Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896) by Mark Twain

I have not read any Mark Twain before, but I’ve heard of his biting wit and satire. I was quite surprised upon reading this, “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”, Twain’s favourite work of his own, to find such a unironic, heartfelt work that seems to burst with earnest admiration of, and love for, Joan of Arc.

Written as a fictional translation of a fictional set of memoirs by Joan of Arc’s real page, Louis de Conte, the novel skillfully straddles the line between accuracy and dramatisation that the best works of historical fiction deal with, although Twain’s enormous affection for Joan of Arc often bleeds through, sometimes to the point of tedium.

Twain considered this his most important work, but it’s clearly not survived as a classic the way some of his other books have, and in terms of Joan of Arc, has been long supplanted by non-fictional accounts of her life. Perhaps it’s more interesting in the context of Twain’s fascination with Joan of Arc, rather than reading it as a straight tale of the figure herself. The story of how Twain came to such great feelings about Joan of Arc when he was not a Catholic, or even religious at all apparently, would perhaps be a more interesting read than this book itself. As it is, the way Joan is immediately deified in the text even in her youth, prevents her character ever being truly compelling. It’s too one-note, Twain’s admiration for her clouds any attempt to craft an interesting arc for her.

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The novel is indeed mawkish at times, and when it comes to a figure shrouded in inaccuracies and reinterpretations like Joan of Arc, I prefer the works that either concentrate on accurate historicity (Helen Castor’s “Joan of Arc: A History” was great in this regard), or lean much harder on the aspects begging for stylisation, like Carl Dreyer’s masterful film “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. This novel doesn’t feel like an accurate account like the former, or a transformative artpiece like the latter. More than anything, it feels like evidence for the author’s great love for the figure, but that isn’t necessarily engaging or interesting for many readers. I myself found the novel moderately compelling, but certainly a much lesser work than those other works I’ve mentioned. I give the book three translator’s notes, and a hidden sword.

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