Joan of Arc
ISBN 0-89870-268-2 (PB)
ISBN 0-89870-309-3 (HB)
Readers don't often associate Mark Twain, the author of such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, with the seventeen-year-old peasant girl who led and inspired the French army to several victories during the Hundred Years War. He did, however, compose a touching 'memoir-biography' of the French heroine, and considered it his most important work.
Twain's Joan of Arc
is written in the style of a personal memoir
. Though the novel's given title is Joan of Arc
, the official title is Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by the Sieur Louis de Conte (Her Page and Secretary)
. Joan's story is told by Twain through de Conte, who tenderly remembers her childhood, triumphantly chronicles her military victories, and mournfully describes her capture, trial and execution1
While this novel can be classified as historical fiction (as several elements of Joan's life have obviously been dramatized and fabricated), it's important to understand that Twain did an extensive amount of research about her as an individual and the times in which she lived. The novel should be enjoyed as a reasonably accurate profile of the "virgin warrior" -- but it's not exactly a scholarly resource.
Joan of Arc is masterfully written; Twain's prose demonstrates his command of the English language and his understanding of character development. That is the most important element of this novel; we all know what happens and how it ends. It isn't meant to be considered the definitive retelling of Joan's life, but the introduction of literary elements to this makes it easier to understand how such a young girl touched so many lives in such a short period of time.
Louis de Conte, a man from the French village of Domremy, shares personal memories of his childhood friend, Jehanne d'Arc
(Joan of Arc). As de Conte explains early in the text, he was one few taught how to read and write
as a child, and these important skills enabled him to travel with Joan after she claimed she was given a mission from divine sources
, and to serve as her secretary.
The book is divided into three sections: 'Domremy' (which describes Joan's childhood), 'In Court and Camp' (which provides an interesting look into her military career) and 'Trial and Martyrdom' (the name of the section is self-explanatory).
Joan, the only daughter of farmers, begins to hear and see things that identify themselves as three Catholic saints at the age of 12. They tell her that she has been chosen by God to lead the French army to victory against the English, who currently occupy a large part of France. Joan's family and her fellow villagers are skeptical. de Conte also explains how he and several of her other childhood friends felt about these visions; Twain's inclusion of this is interesting because most of the more factual accounts focus primarily on the reactions of local clergy and Joan's family.
de Conte explains that Joan continued to hear what she referred to as "(her) Voices" for several years, but they warned her, at first, to be cautious. It was not until she was nearly 17 that she was told to travel to meet with the Dauphin, heir to the throne of France. She invited de Conte to travel with her and to serve as her secretary, as he had been taught to read and write as a child.
After meeting with the Dauphin, Joan managed to convince him to allow her to lead troops into battle. Remarkably, she was able to reclaim enough French land to allow the Dauphin to be crowned king. As she continued to lead the army into battle, she restored hope and a sense of patriotism to the people of France. Twain gives these events a personal touch by explaining how de Conte and Joan's other counterparts felt during these events.
Joan eventually fell into the hands of the English and was tried as a heretic. According to Twain's characterization of de Conte, her trial was a grueling experience. Though the life of Joan of Arc is reasonably well documented and most people know how it ends, this is as far as the synopsis can go without technically being riddled with "spoilers".
Despite the fact that its contents -- especially the artistic liberties and 'guesses' as to specific events that could not possibly have been documented -- can't be considered 100% factual, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in medieval French history
and the Maid of Orleans
. Twain's prose is lyrical and easy to understand, and it seems to suit the time in which the 'story' takes place.
One has to question whether or not the text presents bias, even though it should be enjoyed as a work of literature and not as a historical resource. Though Twain was American, he presents the memoir from the point of view of a French person. Needless to say, it's reasonably "pro-Joan." The piece as a literary work doesn't suffer because Twain paints de Conte as being understandably loyal to Joan.
This is quite possibly one of the most thorough pieces of historical fiction ever written. There's no way to tell if some of the intrinsic details presented by Twain are accurate -- but there's no way to tell if they aren't.
Read it. It will give you an insight into the feelings and thoughts of one of the world's most intriguing and enduring historical figures. It will make you happy. It will make you sad. It will make you wonder why every other historical account of this girl's life leaves out the way she felt and the way she made others feel.
It will make you remember that this girl was more than a paragraph in a history textbook and a series of dates and accomplishments.
1 I hardly think this counts as a spoiler. Your mileage may vary.
Submitted for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest