This is the last full-length novel by Twain, and he considered it his best work. It’s his longest novel, and certainly the most serious and well-researched. I had not read anything about this historic person before, but I knew something of her story through other references. I certainly knew of her tragic end, and that she led an army in France, but little more.
Twain presents his book as if told by Joan’s childhood friend, war companion, and secretary at her trial, Sieur Louis de Conte in three sections: her childhood, her wartime role, and her lengthy trial for witchcraft. Much of the research comes from transcripts of her trials that came to light in the late nineteenth century, affording Twain the chance to use them. Joan claimed that angels appeared to her in visions, telling what her remarkable role would be in helping free France from many years of war with England (the Hundred Years War). These saintly angels brought her the word of God, and though she was fearful and doubting at first, she came to accept what they told her. She was a simple country girl, religious, caring of animals, and not afraid to speak up for her friends, but the idea that she could lead an army, a young woman with no training who could not even read or write, seemed impossible. With the guidance of her spiritual mentors, she made it happen. Each step along the way was fraught with difficulties and she was treated with derision and scorn, but her simple sincerity and uncanny knowledge of events that would happen came to convince those around her and eventually even the uncrowned king of France that she could prevail.
It’s a remarkable book. There’s some humor, especially among Joan’s friends and comrades, but most of the story is told seriously and well. The middle section on Joan’s battles is thrilling and exciting. The final section about her trial by French clerics on the side of England is equally remarkable, as Joan was a match for them through many days and many tough questions. Her tragedy is heart-wrenching: betrayed by the king, and subject to emotional and physical torture, she never gives up even though she can’t win.
This is a difficult read at times, but certainly one that’s worthwhile. Recommended.