Mark Twain In Hartford: The Happy Years


Well, the day would begin like this : We had breakfast about half-past seven, and at that time the family—meaning Mr. and Mrs. Clemens—never came down for their breakfast till about eleven o’clock. They didn’t get up so early, but I used to go in when Mrs. Clemens would ring for me and brushed her hair and helped her dress and then they would come down to breakfast say about eleven o’clock, and then Mr. Clemens (he never eat any lunch, you know), he’d go to his billiard room to write. He left strict orders not to have anybody disturb him—oh, for nothing! Some days he worked harder than others; but every day not to disturb him as he was a very busy writer. Well, he would appear again about half-past five (they had dinner at six o’clock in those days). He’d come down and get ready for dinner and Mrs. Clemens would get ready too. Mrs. Clemens always put on a lovely dress for dinner, even when we was alone, and they always had music during dinner. They had a music box in the hall, and George would set that going at dinner every day. Played nine pieces, that music box did; and he always set it going every night. They brought it from Geneva, and it was wonderful. It was foreign. It used to play all by itself—it wasn’t like a Victrola, you know. It just went with a crank.

A Houseful of Talent

Mrs. Clemens’ nephew, Jervis Langdon, described a long-established practice in the Clemens household:

One of the pleasantest neighborhood customs that grew up in the Hartford home was the gathering, of an evening, around the library fire while Mr. Clemens read aloud. He liked stirring poetry, which he read admirably, sometimes rousing his little audience to excitement and cheers. Shakespeare remained, by whichever name, the love of his heart, but he made his own unique programs, and once mischievously slipped between two of the deathless sonnets a particularly charming reading of a little set of verses accidentally come into his hands, that had been painstakingly written for a school periodical by one of the children.

The listeners invariably demanded at the end three favorites, “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” “Up at a Villa, Down in the City,” and for climax, “The Battle of Naseby,” which he delivered with supreme eloquence and emotion.

But Twain was not the only performer in the household. In his autobiography, he told of his children’s early dramatic endeavors:

Susy [Twain’s oldest daughter] and her nearest neighbor, Margaret Warner, often devised tragedies and played them in the school room, with little Jean’s help—with closed doors—no admission to anybody. The chief characters were always a couple of queens, with a quarrel in stock—historical when possible, but a quarrel anyway, even if it had to be a work of the imagination. Jean always had one function—only one. She sat at a little table about a foot high and drafted death warrants for these queens to sign. In the course of time they completely wore out Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots—also all of Mrs. Clemens’s gowns that they could get hold of—for nothing charmed these monarchs like having four or five feet of gown dragging on the floor behind. Mrs. Clemens and I spied upon them more than once, which was treacherous conduct—but I don’t think we very seriously minded that. It was grand to see the queens stride back and forth and reproach each other in three-or-four-syllable words dripping with blood; and it was pretty to see how tranquil Jean was through it all. Familiarity with daily death and carnage had hardened her to crime and suffering in all their forms, and they were no longer able to hasten her pulse by a beat. Sometimes when there was a long interval between death warrants she even leaned her head on her table and went to sleep. …

Clara Clemens remembered how her father sometimes took part in charades in the parlor:

We were trying to enact the story of Hero and Leander. Mark Twain played the part of the impassioned lover obliged to swim across the Hellespont to snatch a kiss from his sweetheart on the other side of the foaming water. For this scene Father wore a bathing-suit, a straw hat tied under his chin with a big bow, and a hot-water bottle slung around his chest.

Katy Leary tells of the first dramatization of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper:

Well, the play was done in the drawing-room and the conservatory was the Palace garden, and it looked just like a real palace. Oh, it looked brilliant and lovely! All the audience set in the living-room and diningroom. Mr. Clemens was in it, too, and he was so funny, just his walk was funny—the way he walked! He made out he was quite lame when he was walking out in the play. (He was Miles Hendon.) Then he rang the bell for me to bring the pitcher of water in, and he poured it out the wrong way—by the handle and not by the nose—and of course that took down the house! They roared at him when it was over. Then he made a few remarks, telling how his wife got up this thing to surprise him, and it did surprise him, because it was the most wonderfully got up thing he’d ever seen.

Of all the Clemens children, Susy was perhaps the most talented, as Clara recognized: