Continuing my reading of Mark Twain’s novels (though I’ve skipped Huckleberry Finn since I had read it a few years ago in an annotated version before starting my blog), this one was published in 1892, and was, according to Twain, the first novel written by phonographic dictation. It’s a comedy of mistaken or disguised identities taking place in Washington, DC in the book’s present time. Another amusing idea is that Twain avoids all mention of the weather in the main narrative, but there’s a selection of weather written at the end which the reader can turn to at will.
It’s also a sequel of sorts to Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, and features Colonel Sellers from that book, who Twain describes as a “scheming, generous, good-hearted, moonshiny, hopeful, no-account failure.” His schemes are often wildly unlikely to succeed, but he believes in them completely. Also returning is his friend Washington Hawkins, who plays the unwitting and gullible accomplice to Sellers. Then there’s Seller’s clever and beautiful daughter Sally, who takes after her father in some ways, but is very different in others.
New to this story is Berkeley Rossmore, heir to the British Rossmore fortune and title, who learns that a family of Americans have long laid claim to being the rightful heirs of Rossmore, and have, for several generations, been writing to the Rossmores claiming those rights, to no effect. Berkeley decides he’s going to travel to America, look up the family, and offer to trade places with the American Claimant, so that man can finally realize his dreams, and so Berkeley can learn to make his way in the world without all the privileges he’s accustomed to, a noble plan. Berkeley’s father thinks this a mad scheme, but can’t stop it. When Berkeley arrives in Washington, he takes the name Howard Tracy, to keep his real identity secret. And as fate would have it, Colonel Sellers has recently become the new American Claimant.
Berkeley finds his desired new life a difficult struggle. He has no marketable skills, and is soon out of money. Meanwhile, Sellers and Hawkins think he’s a criminal they’ve been trying to capture, and lay traps for him. When Berkeley meets Sellers’ daughter, it’s love at first sight, but a romance that’s full of problems and complications.
I enjoyed this book a great deal, much more than Connecticut Yankee. Here, Twain lectures less, and entertains more with an amusing plot and characters, while still managing to make good points with social and political satire.