When Mark Twain wrote a novel about St. Joan of Arc, he left us one of the great conundrums of American literature.
Today, fans of Twain still find themselves scratching their heads. How did the creator of American icons like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn come to write the life and death of a fifteenth-century French girl? Why would a man with so strained a relationship to Christianity write such an earnest novel about a Roman Catholic martyr? Since when did the great American humorist become a hagiographer?
The mysteries multiply when we open the book. We find almost nothing like the vernacular sparkle or outrageous humor of Twain’s better-known works. His research is meticulous; his prose remains predominantly serious, even reverent, as he crafts a novelistic biography of the girl known as the “Maid of Orleans.” What’s more, Twain claimed Joan of Arc as his favorite among all his many books, and insisted in his autobiography, “I wrote the book for love, not money.” It’s a massive novel, and one that took him—by his own estimates—over a decade of research and preparation. And on every page we find the author’s utter admiration for this visionary Catholic saint.
On a bookshelf of Twain’s complete works, one of these things is not like the other.
The story begins with Joan, a simple peasant girl in the sleepy village of Domremy. France has long been riven by the bloody Hundred Years’ War with England. Charles VII, the rightful king of France, remains still-uncrowned and influenced by a corrupted court. But God has a plan for Joan and a plan for France. Led by what she calls her “Voices”—miraculous visions and instructions from St. Michael and other saints—Joan presents herself to the king with the message that God has sent her to save France.
And France begins to awaken. Again and again, the English armies meet their match in Joan. One by one, English fortifications fall. The oppressed people of France have hope again, and God fights against the English invaders through the sword of a young girl in dazzling white armor.
The facts of the story seem stranger than fiction, but they’re all true. Twain later insisted, “I never attributed an act to the Maid herself that was not strictly historical, and I never put a sentence in her mouth which she had not uttered.”
For Twain, part of Joan’s genius lies in her simple faith in God. Confident in His power to overcome all obstacles, Joan embraces His call. “I am enlisted,” she says, “I will not turn back, God helping me, till the English grip is loosed from the throat of France.” And obstacles there will be, for Joan faces ineptitude, opposition, and even deception from within the ranks of her own army.
But Twain also seems drawn to Joan’s miraculous gifts. Although a literary Realist and a religious skeptic, the author nonetheless treats all of Joan’s visions and prophecies with remarkable seriousness. Joan predicts that a mysterious sword will be found buried behind the altar of a church. She prophesies her victories, and even when she will be wounded in battle.
Indeed, part of Joan’s mystique for Twain is the seemingly-irrefutable evidence of God’s supernatural power in her life and career. Twain’s skepticism might lead him to raise an eyebrow at organized religion, but as a literary Realist he desires to represent reality as it truly is. By itself, Joan’s singular military success cannot be fully explained. Beyond that, for Twain the documents of Joan’s famous trial in 1431, and the “Rehabilitation” proceedings after her death represent a complete, legal, and trustworthy source for her biography. What emerges from these extensive trial documents, eyewitness accounts, and manuscripts is simply St. Joan of Arc, with all her holiness, her prophecies, and her visions. And the facts point unmistakably to God’s power. It is as if Twain’s commitment to Realism defeats his skepticism. Posing as the fictional translator Jean François Alden, Twain writes in his prefatory note to the novel:
The details of the life of Joan of Arc form a biography which is unique among the world’s biographies in one respect: It is the only story of a human life which comes to us under oath, the only one which comes to us from the witness-stand.”
Joan’s well-documented life, then, becomes a kind of case study for God’s activity in human life and history.
But Joan’s life reveals her natural gifts as well, and Twain cherishes those qualities in her. He depicts her amazing leadership, especially her ability to transform fallen men into heroes. To one of her childhood companions, a boastful coward known mockingly as “the Paladin,” she says calmly, “Of old you were a fantastic talker, but there is a man in you, and I will bring it out. . . Will you follow where I lead?” As the narrator, based on Joan’s page and secretary Louis de Contes, puts it: the Maid was “supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men with noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs upon their lips.” In this way, Joan looks upon men with God’s eyes. Seeing the greatness to which each man is called, she reaches out her hand and challenges him to stand up. We could all use a little Joan of Arc in our lives.
But Twain also reminds us that Joan was just a girl, and a peasant girl at that. She takes pride in her sewing skills; she believes in fairies; she cannot read or write. And despite her divine calling to crush the English armies, her heart breaks at the carnage of war. After Joan wins a terrible battle for an English fortress, the narrator finds her
sitting among a ruck of corpses, with her face in her hands, crying—for she was a young girl, you know, and her hero-heart was a young girl’s heart too, with the pity and the tenderness that are natural to it. She was thinking of the mothers of those dead friends and enemies.”
But if Twain’s Joan of Arc has deep tenderness, she also has astonishing courage. She speaks her mind to kings and bishops. She charges when her own army retreats. She gets shot by a crossbow, but by nightfall she leads another attack. And throughout the tale, the narrator, writing now as an old man, foreshadows the final test of her terrible bravery: martyrdom at the stake. Once, when Joan enters a city to the cheers of admiring crowds, her military banner catches fire from a nearby torch, and she puts out the flame with her bare hand. The crowd erupts, in words that readers recognize as a somber prophecy: “She’s not afraid of fire nor anything!”
Indeed, her final battle will be her long trial at the hands of corrupt church officials. Captured in combat and handed over to her enemies the English, Joan faces a hostile ecclesial court led by a bishop loyal to the Burgundian party, which supported English occupation. Twain’s narrator heaps scorn upon this kangaroo court. But he also makes a distinction between the crooked politicking of the French church and the Church proper.
France was not the Church. Rome had no interest in the destruction of this messenger of God. Rome would have given her a fair trial, and that was all her cause needed. From that trial she would have gone forth free and honored and blest.”
Twain glories in Joan’s simple intelligence and wisdom, as she calmly faces her interrogators. Her persecutors do everything they can to discredit and condemn the Maid as a heretic or a witch. They ask her about her divine calling, her miraculous “Voices,” about her choice of male attire. They threaten her with the rack. They deny her Holy Communion. But Joan insists upon her visions and her mission. Violating the privacy of her conscience and seeking to draw her into presumption, one of her accusers asks her if she is in the state of Grace. Twain records Joan’s “immortal answer” in italics: “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.”
But in the end, her enemies condemn her to death. At her place of execution, she kneels to pray for the French king. And then Twain’s little Maid of Orleans is given over to the flames of the stake, until the eternal flame of God’s Love receives her forever.
Mark Twain was still alive when the Church beatified Joan of Arc in 1909. To a certain extent, his novel remains a puzzling act of devotion from a complicated man. For the great American author, there was no one like St. Joan. He marveled at her confidence in God’s Will, her courage, her simplicity. And in her he saw an example for all time. We can hear Twain’s own voice in the words of his narrator describing Joan: “It took six thousand years to produce her; her like will not be seen in the earth again in fifty thousand. Such is my opinion.”
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
by Mark Twain
Ignatius Press, 2007
Paperback, 452 pages
(Editor’s note: This review was originally posted on June 29, 2018.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!