On the Feast of St. Joan

May 30, 2006 @ 4:35 am | Filed under:

In December, 1905, Mark Twain gave a speech a Society of Illustrators dinner. Before he spoke, a girl dressed as Joan of Arc presented him with a laurel wreath. Her appearance inspired him to some impromptu remarks about the depiction of the great saint in art. When he speaks of “the conventional Joan of Arc,” he is referring to the way she typically appears in paintings. In Mr. Twain’s view, none of these illustrations did justice to the real woman.

Now there is an illustration. That is exactly what I wanted—precisely what I wanted when I was describing to myself Joan of Arc, after studying her history and her character for twelve years diligently.

That was the product—not the conventional Joan of Arc. Wherever you find the conventional Joan of Arc in history she is an offence to anybody who knows the story of that wonderful girl.

Why, she was—she was almost supreme in several details. She had a marvellous intellect; she had a great heart, had a noble spirit, was absolutely pure in her character, her feeling, her language, her words, her everythingshe was only eighteen years old.

Now put that heart into such a breast—eighteen years old—and give it that masterly intellect which showed in the fate, and furnish it with that almost god-like spirit, and what are you going to have? The conventional Joan of Arc? Not by any means. That is impossible. I cannot comprehend any such thing as that.

You must have a creature like that young and fair and beautiful girl we just saw. And her spirit must look out of the eyes. The figure should be—the figure should be in harmony with all that, but, oh, what we get in the conventional picture, and it is always the conventional picture!

I hope you will allow me to say that your guild, when you take the conventional, you have got it at second-hand. Certainly, if you had studied and studied, then you might have something else as a result, but when you have the common convention you stick to that.

You cannot prevail upon the artist to do it; he always gives you a Joan of Arc—that lovely creature that started a great career at thirteen, but whose greatness arrived when she was eighteen; and merely because she was a girl he cannot see the divinity in her, and so he paints a peasant, a coarse and lubberly figure—the figure of a cotton-bale, and he clothes that in the coarsest raiment of the peasant region—just like a fish-woman, her hair cropped short like a Russian peasant, and that face of hers, which should be beautiful and which should radiate all the glories which are in the spirit and in her heart—that expression in that face is always just the fixed expression of a ham.

You can read the whole speech, which takes some good-natured shots at the illustrator of The Innocents Abroad, at BoondocksNet. Mr. Twain’s book about Joan of Arc can be read at Project Gutenberg.

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  1. Michael Hardt says:

    This book is an odd favorite of mine–very unlike Mark Twain’s other works, as far as I can tell. His satire is blunter than usual, and his sentiment toward Joan of Arc is palpable, almost romantic. The book also contains a prayer that I resort to in my weaker moments. Joan forces her general, La Hire (not a praying man), to pray. He says: “Fair Sir God, I pray you to do by La Hire as he would do by you if you were La Hire and he were God.”

  2. Alice says:

    This is my favorite of Mark Twain’s works, and it was Twain’s favorite too!

  3. Maureen says:


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  4. Cay says:

    Bless you for sharing this.
    Kayleigh turns 16 today and she has never cared for St. Joan of Arc (though she shares her feast day) because of how St. Joan is portrayed in pictures.

    I have bought her books on St. Joan and she has never felt inspired to read or study this saint further. She doesn’t like the “boyish” image or the fact that St. Joan acted as a soldier. The *image* has not touched the girlish heart.

    This excerpt from Twain is like a breath of fresh air and I plan to share it with her today. Perhaps, she’ll see St. Joan in a new light—a holier, more beautiful light—and, perhaps, explore a new rabbit trail.

    Thank you again. : )

  5. Brigid! says:

    Lissa, You always lead us to such good selections: Mark Twain’s ‘Joan of Arc’ is a MUST HAVE. I can’t believe it’s only eleven bucks! This book can be enjoyed by so many ages. I lent my copy to a friend and she did a ‘read-aloud’ to her daughter. Raves abounded.