My Catholic Thoughts Book Club on Goodreads is reading Mark Twain’s historical novel of the French saint and martyr, Joan of Arc, titled, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I was the person who nominated the work, and low and behold for a change my nomination actually won. Here’s what I said to persuade people, and hopefully it will persuade you my dear readers to pick up the book as well and read my ongoing comments.
I've been reading French literature and I always wanted to know more of St. Joan.
As to whether it's a Catholic book, Ignatius Press, a Catholic book publisher/distributor puts it out and has a great description.
You could read it but since some might not go over, let me copy and paste:
Very few people know that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a major work on Joan of Arc. Still fewer know that he considered it not only his most important but also his best work. He spent twelve years in research and many months in France doing archival work and then made several attempts until he felt he finally had the story he wanted to tell. He reached his conclusion about Joan's unique place in history only after studying in detail accounts written by both sides, the French and the English.
Because of Mark Twain's antipathy to institutional religion, one might expect an anti-Catholic bias toward Joan or at least toward the bishops and theologians who condemned her. Instead one finds a remarkably accurate biography of the life and mission of Joan of Arc told by one of this country's greatest storytellers. The very fact that Mark Twain wrote this book and wrote it the way he did is a powerful testimony to the attractive power of the Catholic Church's saints. This is a book that really will inform and inspire.
“I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and 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; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.”
Also, of the listed endorsements, one is the wonderful and erudite Fr. George Rutler of EWTN fame, a writer of many Catholic books himself:
“Mark Twain comes furtively like Nicodemus at night with this tribute to one of God’s saints. In doing so he tells a secret about himself. It is as though the man in a white suit and a cloud of cigar smoke thought there just might be a place where people in white robes stand in clouds of incense.”
-Fr. George Rutler
And a biographer of Twain says this:
"Joan of Arc is the lone example that history affords of an actual, real embodiment of all the virtues demonstrated by Huck and Jim and of all that Twain felt to be noble in man, Joan is the ideal toward which mankind strives. Twain had to tell her story because she is the sole concrete argument against the pessimistic doctrines of his deterministic philosophy."
-Robert Wiggins, Mark Twain: Jackleg Novelist
Joan wrapped up as Huck and Jim! No matter how cynical Twain can get, his universe always has a moral center. Now isn't that enticing?
Well that won the vote—after a runoff with Mother Teresa’s Heart of Joy, which we’ll be reading next. Here is the schedule for the Mark Twain read:
Week 1, 13-19 Aug: Book 1 and the prefatory pages.
Week 2, 20-26 Aug: Book 2, chapters 1-13.
Week 3, 27 Aug – 2 Sep: Book 2, chapters 14-28.
Week 4, 3 Sep – 9 Sep: Book 2, chapters 29-41.
Week 5, 10 Sep – 16 Sep: Book 3, chapters 1-12.
Week 6, 17 Sep – 23 Sep: Book 3, chapters 13-24 & Conclusion.
It amounts to seventy to eighty pages per week. I hope you’ll join us. The book is available in all formats, free in Kindle, and on line in many places, here for instance.
In reading the opening chapters of PROJOA, I realized there were a number of historical facts that are mentioned that assumes the reader knows. Let me summarize the history that led to Joan of Arc as best I can, but realize I’m not an expert here. If someone sees any glaring errors, please correct me.
I guess the history goes back to the Normans, a fierce Viking culture that traveled down from Scandinavia somewhere around the ninth century and settled into northern France. In time they were absorbed into the French kingdom, albeit they retained a certain identity and created a particular French dialect. The arrangement with the French King was that the Norman dominated lands were vassals under the French King, meaning they had a certain level of independence as fiefdoms but owed allegiance to the French King.
In 1066, the Normans (under William the Conqueror) decided to invade England across the channel after some sort of dispute based on intermarriage rights. As it turned out, the Normans conquered England and established their own kingdom there, while still being vassals to the French crown in their northern French states. So you can see the beginning of the complications. A Norman King and aristocracy ruled England, but they owned lands in northern France that fell under the French kingdom.
Now without getting into the nitty-gritty of which Kings thought they owned which land and who was a vassal of whom, all complicated by marriage arrangements, all of which I’m no expert in or can even figure out on a rudimentary level, suffice it to say that English nobility, who were of French ethnicity, had claim rights to lands in France, while French aristocracy saw a conflict between what they started to consider as English aristocracy claiming lands on French soil. What had happened in the couple of hundred years since 1066 was that the Norman-French rulers in England became more English and less French. And so distinct identities started to develop, especially when the Hundred Years War began in 1337 and continued onward in what seemed endless. The longer it went, the more national identities set in. At the time of Joan’s birth, the war had gone on for 75 years, and, while there was back and forth, one could consider it a draw.
What changed dramatically was in 1413 (Joan being one years old at the time) was the assumption to England’s throne of Henry V, who turned out to be a master strategist. This Henry V is the same Henry V of Shakespeare’s play, a great play and wonderfully filmed by Kenneth Branagh. Read the play and watch the movie if you haven’t. It’s both Shakespeare and Branagh at their best. There’s a scene at the beginning of the play where Henry and his lords try to figure out which lands they own in France but are confused themselves. Henry almost throws up his hands and says let’s go take it back anyway, which shows you the confusion of property rights and vassalship in feudal times. And so now the war resumed after what had been a pause in the long war. But Henry V started to rack up victories, despite being at a numerical disadvantage and fighting on foreign soil. One of the things that had changed was a technological advantage to the English side, the development of the long bow, which now could pierce armor from a distance. The two sides gathered all their forces into a set battle which would be known as the battle of Agincourt in 1415 (Joan now being three). Mark Twain mentions the battle and says that the English fought with 8000 men to the French’s 50,000. And that’s historically accurate give or take a thousand on either side. What Henry V did was arrange his position so that he lured the large French army to charge through a narrow opening, where upon his long bowman annihilated the overly aggressive French army. It was a slaughter, one of the most lopsided defeats in military history, studied today at war colleges across the world. The death of nearly 50, 000 soldiers and aristocrats was a near unrecoverable event for the French. That many fighting age men are just not around to replace the dead.
Henry V had won a decisive battle and essentially conquered the French. To his credit, he did try to unify the two countries by marrying the French king’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, with the arrangement Henry would take the throne upon the King’s death, disposing the French King’s son, the crown prince, referred to as The Dauphin. Albeit to say, Charles VII, the Dauphin, was not going to accept this, but he wasn’t capable of defeating Henry V. But fate turned the tide and Henry V suddenly died of an illness in 1422 (Joan now ten) and left only a child as his heir, Henry VI, who was an infant at the time. With the English crown in chaos, Charles VII reclaimed his right to the French throne, and so the Hundred Years War resumed. The English did continue to win battles, and in 1424 nearly annihilated the French army again. The situation solidified in that the English dominated the French but had an internal lack of leadership while the French maintained resistance in what might be seen today as guerilla warfare. That is where Joan as soldier comes in.
Shakespeare would write three plays of Henry VI’s reign. I have not read them (I’ve read something like 27 of Shakespeare’s 36 plays) but perhaps after Twain’s Joan I will pick them up since the history will be fresh in my mind.
I’m going to leave it here and come back later with the war history during Joan’s leadership when we get to Book 2.
Summary to Book 1 and the prefatory pages:
As a preface, the text is presented by a “translator” who is a most definite admirer of Joan of Arc. We are introduced to Joan by her childhood friend and who would become her page, Sieur Louis de Conte, who narrates the story of Joan since he will be at Joan’s side from the beginning to the end. Book 1 takes us through Joan’s childhood to the day she leaves to meet the King of France to get permission to lead the army against the English. We learn of life at Domremy, have an insight into Joan’s character, watch her grow from childhood with her family and friends, told of her encounter with Archangel Michael, and her Divine Command to lead France to freedom.
Having read a number of Twain works I can see the similarities and the differences from his other works. Overall, it is different from what I expect Twain to write.
We can easily see the differences. It’s a historical novel, it’s a religious work, it’s a serious work with limited humor. That’s not to say some of his other works aren’t serious, but they have a sort of playfulness that is mostly absent in Joan. One could probably say that all of Twain’s other novels are satires, while Joan is a work of realism.
Of the similarities, one is the two-dimensionality of the characters. So far in this first section, Twain idolizes the central characters. Except with the exception of Huckleberry Finn, I can’t recall a Twain character that was truly three dimensional, and that is here as well. Joan, The Paladin, Joan’s brothers, the King are pretty flat. Perhaps one could disagree that Sieur Louis is more three dimensional, but a character narrating such a history would tend to be a little more fully developed, only because he’s reacting to the serious events around him, which tends to create depth. It’s similar to Huck, who also narrates his novel.
I’ve said this on occasion, that Twain is a great prose writer of the American language, but a mediocre novelist, mostly I think because of his lack of skill in character development. Other than The Adventures of Huck Finn, I don’t find Twain’s novels great, and he almost ruined Huck with its convoluted ending. But I do find Twain as the premier American prose writer of his generation. In my opinion, Twain’s great works are his nonfiction works, such as Life on the Mississippi.
However, I do find Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc engaging. It seems to be somewhere between his novels and his nonfiction works. Perhaps because he’s committed to historical facts and that the character of the saintly Joan would have to be somewhat two-dimensional given her extra-ordinary nature.
With that said, I thought the very beginning pages were superb, perhaps the best written so far. It was actually the Translator’s Preface, and no wonder. It’s Twain writing in his own voice. I wish I could quote it here in its entirety but it’s too long. We see Joan as the loftiest person in history, We see her as such because despite the brutality of her era, she stood apart. Here’s the second paragraph.
When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. The contrast between her and her century is the contrast between day and night. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest and fine and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was; she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things; she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; she maintained her personal dignity unimpaired in an age of fawnings and servilities; she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation; she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both—she was all these things in an age when crime was the common business of lords and princes, and when the highest personages in Christendom were able to astonish even that infamous era and make it stand aghast at the spectacle of their atrocious lives black with unimaginable treacheries, butcheries, and beastialities.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Twain’s latter cynic’s outlook on life—and Joan was a latter work—came to regard his very age as being wicked and rotten to the core. And so I think we get a glimpse of why Twain wrote this work: Joan is a distant person in history living in an age that is known for its brutality and living by a code—her faith in God, truth, and goodness—as a model for his age, for his time, for his country. Perhaps it’s a means to bring back some idealism back into his own soul, having been so warped. But in the end, even he can’t do it. Here is the last paragraph of the Translator’s Preface:
And for all reward, the French King, whom she had crowned, stood supine and indifferent, while French priests took the noble child, the most innocent, the most lovely, the most adorable the ages have produced, and burned her alive at the stake.
In the end, Twain returns to the crassness of Joan’s age, which reflects the crassness of his age and once again looks through the eyes of a misanthrope. Virtue is not rewarded, but spurned, forsakened, and betrayed.