From "Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise" by Oscar Hijuelos
In an 1889 engraving for the frontispiece of "London Street Arabs," Dorothy Tennant is posed in profile, her jewelry-laden left hand just grazing her plumpish chin. It captured her well. She had a high, gracefully rising forehead and a great head of curling, perhaps graying hair, pensive brows, a nose that was prominent but not oppressive, thin and pursing lips, delicate and fleshy ears, and eyes that were dark and alert, her features bringing to mind a classical portrait of a Roman or Greek lady.
Tennant was a woman of wealth and high social bearing who lived in a Regency mansion on Richmond Terrace, off Whitehall, in London. This rendering of her was made but a year before her marriage to Henry Morton Stanley, explorer and "Napoleon" of journalists, whose roots had been so humble that his childhood experiences and poor upbringing in Wales would have been an abstraction to her, for her own experience had never included want or deprivation. That she, the artistic and lively pearl of London society, had become involved and happily betrothed to Stanley after a well-known period of difficulties between them was one of the great mysteries of Victorian courtships.
Like just about everyone else in England, she had been caught up in the national frenzy over Africa, having followed with rapt interest the careers of Livingstone, Baker, Cameron, Speke, and Burton, among others, whose exploits were reported in all the newspapers and commemorated in books. She had been in her adolescence when the first of these explorations began, but by 1871 the greatest of all such explorers, Stanley, had emerged. He first became known for his search to find the Scottish missionary David Livingstone. His later activities in the region, principally in the Congo, where he had spent many years leading other expeditions, often under impossible conditions, had only increased his stature as a heroic figure in the public mind. Stanley had been so successful in opening the equatorial center of the continent that he had become one of the most famous men in England. ("Before Stanley there was no Africa," Tennant would later write.)
Despite Stanley's mercurial personality and the burden of his many maladies, such as chronic gastritis and numerous bouts of malaria -- "the Africa in me," he called it -- their marriage had flourished, and they became one of the most famous couples in England. Tennant's haughty circle of friends intersected with Stanley's colleagues and acquaintances -- professional relationships, for the most part. But now and then there surfaced the occasional true friendship, such as the one he had with the American writer Samuel L. Clemens, or Mark Twain, as he was most famously called.
Tennant first met Clemens at a dinner in New York City while accompanying Stanley on a lecture tour of the United States. It was an introduction that culminated, in the month of January 1891, with an invitation to visit Clemens at his Hartford home on Farmington Avenue, where Dorothy and her mother, Gertrude, spent a most diverting few days with him and his family (at the time, Stanley was away, lecturing in Trenton and other cities in New Jersey). Thereafter, over the next decade and a half, she and Stanley saw them on various occasions, principally in London, where the Clemenses lived in the mid-1890s, then later, at the turn of the century, when they had taken up residence in England once again.
In those years, paying socials calls to the Tennant mansion on Richmond Terrace, Clemens passed many hours in their company, giving impromptu recitations for their friends at dinners, shooting billiards, and occasionally withdrawing into her studio, a canvas-and-prop-cluttered room known as the bird cage, to sit as a portrait subject for Dorothy, who, in her day, was greatly admired as an artist.
It had been her wish to present a portrait of Clemens to the National Portrait Gallery, as she had done in 1893 with a commendable rendering of her explorer husband, whom she had captured in all his splendor. Dorothy had made dozens of studies of Stanley during their early courtship and dozens more in the years after their marriage -- each session an immersion, she felt, into the spirit of her subject, for once he had become trusting of her, fruitful conversations ensued, and his tortured soul poured naturally forth.
The same kind of exchanges took place with Clemens, from whom Dorothy had learned details about his private life -- his joyfulness and pride in his family; the pain of certain devastating events that made his later years difficult. She had spent perhaps 20 hours sketching him. He had been an occasionally distracted subject, fidgeting with a cigar, getting up at any moment to stretch his stiff limbs, often staring out the window to look at the Irish perennials in her garden and sometimes losing patience with the whole idea of sitting still. Yet when she got him to talking about the things that made him happy, mainly his youth in Hannibal, Missouri -- the perpetually springlike wonderland from which his most memorable characters flowed -- time stopped, his discomforts left him, and a serenity came over his famously leonine countenance.
From "Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise" by Oscar Hijuelos. Copyright © 2015 by Oscar Hijuelos. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book group, Inc.