Why did the author write about the saint, whose beliefs appeared so contrary to his own?

More than a century after his death, Mark Twain (1835-1910), the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemons, remains a figure of controversy. Some schools, for example, have dropped his American classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from required reading lists for its racial language.

Twain’s religious skepticism, directed in particular toward Christianity, has also made his reputation a battleground between believers and atheists. Both in his public speaking and his writing, Twain satirized Christians, the Bible, and religion in general, though during his lifetime he proceeded with caution so as to avoid alienating readers. Only many years after his death did his daughter Clara and others publish some of his more controversial attacks on faith, like “The Mysterious Stranger” and “Letters from the Earth.”

Twain was particularly fierce in his disdain for Catholicism. He grew up in an anti-papist culture—he once noted that he was “educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic.” And his antipathy toward Rome appears most notedly in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Twain could be just as vitriolic toward the French. In the middle years of his life, sometimes moved by negative Gallic criticism of his work, he frequently poked fun at the French he met while abroad, mocking their manners and morals, and their high regard for their culture.

So how was it that this American writer, best known for his books on the Mississippi River and boyhood, would become enthralled by a French girl devoted to her church and its Catholic faith, who claimed to speak with saints and angels, and who died a martyr? What moved this man who scoffed at organized religion to write what he regarded as his best novel about someone whose aspirations and beliefs appear so contrary to his own?

Some Background

“Joan of Arc,”1865, by John Everett Millais. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. (Public Domain)

Most of us are familiar with the story of Jeanne d’Arc, or as we in the English-speaking world call her, Joan of Arc.

Born around 1412 in the village of Domrémy in northeastern France, Joan grew up in a poor peasant household, unlettered but with a deep devotion to her Catholic faith. In her early teenage years, she began hearing voices, which she regarded as heaven-sent, telling her that she had a mission to drive the English from French soil—the Hundred Years War had already lasted for decades—and to help restore Charles of Valois to his rightful place on the French throne.

At age 16, after convincing a local court that she should not be forced into a marriage arranged by her father, Joan set off to gain access to Charles and his court. After miraculously doing so, and upon meeting with him, Joan promised Charles he would soon be crowned king at the ancient site of coronation in Reims. Within the year, she delivered on that promise after driving the English forces from Orleans and accompanying Charles through enemy territory to Reims.

In May of 1430, enemy forces captured Joan and sold her to the English, who tried her as a witch and a heretic, and had her burned at the stake. For centuries, she remained an iconic French hero, and in 1920, the Church declared her a saint. Scores of books and dozens of films, including the classic silent movie “Jeanne D’Arc (1928), brought her exploits to a wide public.

An Unlikely Champion

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The second panel from “The life of Joan of Arc” frieze at the Pantheon in France, by Jules-Eugène, unknown date. In this panel, the people of France are depicted hailing Joan of Arc and kissing her hands and feet. (Public Domain)

“She was the Wonder of the Ages. And when we consider her origin, her early circumstances, her sex, and that she did all the things upon which her renown rests while she was still a young girl, we recognize that while our race continues she will also be the Riddle of the Ages.”

So wrote Mark Twain in his essay, “Saint Joan of Arc.” Throughout that essay, he heaps praise on this charismatic girl, writing not only of the miracle of her gaining the ear of Charles and her accomplishments on the field of battle, but speculating as well on her personality, conjectures derived from years of studying and reading about her. “She was,” he writes, “gentle and winning and affectionate; she loved her home and friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion…” Without a trace of irony, this long-time religious skeptic notes that Joan “had daily speech with angels” and that “she had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not the threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart.” He ends by stating, “She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”

And in his novel “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by the Sieur Louis de Conte (Her Page and Secretary),” published before Joan’s beatification, Twain paints a marvelous portrait of this saint.

An Enigma for Readers and Critics

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Lithograph poster for Mark Twain’s “Joan of Arc,” 1894, by Eugène Grasset. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

When this book first appeared in serial form in Harper’s Magazine beginning in 1895, Twain kept his name out of the publication, and many readers assumed de Conte, and the fictitious translator, Jean Francois Alden, were indeed the actual authors of Joan’s story. In his “Introduction” to my copy of “Joan of Arc” (Ignatius Press, 1989, 452 pages), Andrew Tadie suggests that Twain indulged in this sly deception to “keep a certain psychological distance from his subject.” Tadie also surmises, correctly so, that the public which had delighted in Twain’s humor would be perplexed by this straight-up attempt at historical fiction.

Regarding this latter consideration, Twain had correctly assessed his fans. Readers familiar with “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” or even with “Life on the Mississippi or “A Connecticut Yankee,” were baffled by Twain’s latest novel. The same holds true today. Students who delve into Huck’s adventures find themselves exploring an entirely different world in “Joan of Arc.”

Critics past and present have taken Twain to task for spending so much time and energy on this story, viewing it as an aberration or a waste of time. As Tadie reports, an early critic, William Peterfield, stated of “Joan of Arc” that Twain should write “simply and truly about that which he is fullest of and best understands.” Bernard DeVoto, editor, historian, and for a time manager of the Mark Twain estate, regarded the novel as mediocre and accused the author of a “worship of muliebrity, a belief in the sanctity of femaleness.”

Having decided to investigate Twain’s folly a bit more, I found “Joan of Arc” largely ignored. An article at Publisher’s Weekly that lists and briefly describes his top ten books makes no mention of this novel. Visits to my public library and to the nearby Christendom College library rewarded me with numerous books about Mark Twain, both biographies and literary analyses, but entries in their indices either ignored “Joan of Arc” altogether or offered scant information.

The Search for Motivation

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The third panel from “The life of Joan of Arc” frieze at the Pantheon in France, by Jules-Eugène, unknown date. In this panel, Burgundian soldiers, who are allies of England, are capturing Joan. (Public Domain)

That “Joan of Arc” is not of the same literary caliber of “Roughing It” or Twain’s Mississippi works is beyond debate. Had another author with less name recognition written this same book, it’s possible that by now the novel would have disappeared down the rabbit hole of forgotten books. This would be unfortunate, for “Joan of Arc” is lively and well written, appeals to our modern sensibilities, offers insights into the history and culture of the 15th century, and gives us an excellent portrait of the girl who became a warrior and a saint.

Still unanswered, however, is our original question: Why did Mark Twain devote so much effort and time to this subject? What was the enchantment that kept him at this work?

Critics have long put forth reasons for Twain’s high regard for “Joan of Arc.” Some have argued that the aging author was simply in search of a topic. Others cite Twain’s long battles with organized religion, claiming that in this French girl he had at last found the religious purity he claimed was missing in most Christians.

In “The Riddle of Mark Twain’s Passion for Joan of Arc,” Daniel Crown examines several more theories, including an outlandish one, for example, about cross-dressing. Twain had Huck disguise himself as a girl at one point in that novel, and Joan had dressed in the attire of a soldier while leading the French—one major charge against her in her trial was her wearing of male apparel. This supposition brought a smile, as it seems highly unlikely that a man might devote over a decade to research simply because his subject wore britches and cropped her hair short.

I am no trained literary critic and certainly no expert on Mark Twain, though I have twice read and taught “The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” But after revisiting the novel and rereading in particular Twain’s essay about Joan, I have my own theory about his infatuation with her.

An Affair of the Heart

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Illustrated plate titled “Joan’s Vision” from the “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” by Mark Twain in 1895. (Public Domain)

I think Mark Twain fell in love with Joan of Arc. I think the man in the white suit was smitten by this flower of France. Though he was not so profound a misanthrope as his contemporary Ambrose Bierce of “The Devil’s Dictionary” fame, Twain was pessimistic about human nature, deriving much of his humor by calling attention to our quirks and contradictions. Likely, he was broken-hearted by what he saw around him and dealt with it, as a sharp mind might, with satire. Then this pure soul appeared, so opposite from others whom he knew and even from himself, and he discovered hope after all.

I think in this adolescent heroine he found that flame of purity, goodness, and fervor he had sought his entire life. This “slender girl in her first young bloom” who had as a teenager inspired an army to victory and had crowned a king, “that wonderful child, that sublime personality, that spirit which…has had no peer and will have none,” had, quite simply, stolen Twain’s sorrowing heart.

This passion only deepened as he immersed himself in the story of this remarkable human being. Consequently, near the end of his life, he would write: “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.”

“The heart has its reasons which reason may not know,” wrote French philosopher Blaise Pascal. This is often true of love, and better than any literary theory it explains the ardor and devotion Mark Twain showered on the Maid of France.

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