The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
© 1896 Mark Twain
In 1428, a young French teenager arrived at the court of Robert Baudricourt and announced that she and he were to be allies in a mission from God: a mission to save France from conquest and disillusion. The girl, Joan, was to lead an army to the besieged city of Orleans, but she needed first men to take her to Chinon, the residence of king in exile. Skeptical at first, then persuaded by an apparent prophecy, the astonished Baudricourt sent Joan on her mission, where she took center stage in a complete reversal of the ninety-year conflict between the nobles of England, Orleans, and Burgundy. Though eventually captured and burned alive by a small council of hostile Anglo-Burgundian partisans, within a few years of her death Paris was captured, England’s alliance with Burgundy abandoned, and France on its way to salvation. Joan would be hailed as France’s savior, declared a saint by the Church, and serve as a icon of hope to the French French in World War 2. Perhaps more remarkable than her military victories, however, is her complete conquest over the melancholic heart of one Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a biographical novel, the story of her life as told through a childhood friend. Sieur Louis de Conte thought she was a marvel even as a child, enchanted with her dreams and startled by her courageous intelligence. When the local priest attacked a ‘fairy tree’ that the children enjoyed spending time in, delighting in the company of gentle spirits, she argued him into abashedness. When she confided to Louis that God had spoken to her in a vision and told her she must inspire the dauphin — the rightful heir to France’s throne, disavowed by his mother in the Treaty of Troyes — to claim his crown by leading an army against the English, he was among the first to join her. Fighting in her every campaign, and then infiltrating Rouen during her trials, securing a position as an assistant court clerk, Louis delivers a full account of her life. Based on Twain’s twelve years of research into her life, it’s remarkable in many respects. It’s easily the most personable biography of Joan I’ve read; Louis allows the reader to not just admire her from afar, or idealized her as a remembered saint, but to love her as a friend. Such adoration is startling from a man like Twain, known for his irreverence and cynicism. There are traces of the familiar Twain here, as Louis describes how men are inheritors of their beliefs and foibles, repeating a sentiment expressed more stridently in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But this is a story replete with the miraculous; Joan’s visions extend not just to commanding her to battle and giving her moral courage, but she’s an intermittent prophet, predicting her own death within a year and — at the trial — announcing to her captors that within seven years’ time, disaster will strike and English power in France will be broken for a thousand years. Louis does not doubt Joan’s word; he has no reason not to believe, for throughout the tale she demonstrates foreknowledge.
Joan’s story is easy to enrapture; how could a girl so dramatically change the course of history? There are circumstances Twain overlooks, of course; the Duke of Bedford is mentioned, but not his marriage to a Burgundian princess that knit England and Burgundy’s interests together, turning a French succession war into a very happy phase of England’s on-again, off-again attempt to secure its ancient territory in France by subduing the whole of France. And yet Joan inspires, both as an ideal — the quinessence of strength, wisdom, courage, innocence, and purity, all at the same time — and in practice. The trial transcripts do reveal a staggeringly intelligent and feisty woman. Yes, her family had repute on its own; Jacques d’arc was no struggling peasant, but a man commendable enough to be named the mayor of a village he had immigrated to, how much of his strength had he imparted to Joan, and how much did she create from her own life? Even if Joan were the purest of fiction, this tale would be a lovely one, depicting as it does how a band of grizzled war veterans who had known only defeat could become pious, reverent, and driven in her presence; how masses could leapt to their feet and throne to touch her banner, fixating on a child as their hope. We are strange creatures, we humans, strange and marvelous. Such is are The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Joan or the tender side of Mark Twain.