Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte is an 1896 novel by Mark Twain that recounts the life of Joan of Arc. It is Twain's last completed novel, published when he was 61 years old.
The novel is presented as a translation (by "Jean Francois Alden") of memoirs by Louis de Conte, a fictionalized version of Louis de Contes, Joan of Arc's page. The novel is divided into three sections according to Joan of Arc's development: a youth in Domremy, a commander of the army of Charles VII of France, and a defendant at trial in Rouen.
Originally, the novel was published as a serialization in Harper's Magazine beginning in April 1895. Twain, aware of his reputation as a comic, asked that each installment appear anonymously so that readers would treat the piece seriously. Regardless, his authorship soon became known, and the book edition published by Harper and Brothers in May 1896 credited Mark Twain.
The novel begins with a "Translator's Preface," a translator note on the "Peculiarity of Joan of Arc's History," and a foreword by Sieur Louis de Conte. The "Translator's Preface" offers a condensed overview of Joan of Arc's life, with heavy praise ("the character of Joan of Arc ... occupies the loftiest possible to human attainment"). The "Peculiarity" note explains that Joan of Arc's life is preserved in court documents and that the particulars are provided by Louis de Conte, who, the translator assures us, is reliable. The foreword is Sieur de Conte's writing from 1492 (Joan of Arc died in 1431) about his intimate relation to Joan of Arc: "I was with her from the beginning until the end"
Book One begins with the birth of de Conte on January 6, 1410 in Neufchateau, France and his parents' subsequent move to Paris. He relates his early childhood as chaotic with the city tormented by mobs, criminals, and other instabilities. In 1415, following the death of his family by a Burgundian raiding party, de Conte is sent to a small, rural, rudimentary village named Domremy to live with the parish priest. Here, he meets young Joan d’Arc, an illiterate peasant. de Conte tells multiple incidents where Joan is shown to be the wisest, bravest, most virtuous child in Domremy, such as her arguments to the priest on the fairies and her treatment of the wandering soldier and the criminal madman.
In Chapter VI and VII, de Conte recounts his seeing Joan converse with a divine entity and her explanation that she has been chosen by God to "win back France, and set the crown upon the head of His servant that is Dauphin and shall be King." The governor and the people in the Domremy mock her when she openly announces this mission; her parents even keep her under watch. Nonetheless, Joan remains adamant.
Book Two begins with the elimination of Joan’s hindrances. With support from her visions, Joan leaves the village at age 17 to request control of the army from the king. In Chapter IX, after Joan successfully defends herself in trial for witchcraft, the king appoints Joan "General-in-Chief of armies."
In Chapter X, Joan begins to organize her campaign, writing a letter to the English commanders at Orleans, demanding they vacate France. The English refuse, and Joan attacks immediately and aggressively despite the generals' and counselors' advice that France remain on the defensive. Through this military campaign, Joan secures several victories over the English. On July 5, the English forces surrender at Rheims, allowing the Bloodless March and coronation of Charles to take place. During the coronation, Joan asks the King to remit taxes on Domremy.
After the coronation, Joan requests permission to attack Paris, saying that the move would cripple the English forces. The king's wicked counselors, however, oppose her in the attempt. The king initially grants Joan permission to attack, but just as Joan is on the verge of victory, the king announces a long-term truce with Paris, which indicates a ceasefire. Joan and de Conte are upset at the lost opportunity.
The final chapter relates the events of May 24, 1430, in which Joan and the French lose a battle to the English and Burgundian troops, resulting in Joan's capture.
Throughout Book 2, de Conte speaks of Joan's virtue (her ban on prostitution, gambling, and profanity in the army; her requirement that each man attend church; and her mercy toward English prisoners) as well as Joan's divine powers (her recognizing the king without notice, finding a hidden sword in the church, foreseeing war-wounds and her impending death).
The third and final book opens with Joan d’Arc's imprisonment at Marguy. For five and a half months, the Burgundians hold Joan, waiting for King Charles to provide a ransom of 61,125 francs. When no attempt is made, she is sold to the English. For two more months, Joan remains imprisoned while her enemies, led by Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, prepare her trial. In an attempt to lessen her influence over the French people, they decide to try Joan for crimes against religion.
Beginning in Chapter IV, the novel provides a detailed account of Joan’s three-month-long trial starting on February 21, 1431. de Conte, secretly serving as clerk to the chief recorder, describes the trial as unfair on multiple fronts, including the biased judges and the lack of advocates on her behalf.
The questions at trial focus on topics such as the visions, her cross-dressing, and her upbringing. de Conte stresses that Joan, the illiterate peasant, fared extremely well, providing well-spoken answers that could not be twisted against her. Chapter VII recounts her most well-known answer after being asked by Beaupere, “Are you in a state of Grace?” (This is a trick question asked by Beaupere. According to Catholic teaching, only God knows who is in a state of Grace. By answering either yes or no, Joan can be accused of blasphemy.) Conte states that with simple gravity she answers, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.”
In Chapter XX, Joan finally submits to her captors before she is about to die at the stake. Unable to read, Joan unknowingly signs a document “confessing herself a sorceress, a dealer with devils, a liar, a blasphemer of God and His angels…and this signature of hers bound her to resume the dress of a woman." At the end of Chapter 21, de Conte insinuates that Joan d'Arc was raped in prison by the English guards.
In Chapter XXII, de Conte accuses the English of treachery. While Joan slept, one of the guards removed her female apparel and put male apparel in its place. "For modesty's sake," Joan put on the male clothes, "the forbidden garments, knowing what the end would be."
For breaking the condition that she not wear men's clothing again, Joan is convicted as a "relapsed heretic." She burns at the stake on the following Wednesday, May 30, 1431.
In his writing, de Conte returns to the present year of 1492, where he is 82 years of age. He summarizes the lives and deaths of many of the characters, including Joan’s family and King Charles the VII. He closes with a salute to the legacy of Joan, citing her impact on the country she loved so much.
Distinctly lacking the humor prevalent in his other works, this novel has a different tone and flow from Twain's other works. He had a personal fascination with Joan of Arc that began in the early 1850s when he found a leaf from her biography and asked his brother Henry if she was a real person.
Twain claimed to have worked harder on this book than any other. In a letter to H.H. Rogers, he said, “I have never done any work before that cost so much thinking and weighing and measuring and planning and cramming … 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 has escaped me.” The published book lists 11 official sources as “authorities examined in verification of the truthfulness of this narrative.”
Despite Twain's claim of devoting 14 years toward the book's creation, historians today agree that the bulk of Twain's investigation was conducted during his prolonged stay in Europe during the early 1890s, which included multiple stops in France. Twain seems to have drawn most of his information from two sources: the fifth volume of Jules Michelet’s epic Histoire de France and Jules Quicherat’s own Proces de condamnation et de rehabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc. At this time, Joan of Arc's story was relatively unknown especially in English-speaking nations, which makes Twain's research noteworthy.
Twain based his descriptions of Joan of Arc on Susy Clemens, his daughter, as he remembered her at the age of 17.
Twain began writing the novel late in 1892, then set it aside until 1894 and finished the manuscript the following year. After serializing an abridged version for magazine publication, the full-length book was published in 1896.
Twain, again, considered this work to be his best and most important. Coley Taylor — a neighbor of Twain’s in Redding, Connecticut, where the author lived from 1908 until his death in 1910 — told the story of the day when he, as a young boy approached Twain to profess his adulation for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Upon hearing the boy’s praises, Twain suddenly took on the mien of a vexed schoolteacher: “You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys” he told the child, wagging his finger in Taylor’s face. “My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc.”
Twain's opinion notwithstanding, critics, then and now, have not labeled Recollections his best work. Today, the book is hardly read or acknowledged in the mainstream, especially compared to Twain's comedic works, such as Huckleberry Finn, Pudd 'nHead Wilson, and Tom Sawyer.
Iconoclastic author George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his own play, Saint Joan, accuses Twain of being "infatuated" with Joan of Arc. Shaw says that Twain "romanticizes" the story of Joan, reproducing a legend that the English conducted a trial deliberately rigged to find Joan guilty of witchcraft and heresy. Recent scholarship of the trial transcripts, however, suggests that Twain's belief may have been closer to the truth than Shaw was willing to accept.
American author and historian Bernard DeVoto was also critical of Joan of Arc, calling it “mawkish”. De Voto also claims, “he (Twain) was uncomfortable in the demands of tragedy, formalizing whatever could not be sentimentalized.”
American author Maxwell Geismar delivered a scathing review: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, in 1896 was Sam Clemens’ (Twain) worst book…It is difficult to find anything of interest in Joan of Arc – except its badness.”
Leading Twain scholar Louis J. Budd said, “Although Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc has disgraced Twain posthumously with several levels of readers, it met general approval in 1896.”
At the time of its publication, one paper positively reviewed Twain’s work: “We meet a dignified, ennobled, hero-worshipping Mark Twain. His language has undergone a startling change. Not flippancy, but pathos, meets us on every page; the sardonic mocking spirit has been conquered by the fair Maid of Orleans, and where aforetime we met laughter, we now meet tears.”
Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens said, “Andrew Lang so much admired Father’s Joan that he suggested dedicating to him his own biography of the Maid.”
Susan K. Harris, a Twain expert who teaches at the University of Kansas and who helped produce the novel’s 1996 edition by Oxford University Press, expresses befuddlement at this work's placement in Twain's oeuvre: “By the time Twain's writing Recollections, he’s not a believer. He is anti-Catholic, and he doesn’t like the French. So he writes a book about a French-Catholic-martyr? Ostensibly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”