Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXI

Dollis Hill and Home

It was early in July, 1900, that they removed to Dollis Hill House, a beautiful old residence surrounded by trees on a peaceful hilltop, just outside of London. It was literally within a stone’s-throw of the city limits, yet it was quite rural, for the city had not overgrown it then, and it retained all its pastoral features — a pond with lily-pads, the spreading oaks, the wide spaces of grassy lawn. Gladstone, an intimate friend of the owner, had made it a favorite retreat at one period of his life, and the place to-day is converted into a public garden called Gladstone Park. The old English diplomat used to drive out and sit in the shade of the trees and read and talk and translate Homer, and pace the lawn as he planned diplomacy, and, in effect, govern the English empire from that retired spot.

Clemens, in some memoranda made at the moment, doubts if Gladstone was always at peace in his mind in this retirement.

“Was he always really tranquil within,” he says, “or was he only externally so — for effect? We cannot know; we only know that his rustic bench under his favorite oak has no bark on its arms. Facts like this speak louder than words.”

The red-brick residential wave of London was still some distance away in 1900. Clemens says:

The rolling sea of green grass still stretches away on every hand, splotches with shadows of spreading oaks in whose black coolness flocks of sheep lie peacefully dreaming. Dreaming of what? That they are in London, the metropolis of the world, Post-office District, N. W.? Indeed no. They are not aware of it. I am aware of it, but that is all. It is not possible to realize it. For there is no suggestion of city here; it is country, pure & simple, & as still & reposeful as is the bottom of the sea.

They all loved Dollis Hill. Mrs. Clemens wrote as if she would like to remain forever in that secluded spot.

It is simply divinely beautiful & peaceful; . . . the great old trees are beyond everything. I believe nowhere in the world do you find such trees as in England . . . . Jean has a hammock swung between two such great trees, & on the other side of a little pond, which is full of white & yellow pond-lilies, there is tall grass & trees & Clara & Jean go there in the afternoons, spread down a rug on the grass in the shade & read & sleep.

They all spent most of their time outdoors at Dollis Hill under those spreading trees.

Clemens to Twichell in midsummer wrote:

I am the only person who is ever in the house in the daytime, but I am working & deep in the luxury of it. But there is one tremendous defect. Livy is all so enchanted with the place & so in love with it that she doesn’t know how she is going to tear herself away from it.

Much company came to them at Dollis Hill. Friends drove out from London, and friends from America came often, among them — the Sages, Prof. Willard Fiske, and Brander Matthews with his family. Such callers were served with tea and refreshment on the lawn, and lingered, talking and talking, while the sun got lower and the shadows lengthened, reluctant to leave that idyllic spot.

“Dollis Hill comes nearer to being a paradise than any other home I ever occupied,” he wrote when the summer was about over.

But there was still a greater attraction than Dollis Hill. Toward the end of summer they willingly left that paradise, for they had decided at last to make that home-returning voyage which had invited them so long. They were all eager enough to go — Clemens more eager than the rest, though he felt a certain sadness, too, in leaving the tranquil spot which in a brief summer they had so learned to love.

Writing to W. H. Helm, a London newspaper man who had spent pleasant hours with him chatting in the shade, he said:

. . . The packing & fussing & arranging have begun, for the removal to America &, by consequence, the peace of life is marred & its contents & satisfactions are departing. There is not much choice between a removal & a funeral; in fact, a removal is a funeral, substantially, & I am tired of attending them.

They closed Dollis Hill, spent a few days at Brown’s Hotel, and sailed for America, on the Minnehaha, October 6, 1900, bidding, as Clemens believed, and hoped, a permanent good-by to foreign travel. They reached New York on the 15th, triumphantly welcomed after their long nine years of wandering. How glad Mark Twain was to get home may be judged from his remark to one of the many reporters who greeted him.

“If I ever get ashore I am going to break both of my legs so I can’t, get away again.”

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