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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CLXXXIII. The Sieur de Conte and Joan
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|In a note which he made many years later Mark Twain declared that he was
fourteen years at work on Joan of Arc; that he had been twelve years
preparing for it, and that he was two years in writing it.
There is nothing in any of his earlier notes or letters to indicate that
he contemplated the story of Joan as early as the eighties; but there is
a bibliographical list of various works on the subject, probably compiled
for him not much later than 1880, for the latest published work of the
list bears that date. He was then too busy with his inventions and
publishing schemes to really undertake a work requiring such vast
preparation; but without doubt he procured a number of books and renewed
that old interest begun so long ago when a stray wind had blown a leaf
from that tragic life into his own. Joan of Arc, by Janet Tuckey, was
apparently the first book he read with the definite idea of study, for
this little volume had been recently issued, and his copy, which still
exists, is filled with his marginal notes. He did not speak of this
volume in discussing the matter in after-years. He may have forgotten
it. He dwelt mainly on the old records of the trial which had been dug
out and put into modern French by Quicherat; the 'Jeanne d'Arc' of J.
Michelet, and the splendid 'Life of the Maid' of Lord Ronald Gower, these
being remembered as his chief sources of information.--[The book of
Janet Tuckey, however, and ten others, including those mentioned, are
credited as "authorities examined in verification" on a front page of his
published book. In a letter written at the conclusion of "Joan" in 1895,
the author states that in the first two-thirds of the story he used one
French and one English authority, while in the last third he had
constantly drawn from five French and five English sources.]
"I could not get the Quicherat and some of the other books in English,"
he said, "and I had to dig them out of the French. I began the story
None of these discarded beginnings exists to-day, but we may believe they
were wisely put aside, for no story of the Maid could begin more
charmingly, more rarely, than the one supposedly told in his old age by
Sieur Louis de Conte, secretary of Joan of Arc, and translated by Jean
Francois Alden for the world to read. The impulse which had once
prompted Mark Twain to offer The Prince and the Pauper anonymously now
prevailed. He felt that the Prince had missed a certain appreciation by
being connected with his signature, and he resolved that its companion
piece (he so regarded Joan) should be accepted on its merits and without
prejudice. Walking the floor one day at Viviani, smoking vigorously, he
said to Mrs. Clemens and Susy:
"I shall never be accepted seriously over my own signature. People
always want to laugh over what I write and are disappointed if they don't
find a joke in it. This is to be a serious book. It means more to me
than anything I have ever undertaken. I shall write it anonymously."
So it was that that gentle, quaint Sieur de Conte took up the pen, and
the tale of Joan was begun in that beautiful spot which of all others
seems now the proper environment for its lovely telling.
He wrote rapidly once he got his plan perfected and his material
arranged. The reading of his youth and manhood, with the vivid
impressions of that earlier time, became now something remembered, not
merely as reading, but as fact.
Others of the family went down into the city almost daily, but he
remained in that still garden with Joan as his companion--the old Sieur
de Conte, saturated with memories, pouring out that marvelous and tragic
tale. At the end of each day he would read to the others what he had
written, to their enjoyment and wonder.
How rapidly he worked may be judged from a letter which he wrote to Hall
in February, in which he said:
I am writing a companion piece to 'The Prince and the Pauper', which is
half done & will make 200,000 words.
That is to say, he had written one hundred thousand words in a period of
perhaps six weeks, marvelous work when one remembers that after all he
was writing history, some of which he must dig laboriously from a foreign
source. He had always, more or less, kept up his study of the French,
begun so long ago on the river and it stood him in good stead now.
Still, it was never easy for him, and the multitude of notes along the
margin of his French authorities bears evidence of his faithfulness and
the magnitude of his toil. No previous work had ever required so much of
him, such thorough knowledge; none had ever so completely commanded his
interest. He would have been willing to remain shut away from visitors,
to have been released altogether from social obligations; and he did
avoid most of them. Not all, for he could not always escape, and perhaps
did not always really wish to. Florence and its suburbs were full of
delightful people--some of them his old friends. There were luncheons,
dinners, teas, dances, concerts, operas always in progress somewhere, and
not all of these were to be resisted even by an absorbed author who was
no longer himself, but sad old Sieur de Conte, following again the banner
of the Maid of Orleans, marshaling her twilight armies across his