For those who wish to love Joan of Arc (and who would not?), Mark Twain’s book, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a must read. I say, “for those who wish to love Joan of Arc,” because, unlike many writings on historical figures, this book does not relate dry historical data couched in cold, erudite, academic language. On the contrary, this book tells her astonishing story by one who loved her and who was himself astonished by that story. Now, that is how we want to read of the exploits of Joan of Arc! Devotion to the saintly child can only be spread by those who are devoted to her! Only through the fire of the soul deep in our hearts can we spread the warmth of transcendent inspiration. Leave spiritless skepticism to modern, professional historians. Welcome to our side, Mr. Twain.
Recollections is one of the most magnificent stories in history told by one of the most magnificent writers in history. Many people are surprised to know that Mr. Twain wrote on Joan of Arc, and few know that he considered it his best book. He spent twelve years researching it, including taking a trip to France, and he used both French and English sources. He called it something to the effect of a “labor of love.” The rest of his books “did not require research and got none.” Mark Twain was neither Catholic nor even particularly religious. He distrusted organized religion. Yet, he was nevertheless slain spiritually and emotionally by the Maid of Orléans, who was eventually declared a Saint of the Roman Church.
Mark Twain’s book is considered to be historically very accurate, though he delightfully fills in “gaps” using his famous Twain humor and by developing memorable, Twain-typical characters. You will chuckle at how he weaves everything together and yet marvel at how, despite this, he is still able to tell the history with integrity.
One of the very ingenious methods he uses here is to tell the story from the standpoint of a third person. He, Mark Twain, is Louis de Conte, Joan of Arc’s true-to-life page given her by Charles VII. Twain tells the story as if Louis were relating it back to us in his later, aged years as we all sit around the fireplace like fidgety, excited grandchildren. Marvelous story-telling!
Let us now peer into the opening of the book as Mark Twain, well, rather we should say “Louis,” begins his tale. We can imagine him taking a sip of wine and settling in as we all sit on the floor anxiously awaiting his account of a most stunning historical figure, a heroine whom we have begun to study in school, and someone whom he personally knew! “Grandpa, you KNEW Joan of Arc?!?” Really? Tell us, please!” Yes, Monsieur de Conte, please, do tell us.
“This is the year 1492. I am eighty-two years of age. The things I am going to tell you are things which I saw myself as a child and as a youth.
In the tales and songs and histories of Joan of Arc which you and the rest of the world read and sing and study in the books wrought in the late invented art of printing, mention is made of me, the Sieur Louis de Conte – I was her page and secretary. I was with her from the beginning until the end.
I fought at her side in the wars; to this day I carry in my mind, fine and clear, the picture of that dear little figure, with breast bent to the flying horse’s neck, charging at the head of the armies of France, her hair streaming back, her silver mail ploughing steadily deeper and deeper into the thick of battle, sometimes nearly drowned from sight by tossing heads of horses, uplifted sword-arms, wind-blown plumes, and intercepting shields.
I was with her to the end; and when that black day came whose accusing shadow will lie always upon the memory of the mitred French slaves of England who were her assassins, and upon France who stood idle and essayed no rescue, my hand was the last she touched in life.
As the years and decades drifted by, and the spectacle of the marvelous child’s meteor-flight across the war-firmament of France and its extinction in the smoke clouds of the stake receded deeper and deeper into the past and grew ever more strange and wonderful and divine and pathetic, I came to comprehend and recognize her at last for what she was – the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.”
What a fine start! The old man might pause here for a moment to stare into the fire. Perhaps he is remembering, or maybe he is meditating. He simply stares in silence, unable to continue for a minute or two; though, it seems to us like an eternity. Indeed, he may be on the brink of the eternal Kingdom trying to catch one more glimpse of his faithful companion. I think that I see a tear forming in his eye. He is, in his mind’s eye, seeing the whole picture, the entire landscape that was his life with Joan of Arc, from the laughter at its dawn to the lamentations at its dusk. Words are difficult to form, as he desires not to merely tell us, but to SHOW us who this glorious figure is. Words are so meager, yet words are all that he has.
Well, in order to come to know the rest of the story, that is, to hear our aged grandpa as he finally turns his head, laughing and crying all at the same time, to regale us with all of the glorious tales of Joan of Arc, we must read the book. It will be well worth your time, I assure you. Remember, though, it is not for those who wish to study Joan of Arc. It is for those who wish to love her. As grandpa continues his tale, you will find yourself helpless but to do so.