When I first picked up Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, I was somewhat daunted by its length; by the time I finished it, however, I wished that it were longer. In fact, I read slowly, taking care not to skip over phrases as I often do, so that I could savor it for as long as possible. This story is simply that lovely. Or, better said, the story itself is not lovely, recounting as it does the engineered fall of a young woman, but the writing, and the characters are so lush and lively and pathos-inspiring, that I wished I might keep reading about them.
I spent the first several pages of Recollections expecting some sly asides and jokes by Twain himself, but he happily quiets his own biting wit in the service of the narrator, a minor noble called Sieur Louis de Conte. Soon enough after starting, I let down my guard and immersed myself in de Conte’s straightforward meticulousness as he describes people and places, and affectionately recounts Joan’s quotidian encounters that reveal her character, her manners and speech, and her absolute conviction. Twain’s probing research into the life of Joan of Arc makes his conceit, in which de Conte is himself a writer of no small talent, utterly convincing. As one court condemned her in a court case, de Conte vindicates her with his own case for the rightness and justice of her leadership. The narrative could easily slip into melodrama or hagiography, but de Conte includes enough comic relief (especially in the characters of the Paladin and Noel Rainguesson, and in a number of small vignettes along the way) and careful recountings of battles and trials that Recollections are neither. Instead, the picture of Joan that emerges is exactly what a Christian saint should be: true to her call in life, inspired by God, patient under duress, yet bold in spiritual and even physical battle. Saint Joan, given flesh by Twain’s pen, truly embodies the Pauline ideal of “cunning as a serpent, but gentle as a dove.”
The outcome, of course, is unchangeable, but the literary journey to Joan’s certain end is well worth the reader’s time, for whatever it may lack in suspense. Whatever the reader’s religious or political leanings (should a reader still be enmeshed in Anglo-Frankish history), the figure of Joan herself is inspiring, and Twain gives pink cheeks, brightly snapping eyes, and a clarion voice to a young woman who died hundreds of years ago. In this biography of an illiterate peasant who acted in faith and courage, Twain’s Recollections makes it easy to understand why grown men would, or would not!, submit themselves to the command of a girl. It’s enough to make even a modern reader a devotee of this humble and courageous saint himself.