“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
These words of Yolande, Queen of Sicily, describe the power of Joan of Arc:
‘A child of seventeen—a girl—country-bred—untaught—ignorant of war, the use of arms, and the conduct of battles—modest, gentle, shrinking—yet throws away her shepherd’s crook and clothes herself in steel, and fights her way through a hundred and fifty leagues of fear, and comes—she to whom a king must be a dread and awful presence—and will stand up before such an one and say, Be not afraid, God has sent me to save you! Ah, whence could come a courage and conviction so sublime as this but from very God Himself! . . . And whether she comes of God or no, there is that in her heart that raises her above men—high above all men that breathe in France to-day—for in her is that mysterious something that puts heart into soldiers, and turns mobs of cowards into armies of fighters that forget what fear is when they are in that presence—fighters who go into battle with joy in their eyes and songs on their lips, and sweep over the field like a storm—that is the spirit that can save France, and that alone, come it whence it may! It is in her, I do truly believe, for what else could have borne up that child on that great march, and made her despise its dangers and fatigues? The King must see her face to face—and shall!’Part 2, Chapter 5
I believe that Mark Twain wrote what he believed was a historical novel, but the religious element is so strong that I don’t believe that many modern readers would perceive the novel as authentic history. With its “fairy tree of Domremy” and the belief among the people that Joan of Arc was fulfilling an eight-hundred-year-old prophecy of Merlin (Part 2, Chapter 2), this novel, at times, has the feel of Christian fantasy along the lines of that written by George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis. In my opinion, those fantastical elements make the setting feel as authentic as the characters. As I was reading, I felt transported to medieval France; I didn’t feel as if I were reading about nineteenth-century people dressed up in fifteenth- century costumes.
Joan of Arc’s life was one of adventure, suspense, and conflict, and Mark Twain makes full use of those elements in this novel. It isn’t a comedy as so many of his other novels are, but it does possess comedic elements. It’s simply an all-around terrific book. After I finished listening to the superb reading by John Greenman at LibriVox, I found a docudrama about Joan of Arc that aired on BYUtv last year, available here. This docudrama, too, is excellent, and I enjoyed seeing many of the places in France referenced in the novel.
The featured image came from Pixabay.