Mark Twain on the USS Mohican in the Seattle Harbor, about to embark for Europe, 1895
Excerpt from a letter from Mark Twain to H.H. Rogers in New York City: Sunday, Apr. 29, ’95:
…At 6 minutes past 7, yesterday evening, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
With the long strain gone, I am in a sort of physical collapse today, but it will be gone tomorrow. I judged that this end of the book would be hard work, and it turned out to be so. I have never done any work before that caused so much thinking and weighing and measuring and planning and cramming, or so much cautious and painstaking execution. For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked of flowers, embroideries, colorings, exaggerations, inventions—the family agree that I have succeeded. It was a perilous thing to try in a tale, but I never believed it a doubtful one—provided I stuck strictly to business and didn’t weaken and give up: or didn’t get lazy and skimp the work. The first two-thirds of the book were easy; for I only needed to keep my historical record straight; therefore I used for reference only one French history [Michelet] and one English one [Tuckey]—and shoveled in as much fancy work and invention on both sides of the historical road as I pleased. But on this last third I have constantly used five French sources and five English ones and I think no telling historical nugget in any of them that has escaped me.
Possibly the book may not sell, but that is nothing—it was written for love.
There—I’m called to see company. The family seldom requires this of me, but they know I am not working today.
When reading a book of Mark Twain‘s letters to select one for an intellectual history seminar presentation last year (this is a lightly edited version of that very presentation) this letter to H.H. Rogers jumped right out at me. As many of my long-time readers may know, I’ve long had a fascination with Joan of Arc and with Mark Twain’s book about her. 1896’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was, and still is, a mystery to many. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint? From his own comments over the decades, he wasn’t especially fond of the French; he thought the medieval period was an age of superstition and ignorance; he mocked patriotism as just another brand of thoughtless provincialism; and he certainly was no fan or defender of organized religion. And why did this novelist and humorist decide to write a history …well, again, a historical novel, but heavy on the history nonetheless? And why did he insist it was the best thing he’d ever written?
First Edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896, cover
In some ways, Twain’s fascination with and tenderness for Joan of Arc isn’t hard to explain. His biographer Dixon Wecter writes that ‘the heroine of his inmost heart is Joan of Arc, a virgin of unapproachable purity’ (Wecter 172). He was noted, even then, as a writer with unusually sentimental ideas about women and girls, convinced that by nature they were tender and pure, of some plane higher than that of rough, vulgar, venal, lustful men. If we set aside the bloodshed and partisanship, it’s not too much of a stretch to characterize Joan as a model of virtuous womanhood, above the ordinary concerns and desires and accomplishments of men. And Joan appears in Twain’s book as just such a woman, with a ready wit and a strong sense of humor (Twain’s Joan laughs and pals around a lot) to redeem her from being a ‘tinsel saint,’ as he complained that the Catholic Church was about to make her with her canonization proceedings.
And when Twain wrote that his Joan book was ‘was written for love,’ he’s likely thinking not only about his love of Joan, he’s thinking of Susy. With the exception of his wife Livy, Susy was the dearest person in the world to Twain’s heart, and he made no secret of it. His daughter was vivacious, sentimental, affectionate, and the year after he finished Joan, dead. She died on August 15th, 1896, at age 24, in the same year Joan was published in book form (it was originally published as a serial in Harper’s Weekly). But throughout the first years he was writing Joan, Susy was as big a fan as he was, and had high praise, like Twain himself, for the work. It’s commonly accepted that Susy was a major inspiration for his characterization and idealization of Joan. It seems that he was in many ways unable, in fact, to put Susy aside so he could really consider Joan herself, on her own terms.
Although Twain wrote that he was recounting ‘mere history …stripped naked of flowers [and] embroideries,’ Joan’s story could not have been more fascinating on its own merits and Twain, inventor of fantastic tales and prolific creator of clever lines, could not have surpassed it in either. The fact that a seventeen-year-old illiterate peasant girl could run away from home; convince Church authorities that the voices in her head telling her to deliver France from England came from God and not the devil; convince war leaders and the King to give her troops and arms; lead the French army to a series of victories delivered by cunning military strategy as well as a new sense of united, sacred purpose; and once she was captured by the English and handed over to an ecclesiastical court in hopes they could discredit her as a sorceress and heretic, conduct her own case so skillfully that we still wonder at her prudent and adroit responses.
In early 1895, Twain wrote in his notebook that it was ‘across [France’s] firmament that those two prodigies swept, astonishing the world, Napoleon and Joan of Arc—that wonderful man and that sublime girl who dwarf all the rest of the human race.’ (Notebook 241) A little while after I read this passage and as I was looking for more references to Joan of Arc in his letters, I came across another to H.H. Rogers, written on Sunday, Sept 9th, 1894. Twain wrote: ‘..In those two days I reached and passed—successfully—a point which I was solicitous about before I ever began that book: viz., the battle of Patay.’ (Notebook p 616) The Battle of Patay, I remembered, was perhaps the most decisively victorious as well as an especially bloody battle from Joan’s campaign—which was so bloody overall that during her trial she was accused of ‘cruelly thirsting for human blood and encouraging its shedding’ (Trial 124)—and to refresh my memory of Twain’s account of it, I flipped through his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. On page 250, chapter XXX begins ‘When the morning broke at last on that forever memorable 18th of June’; I did a quick Google search of the date to see if this was the Patay account, since it’s not in the chapter title and there’s no index, and instead, I came up with a list of results for the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon met his defeat.
Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain
I wonder: is this link between these two French objects of his admiration a coincidence? Twain often told an anecdote about the first time he encountered Joan of Arc: in 1849, when he was still a printer’s apprentice, a loose page from a biography of Joan blew right off the sidewalk and into his face (Harrington and Jenn 64). But I wonder how much of this is thanks to the romance our imagination often drapes our memories in, and how much are the links between ideas and events we inevitably find when we pursue our interests diligently enough. Perhaps he encountered the historic Battle of Patay when researching the military history of Napoleon, a more likely secular hero, and thereby found Joan again.
‘For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked.’ To return to Twain’s ‘mere history’ of Joan, he’s referring to the account of her trial at Rouen that lasted from January 9th, 1431 until she was burned at the stake on May 30th of the same year. Originally, Twain was going to tell the story of her childhood through her military career, ending with the Bloodless March, in which English stronghold after stronghold, hearing of Joan’s victories, surrendered without a shot, and the King’s coronation at Rheims, where his now sole reign over his French kingdom was confirmed. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t end there, because I agree with her biographer Jules Quicherat and not Jules Michelet in that Joan’s trial is as important a part of her legacy as any of her accomplishments. I don’t really agree with Twain that his account of the trial is ‘history pure and simple’ without ‘embroideries’, but he does stick closely to the many sources he refers to for this part of the books for the essential facts. The embroideries consist of his extremely negative characterization of Pierre Cauchon, the English-sympathizing bishop who led her trial; and the thoughts, reactions, and emotions of Louis de Comte, the fictionalized recorder of the trial and Joan’s lifelong friend, and channeler of Twain’s own sympathies.
Twain was wise in his ‘cautious and painstaking execution’ of the trial scenes, I think: instead of sprinkling his Joan account with amusing tales about the colorful characters, invented or historically-based, who surround her, he focuses closely on the exchanges between Joan and her inquisitors. There’s rich material here for pathos and drama, too much to bring into this brief presentation in any detail. Twain stays true both to his own idealization of women and to Joan’s native cleverness when he highlights her seemingly artless, direct answers, which, though simple, were so spot-on that she deftly avoided the legal traps set for her. Her smarts, then, were showcased without her appearing haughty or show-offy in the slightest.
If I were to write a new biography of Joan of Arc, I’d hope to pursue her through the archives and written histories as carefully and as prolonged as Twain did—in fact, his intense and detailed research for the book made him important in the scholarly discussions about her life, times, character, and legacy—but I’d try to write it with less idealization, though I am at least half as enamoured of her as Twain is. Twain’s Joan is beautiful and compelling, but not quite real. I’d like to see for myself how closely I can approach her across the span of nearly six hundred years.
Here are some examples of questions I’d ask that Twain did not, or at least, left unanswered:
– Is Joan as unlikely a product of her time as so many of her biographers, her early ones especially, seem to believe? From Helen Castor’s history of Joan of Arc, I know that France was riddled at the time with visionaries, prophets, holy maids, seers, and the like. While none of them led the army of France, it’s true, perhaps people were not entirely surprised to hear someone like her making the claims she did, and so were more ready to listen to her. I think many of these would have ended up in ecclesiastical courts as well, so I’ll look for records of these, and examine them to see what kind of religious ideas these people shared. Could Joan have been inspired by any of them?
– Does her adroit handling of her own case in her trial really reveal simplicity and naiveté, where she was lucky to avoid legal traps only because her answers were short and to the point, or an exceptional intelligence at work? Are their patterns in the style and substance of her answers that reveal a tactical approach? She would have had plenty of time to work on this while imprisoned. I’d like to look at other court records of people from Joan’s social class to see how these court cases were generally conducted, if Joan had to face a degree of questioning any more intensive, severe, complex, etc then did others.
– The court made much of her adopting men’s dress and haircuts and wearing weapons as an affront both to religion and to modesty, while Joan herself dismissed these concerns. Was the wearing of men’s clothes so unusual for a woman in Joan’s circumstances? Joan was a peasant and did a lot of work with animals and keeping of the property, which may have allowed for women to adopt dress at time more like men’s. However, her family was actually well-do-do for people of her social class, so there may have been a stricter dress code for her than for the poorest workers. I’d like to see if there were other examples from her time of people adopting the dress of the other gender, of other social classes, etc and see what kind of controversy this did or did not arouse.
Perhaps when I get the chance to follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc throughout France, as I’ve long planned to do, I’ll be able to answer these questions and many more.
Sources and Inspiration:
Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. London: Faber & Faber, 2014
Harrington, Paula and Ronald Jenn. Mark Twain & France: The Making of a New American Identity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017
Hobbins, Daniel. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Michelet, Jules. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans. From Michelet’s History of France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1858.
Quicherat, Jules. Procès de Condamnation et de Réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc, Dite La Pucelle. Paris: J. Renouard et Cie, 1841
Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain, v.34-35). New York: G. Wells, 1923
Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (Oxford Mark Twain). New York, [N.Y.] ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Notebook (Second ed.). New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935
Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952
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