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A few months ago, my wife’s book discussion group was reading Mark Twain’s neglected classic Joan of Arc. This novel purports to be the recollections of Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan’s playmate in childhood and later her secretary. Twain employs this fictional narrator skillfully to tie together Joan’s diverse lives with his personal recollections of all the events and characters.
Some readers will be in a hurry to get to the scenes of battle and court intrigue, but I lingered over charming episodes of village life, in which the illiterate farm child develops her skill at persuasion and begins to show her gift of prophecy. Soon enough the narrator goes on to the thrilling saga of the unlikely military hero who freed France from the English occupation that had followed Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, and at last the tragic courtroom drama starring the martyr who brilliantly defended herself unassisted against an array of theologians and doctors of law in the most famous trial of the Middle Ages.
I picked up the book at first out of curiosity, and continued to the end with pleasure at rediscovering one of the world’s greatest true stories. Twain’s account is in no way satirical, although there is plenty of delightful humor in the bantering of Joan’s rustic companions. On the contrary, America’s greatest humorist tells Joan’s story reverently, accepting the miracles at face value and painting Joan as the pious, chaste, brilliant, witty, courageous, and loving military genius that her devoted followers knew her to be. It seems that Joan’s conquest of Mark Twain’s head and heart was as complete as her defeat of the English army of occupation several centuries earlier.
Twain’s reconstruction of Joan’s life was only partly an act of creative imagination, and mainly an exercise in painstaking historical scholarship. Joan’s life is one of the best documented in premodern history. Her several trials, before and after her death, left voluminous records of testimony under oath about what Joan was like and everything she did from childhood to death at the stake, from her enemies and persecutors as well as her supporters, all meticulously supervised by the expert lawyers who managed the proceedings.
If modern readers find it hard to believe that saints from heaven actually visited a peasant girl in order to direct her to take command of the king’s army and liberate France, plenty of Joan’s contemporaries were equally skeptical of her fantastic claims, and yet her power to persuade the skeptics and then to prove her bona fides by deeds was nothing less than supernatural.
Mark Twain devoted twelve years to studying the historical record before deciding, after many false starts, that he knew how to tell the story rightly. When he had finished writing, he concluded that the life of St. Joan of Arc was not only his finest book, but worth more than all his other books put together. The public and the critics did not agree, either at the time or subsequently, probably because the work was so unlike anything they expected to come from the irreverent Mississippi river pilot who had so hilariously burlesqued the literature of knights in armor when he planted a hardheaded Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Anyone would expect a life of St. Joan by Mark Twain to be a parody, and yet the evidence convinced this latter-day skeptic that Joan was every bit as wonderful as she had seemed to her contemporary admirers. He even convinced himself that he knew what Joan must have looked like. Protesting against those artists who had portrayed Joan as coarse because she was a peasant, he wrote in a 1904 essay that “the artist should paint her spirit—then he could not fail to paint her body aright. She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel, a lithe, young splendid figure, instinct with the unbought grace of youth, dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.”
I cannot resist quoting the final words from Twain’s essay: “Taking into account all the circumstances—her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life—she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
The Right Story
Some readers may judge those words excessive, but Twain’s superlatives are founded securely on the historical record, and they come from one who seems among the least likely of all men of his time to have written them.
A biography of the great humorist records that “as Twain’s life and career progressed he became increasingly pessimistic, losing much of the humorous, cocky tone of his earlier years. More and more of his work expressed the gloomy view that all human motives are ultimately selfish.” Twain was captivated by Joan because he found her to be the great exception to the universal corruption that had depressed his spirit, a true saint who never in war or peace committed a selfish, dishonest, or cruel act.
While I was beginning this essay, I came upon a newspaper report that discussions in the Paris media these days are mainly about a widespread perception that France is a nation in decline. The economy is stagnant, the birthrate has fallen below the replacement level, English has become the de facto official language of the European Union, and there is general agreement that a national rigidity and aversion to risk have stunted France’s development. That is about how things were when Joan of Arc was born about six hundred years ago.
Joan was the icon of French greatness for several centuries, until the French discarded everything that reminded them of the Church in the orgy of secularization that accompanied the Revolution, after which the military dictator Napoleon replaced Joan as the embodiment of la gloire. It seems that the French are now in need of a new source of inspiration, and to find it they might be well advised to consider resurrecting their incomparable and most wrongfully neglected national heroine. Joan of Arc would make a magnificent symbol of national glory for modern France if that nation is at last weary of atheism, cynicism, and socialism.
She could be the patron saint both for lovers of tradition and for those who rebel against stale customs in the name of individual freedom and private inspiration. She was a thoroughly unpredictable teenage girl genius who broke out of the confined role that was all tradition would have permitted her, a model of genuine faith and piety in contrast to the tired cynicism that characterized the elites of France in her day as it does in ours, and a martyr to the cause of liberty in revolt against oppressive and risk-averse institutions.
France cannot expect to be blessed with another Joan, but it might suffice if a French Mark Twain could appear on the scene to study the historical records and tell the true story once again in a way that could inspire French men and women to feel their greatest national hero coming to life again in their imaginations. The right story can bring a decadent civilization to renewed vitality and creativity. The French have their own great national epic still at hand.
If some gifted storyteller could inspire them to believe that it really happened just as the records say, it might be that the incomparable Joan could once more rescue her nation from bitter despair and set it back on the road to greatness.