Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass was one alias of a man who used many names (like W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab, for example). Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, the American writer is best known as Mark Twain—the nom de plume attributed to his renowned novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet it’s one of his written works printed under the name Sieur Louis de Conte that arguably strays farthest from his humorist canon.
In reality, the protagonist of Twain’s outlier novel also went by many names four hundred years before the writer navigated steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. While the public perpetuated the moniker of the Maid of Orléans, her given name in medieval French was Jehanne Darc and she was called Jehanette in her village of Domrémy, France. Today in the United States she’s remembered as Joan of Arc, a heroine of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.
She stars in Twain’s genre-bending novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, serialized by Harper’s magazine in May 1895. Narrated by a fictionalized page who accompanied Joan of Arc during her crusade, the serious tale depicts the classic dyad of good versus evil in the hero’s journey—a somber, proprietorial tone and flow that contrasts Twain’s other satirical works. Few people know Twain wrote a significant book about Joan of Arc, and even fewer recall that the writer himself claimed it was his favorite and most important work.
Twain said, “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 saint seems to be an odd choice for the writer’s obsession, given his publicized censure of the Catholic Church. Yet Twain depicts Joan of Arc with a tender admiration, even using his daughter Susy Clemens as the basis of his descriptions of the heroine. Most remarkably, he mixes the whimsy of Merlin’s prophecy and the adventure of battle while staying meticulously faithful to historical records. The three parts chronicle her childhood in Domremy, her command of King Charles VII’s army, and her trial in Rouen.
The book form published in 1896 serves as the capstone of Twain’s fascination with the teenage peasant. He wrote other medieval tales such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper, but his reverence for his subject and earnest desire for the book to be taken seriously isolate it from his legacy as America’s sharpest wit.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a hidden gem worth mining. About four years ago, I did a double take when first spotting Twain’s book at the former Bookman’s Alley in Evanston, Illinois. Like many other readers, I didn’t know the iconic writer had ventured so far outside his American roots. Curiosity led me to purchase the book and the epic adventures keep me rereading it now as a treasured staple on my own bookshelf.
It’s fitting that a young Twain discovered Joan of Arc when he was twelve or thirteen, considering the saint herself was thirteen when she first saw the visions of angels that would inspire her crusade. Twain recounted how he had come across a stray page from her biography blowing in the wind while walking home from his apprenticeship at the Missouri Courier. And while the writer lived a long life, the martyred heroine notoriously did not. Her legend captured Twain’s imagination and his strange and wonderful book captured mine.
– Jennifer Draper