Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
This review was contributed by Chris D
Age Range: General
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is the remarkable story of the saint's life as told by the fictional Sieur Louis de Conté (whose initials match the author's), Joan's page and secretary, in the form of a memoir written in the twilight of life. The character has had the privilege of growing up with Joan of Arc, accompanying her during the excitement and pageantry of her military campaigns, and being present at each of her three trials. It is from these that posterity has been left with such detailed knowledge of her whole life given under oath — most important of which was the Rehabilitation, 25 years after her death.
Literary: This little-known fictional biography of Joan of Arc is available cheaply from Dover publications, who have reprinted the original 1896 edition, together with an essay by the author about Joan of Arc written in 1904. In it Twain explains his fascination and esteem for the figure of Joan of Arc, and describes the unique nature of the historical evidence which has survived about her life. Quite rightly, this is placed at the end of the book. I think it makes more sense to read it after one has read the story.
Historical Accuracy: Personal Recollections is in every sense a 'labour of love'. Reverence for his subject leads Twain to paint a detailed and historically accurate picture of France towards the end of the Hundred Years' War, and offer an unprejudiced portrayal of late medieval village life. Such is his concern to stress the historicity of the account that a bibliography 'in verification of the truthfulness of this narrative' is included at the beginning of the story by 'the translator'. He writes accurately and sensitively about everything that relates to Joan of Arc's Catholic faith and piety.
The lamentable circumstances of Joan of Arc's condemnation — the role of Bishop Cauchon, the complicity of the theologians, etc. — is handled extremely well. Malice, ignorance and ambition are portrayed for what they are: personal sins, and not the endemic baggage of medieval ecclesiasticism.
Religion: As noted above, the author is deeply respectful of the Catholic faith. However at one point, he describes the action of someone who deliberately overhears Joan's confession. Although it is made clear that the confessor himself may not reveal or make use of any part of what he has heard, it is incorrectly stated that the other who overheard may. This is a serious error, which is almost certainly down to ignorance on the part of the author, but would need to be clarified to anyone a little unfamiliar with the Seal of Confession.
Mark Twain's comments: “I like the Joan of Arc the best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others: 12 years of preparation & 2 years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”
General: I had never read about Joan of Arc before reading Personal Recollections, and was particularly sceptical of the idea of a warrior-saint. With utter fidelity to historical facts, Twain resolves the apparent contradiction. The result is a story filled with the excitement and drama of battle, whose protagonist is goodness personified. I will leave the reader to discover how for themselves.
The most attractive quality of the work, to my mind, is the care and skill with which Twain sketches the richness of Joan of Arc's character and virtues. A clever and amusing literary device in this regard is the character of the Paladin — another of Joan's childhood friends and later her standard bearer — who is playfully cast as lacking in all the qualities most admirable in Joan. It is certainly true that Twain heaps more praise on Joan of Arc than is her due: “the most noble life that was ever born into this world, save only One.” On the other hand, the author has an exalted idea of human greatness, and argues the case for Joan of Arc's singular greatness, in the essay of 1904. In Personal Recollections, Mark Twain paints the greatness of Joan of Arc as vividly as any could hope to.
Sunday 24th August 2003