next Wilson got his skull fractured.

January 23, 1897. I wish the Lord would disguise Himself in citizen’s clothing & make a personal examination of the sufferings of the poor in London. He would be moved & would do something for them Himself.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00