A Mark Twain Masterpiece: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Written April 15, 2019
Today Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. As far as I can tell the world paused to watch, to ponder, to mourn and to consider for a moment what is holy, permanent, or worth remembering. The parallel between the burning of Our Lady and the life and demise of Joan of Arc is a connection too obvious to be ignored. For years, I have had important things to share about the story of this martyr but for whatever reason was holding back. Watching the flames today has encouraged me.
I don’t remember how I heard of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc but my life has been different -- better-- ever since. Just enough experience and knowledge must have collided to prepare me because I can remember the sense of awe, excitement and intense curiosity I felt when I learned that Mark Twain spent nearly a decade of his life perfecting this work. The extremely American literary icon and humorist I knew and wanted to love was interested in an intensely spiritual French peasant girl born centuries before him? Why had I not heard of this?! I was intrigued to say the least.
My Jeanne d’Arc journey began even before I picked up the book. It is ongoing still, and bears character-defining fruit regularly.
I am not going to tell much about the book because my delight was in knowing very little when I began. I will, however, tell you some of the magic Twain weaves into his version of her story. I think the most important element of this book is that it is written from the fictional point of view of Joan’s childhood friend and later personal secretary. To me this was a brilliant decision and one that impacts the entire tone of the book and allows for instructive character creation. If ever my biography was written I would hope it was written by someone who had known me through the frailties of youth and loved me still. Few are more lovable than little Joan from Domremy and we are privileged through Twain’s creation to bask in her twinkling childhood before launching into her divinely directed mission and undaunted adolescence.
Are you aware of the moments, or days, or even years when you are moved upon by some higher power? Times when life feels deliberate, when claiming “coincidence” pales, and a higher, holier power must be acknowledged? Joan was. I know this divine power is at work in my life when the experiences of life connect with unquestionable force. This book, and my journey of learning about Joan, has been one of those experiences for me. In what follows I hope to convey to you the goodness and growth that came from a single literary masterpiece and the dozens of thematically cohesive moments that continue to expand my soul.
Let me race through a few of these moments in hopes that I don’t bore you with overly personal anecdotes but supply concrete examples in an effort to alert you to the connected events in your own life that are encouraging forward progress on this higher path.
Prior to reading the book, I regularly passed by a beautiful gilded sculpture while living in Philadelphia for a year. I took notice and pondered the significance of Joan’s life and why it had been memorialized there. I later learned that the statue is a replica of a statue that resides in Paris by the Sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet given to the city by Philadelphia’s French community in 1890 to commemorate their centennial.
Later, while working at Heirloom, I started following artists on social media. A post from @jkirkrichards slowed time and transported me to a quiet garden in France. It was of a painting I have since visited, by Jules Bastien-Lepage that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city. I couldn’t stop thinking about this painting and the young country maiden of who so much was asked. My visit to the Met was another event marked by increased inspiration and an intense feeling of divine love.
Soon after seeing Kirk’s post I discovered the book. I think I was researching a newly published collaborative fairytale The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine (also worth a journal entry another time) when I learned of what Twain considered his life’s work. I had a hard time finding a copy I liked but found the audiobook and was immediately entranced. This is the one I listened to and love. I laughed out loud in the car, and cried out loud late at night in bed as I finished the book. I was stunned and determined. I felt strongly then and feel now that more people need to read (or listen to) this book! I began to share it with others including Chelsey, who you may or may not know is my sister. She joined me on the journey much to our mutual benefit and enjoyment. Now we were fully invested and noticed every reference or image relating to this humble saint.
Chelsey and I would send images back and forth during the time she lived abroad for way too long. Works of art, quotes, books, even postcards were exchanged and we were instructed and enlightened by every one.
I was given very thoughtful gifts. First, a beautiful marble bust of Joan from my wife. I began to realize that one of the most poignant and constant connections to Joan lived in my own home. My wife’s character, demeanor and femininity inform my depiction of Joan more than any other single factor. I then began to look for and discover the qualities I admire in Joan in many women (and men) around me.
Then, within 10 minutes of meeting Chelsey and her future husband in England, Chelsey gave me a belated gift of a rare copy of Twain’s book with the sweetest annotated drawings of young Joan in the margins. This type of giving is precisely what we are about at Heirloom and are the objects I hope to pass on to my daughters and son. It's also why we are advocates of marginalia.
The related experiences continue, like today when I couldn’t help but draw the connection between the burning of Notre Dame and France’s brave young martyr. I have gained peace and power by looking for and reacting to the connected themes in my life. My invitation to you is two-fold. First, read the book. I think you will love it. Second and harder, try to discern what themes are playing out in your life and what action is required of you.
In a sense we each have a Jeanne d’Arc story. I sincerely believe you and I have a critical, divinely appointed role to play in this world. I am searching for mine every day and get glimpses of what might be in store. I recognize that you and I both are fulfilling much of that role each day, with each act of love and devotion. However, I wonder if we inadvertently miss some of the heavenly nudges to do and become more. We may not be required to sacrifice our lives to save France, but then again we just might.