Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XCVI

The New Home

The Clemenses returned to Hartford to find their new house “ready,” though still full of workmen, decorators, plumbers, and such other minions of labor as make life miserable to those with ambitions for new or improved habitations. The carpenters were still on the lower floor, but the family moved in and camped about in rooms up-stairs that were more or less free from the invader. They had stopped in New York ten days to buy carpets and furnishings, and these began to arrive, with no particular place to put them; but the owners were excited and happy with it all, for it was the pleasant season of the year, and all the new features of the house were fascinating, while the daily progress of the decorators furnished a fresh surprise when they roamed through the rooms at evening. Mrs. Clemens wrote home:

We are perfectly delighted with everything here and do so want you all to see it.

Her husband, as he was likely to do, picked up the letter and finished it:

Livy appoints me to finish this; but how can a headless man perform an intelligent function? I have been bully-ragged all day by the builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard-table (and has left the balls in New York), by the wildcat who is sodding the ground and finishing the driveway (after the sun went down), by a book agent, whose body is in the back yard and the coroner notified. Just think of this thing going on the whole day long, and I a man who loathes details with all his heart! But I haven’t lost my temper, and I’ve made Livy lie down most of the time; could anybody make her lie down all the time?

Warner wrote from Egypt expressing sympathy for their unfurnished state of affairs, but added, “I would rather fit out three houses and fill them with furniture than to fit out one ‘dahabiyeh’.” Warner was at that moment undertaking his charmingly remembered trip up the Nile.

The new home was not entirely done for a long time. One never knows when a big house like that — or a little house, for that matters done. But they were settled at last, with all their beautiful things in place; and perhaps there have been richer homes, possibly more artistic ones, but there has never been a more charming home, within or without, than that one.

So many frequenters have tried to express the charm of that household. None of them has quite succeeded, for it lay not so much in its arrangement of rooms or their decorations or their outlook, though these were all beautiful enough, but rather in the personality, the atmosphere; and these are elusive things to convey in words. We can only see and feel and recognize; we cannot translate them. Even Howells, with his subtle touch, can present only an aspect here and there; an essence, as it were, from a happy garden, rather than the fullness of its bloom.

As Mark Twain was unlike any other man that ever lived, so his house was unlike any other house ever built. People asked him why he built the kitchen toward the street, and he said:

“So the servants can see the circus go by without running out into the front yard.”

But this was probably an after-thought. The kitchen end of the house extended toward Farmington Avenue, but it was by no means unbeautiful. It was a pleasing detail of the general scheme. The main entrance faced at right angles with the street and opened to a spacious hall. In turn, the hall opened to a parlor, where there was a grand piano, and to the dining-room and library, and the library opened to a little conservatory, semicircular in form, of a design invented by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Says Howells:

The plants were set in the ground, and the flowering vines climbed up the sides and overhung the roof above the silent spray of the fountain companied by Callas and other waterloving lilies. There, while we breakfasted, Patrick came in from the barn and sprinkled the pretty bower, which poured out its responsive perfume in the delicate accents of its varied blossoms.

In the library was an old carved mantel which Clemens and his wife had bought in Scotland, salvage from a dismantled castle, and across the top of the fireplace a plate of brass with the motto, “The ornament of a house is the friends that frequent it,” surely never more appropriately inscribed.

There was the mahogany room, a large bedroom on the ground floor, and upstairs were other spacious bedrooms and many baths, while everywhere were Oriental rugs and draperies, and statuary and paintings. There was a fireplace under a window, after the English pattern, so that in winter-time one could at the same moment watch the blaze and the falling snow. The library windows looked out over the valley with the little stream in it, and through and across the tree-tops. At the top of the house was what became Clemens’s favorite retreat, the billiard-room, and here and there were unexpected little balconies, which one could step out upon for the view.

Below was a wide, covered veranda, the “ombra,” as they called it, secluded from the public eye — a favorite family gathering-place on pleasant days.

But a house might easily have all these things without being more than usually attractive, and a house with a great deal less might have been as full of charm; only it seemed just the proper setting for that particular household, and undoubtedly it acquired the personality of its occupants.

Howells assures us that there never was another home like it, and we may accept his statement. It was unique. It was the home of one of the most unusual and unaccountable personalities in the world, yet was perfectly and serenely ordered. Mark Twain was not responsible for this blissful condition. He was its beacon-light; it was around Mrs. Clemens that its affairs steadily revolved.

If in the four years and more of marriage Clemens had made advancement in culture and capabilities, Olivia Clemens also had become something more than the half-timid, inexperienced girl he had first known. In a way her education had been no less notable than his. She had worked and studied, and her half-year of travel and entertainment abroad had given her opportunity for acquiring knowledge and confidence. Her vision of life had vastly enlarged; her intellect had flowered; her grasp of practicalities had become firm and sure.

In spite of her delicate physical structure, her continued uncertainty of health, she capably undertook the management of their large new house, and supervised its economies. Any one of her undertakings was sufficient for one woman, but she compassed them all. No children had more careful direction than hers. No husband had more devoted attendance and companionship. No household was ever directed with a sweeter and gentler grace, or with greater perfection of detail. When the great ones of the world came to visit America’s most picturesque literary figure she gave welcome to them all, and filled her place at his side with such sweet and capable dignity that those who came to pay their duties to him often returned to pay even greater devotion to his companion. Says Howells:

She was, in a way, the loveliest person I have ever seen — the gentlest, the kindest, without a touch of weakness; she united wonderful tact with wonderful truth; and Clemens not only accepted her rule implicitly, but he rejoiced, he gloried in it.

And once, in an interview with the writer of these chapters, Howells declared: “She was not only a beautiful soul, but a woman of singular intellectual power. I never knew any one quite like her.” Then he added: “Words cannot express Mrs. Clemens — her fineness, her delicate, her wonderful tact with a man who was in some respects, and wished to be, the most outrageous creature that ever breathed.”

Howells meant a good many things by that, no doubt: Clemens’s violent methods, for one thing, his sudden, savage impulses, which sometimes worked injustice and hardship for others, though he was first to discover the wrong and to repair it only too fully. Then, too, Howells may have meant his boyish teasing tendency to disturb Mrs. Clemens’s exquisite sense of decorum.

Once I remember seeing him come into his drawing-room at Hartford in a pair of white cowskin slippers with the hair out, and do a crippled colored uncle, to the joy of all beholders. I must not say all, for I remember also the dismay of Mrs. Clemens, and her low, despairing cry of “Oh, Youth!”

He was continually doing such things as the “crippled colored uncle,”; partly for the very joy of the performance, but partly, too, to disturb her serenity, to incur her reproof, to shiver her a little —“shock” would be too strong a word. And he liked to fancy her in a spirit and attitude of belligerence, to present that fancy to those who knew the measure of her gentle nature. Writing to Mrs. Howells of a picture of herself in a group, he said:

You look exactly as Mrs. Clemens does after she has said: “Indeed, I do not wonder that you can frame no reply; for you know only too well that your conduct admits of no excuse, palliation, or argument — none!”

Clemens would pretend to a visitor that she had been violently indignant over some offense of his; perhaps he would say:

“Well I contradicted her just now, and the crockery will begin to fly pretty soon.”

She could never quite get used to this pleasantry, and a faint glow would steal over her face. He liked to produce that glow. Yet always his manner toward her was tenderness itself. He regarded her as some dainty bit of porcelain, and it was said that he was always following her about with a chair. Their union has been regarded as ideal. That is Twichell’s opinion and Howells’s. The latter sums up:

Marriages are what the parties to them alone really know them to be, but from the outside I should say that this marriage was one of the most perfect.

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