This is part of Diane’s Literature For the Ages Series
Each of the girls in my class has read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and last year we read Life on the Mississippi together. So they have had a good taste of Mark Twain’s usual style. This month we read Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. This book is such a departure from what we expect from him that he had it published anonymously so readers would judge the book without prejudice.
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.
A man named Coley Taylor told a story about what Twain said to him about Joan. Twain lived in Taylor’s neighborhood when Taylor was a boy. One day he got a chance to tell Twain how much he had enjoyed Tom and Huck. He said he had never seen Twain so cross. Twain said:
You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys! Why, the librarians won’t allow them in the children’s rooms in the libraries! Now don’t you go and imitate those rascals Tom and Huck. Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc. You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.
You can read Coley’s article here.
My girls did not agree that Joan is Twain’s best book. They would much rather read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Maybe they will read Joan again when they’re older and feel differently.
Naming Twain’s best book would be a difficult call. If you love Twain for his distinguishing style, Joan may be disappointing. This was the last book he completed. I find it interesting that so near the end of his life, Twain was able to write something so uncharacteristic. Even more interesting is that a man who claimed to be so hostile to religion seems to have fallen in love with Joan of Arc. His admiration drips from almost every page.
Perhaps because of his great respect for Joan, Twain was reluctant to take liberties with her character. Though it’s said that he was thinking of one of his daughters as a model for Joan, she comes off a bit flat. I respect him for not attempting to write the story from the point of view of a young girl. Instead, he creates a narrator, Louis de Conte, who tells us the story from the point of view of one who knew her from childhood, followed her to the war as an aide, and was near her until her death.
Louis’s love for Joan is what makes this a powerful, touching story. He’s young and idealistic. His love and brotherly concern for Joan inspire sympathy for her. He believes in her, so we want to. He is telling the story from the vantage of old age, and we feel the pain of the loss of his heroine and idealism.
Best of Twain or not, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is an engaging account of Joan’s story. It’s the kind of historical novel that can inspire a love for history by touching sympathies and imagination.