To follow up my comments on historical fiction and how they apply to the story of St. Joan of Arc, I thought I might commend Mark Twain, on his stupendous effort to translate the true history of the Maid of Orleans into a very readable and enjoyable novel.
Twain, as always, is full of invention and literary genius in this work, but not only does he avoid adulterating the true character of the saint, he actually enhances our appreciation for her character by the choices he makes as he integrates his own invention with the facts.
Mark Twain considered his Sieur Louis de Conte: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his greatest work, and assiduously researched the subject before he set to work. He had a strong personal devotion to the Maid, despite his decided lack of faith and his abundance of cynicism. He found St. Joan to be an exception to his general rule that “the noblest man’s meat is inferior to pork” (More Maxims of Mark). Twain was a determinist, that is, he believed that man was inherently and helplessly selfish. Here are serveral other of his cynical gems:
All I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. I can get right down and grovel with him.
- Mark Twain’s notebook #42
I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this branch office; when I retire there will be no-one to take my place. I shall keep on doing my duty, for when I get over on the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark.
- quoted in Mark Twain, J. Macy, (Doubleday, Page & co., 1913)
Twain loved St. Joan, because he thought she was different. Why he didn’t think anyone else to be different, I cannot say, but at least in regard to the Maid he was a believer.
I will in this and the next post excerpt at length from the online edition of Twain’s Joan of Arc. This first excerpt (excerpts of chapters 36 and 37, plus the whole of chapter 38) is one of my favorite passages, because it integrates historical knowledge with his own literary invention, a marvelous invention, I might add. His creative genius stays true the the real Joan, I think, and illustrates a really important part of her character, namely, that she was an ordinary girl, given extraordinary gifts. As a peasant girl she was feminine and unambitious, happy to be with her family. But in the execution of her duty as General of the armies of France, she was self-assured, deliberate and unbending. This is true to history and Twain drives this home with an exquisite literary sense.
In this passage we find St. Joan of Arc with her family after the crowning of the Charles at Rheims. As she sees it, she has accomplished her principle task and is dreaming of returning home with her family, who, for their part are surprised to hear her express a desire to leave her military career and return to the humdrum of life in Doremy. (It should go without saying that this passage is full of *SPOILERS*): Continue reading