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Updated: February 2019

Book Reviews

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

I confess to you that I don’t always want to read an improving book. Sometimes I just want something light. But in the interest of promoting Catholic fiction, I forced myself to sit down and search online for a novel that someone had recommended in a forum discussing favourite Catholic literature.

Mark Twain, despite being known for his humour, wrote one serious piece of fiction - Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. It was so different from his usual fiction that he published it anonymously so as not to disappoint his fans.

At first, I thought it would be heavy going. But I was hooked right away. (The same thing happened to me with War and Peace. I should have learned by now…)

In the fictitious translator’s preface to Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Twain writes:

When we reflect that her century was the brutalist, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. The contrast between her and her century is the contrast between day and night. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was; she was a rock of convictions in a time when men believed in nothing and scoffed at all things; she was unfailingly true to an age that was false to the core; she maintained her personal dignity unimpaired in an age of fawnings and servilities; she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation; she was spotlessly pure in mind and body when society in the highest places was foul in both—she was all these things in an age when crime was the common business of lords and princes, and when the highest personages in Christendom were able to astonish even that infamous era and make it stand aghast at the spectacle of their atrocious lives black with unimaginable treacheries, butcheries, and beastialities.

The last line concerned me and sent me searching online to see if perhaps I had somehow gotten confused and was reading an anti-Catholic book. But another online reviewer, Florentius, assured me:

Mark Twain and Joan of Arc share one thing in common--that occasionally, God uses some of the most unexpected people as the instruments of His Providence. In Joan's case, God used an ignorant 17 year-old peasant girl to revive the fortunes of a beaten France. In Twain's case, God used a hard-bitten anti-Catholic to write what may be the most lovely telling of Joan of Arc's story in the English language.

  Florentius points out that in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain’s bias against the Church is evident which makes it all the more astounding that he should write such a reverential novel like the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

The rest of Florentius’ review can be read here:

Tiber River

Mark Twain wasn’t a Catholic, of course. But this work reminds me of how Charles Dickens, although also not a Catholic, wrote a pro-Catholic novel, Barnaby Rudge, which like Twain’s novel, is one of his least known books. No matter. It’s still appreciated. And thanks to online publishing, one doesn’t have to try to track down second-hand copies in order to enjoy them.

You can read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc for free here:

Personal Recollectins of Joan of Arc - Volume 1 by Mark Twain
Personal Recollectins of Joan of Arc - Volume 2 by Mark Twain

Lady Collendon’s Cook by Herbert Howard Jones

Brew up a pot of tea and let Lady Collendon’s Cook take you back to the pre-World War II days of upper-class England.

Fans of Remains of the Day will enjoy this suspenseful story that starts out in a stately home that entertains both English aristocrats and German diplomats. But when a German diplomat staying in Lord and Lady Collendon’s home orders some wurst and shortly thereafter, dies in his room, tainted pork is one of the possible causes. Is it an assassination attempt? Interested parties may not believe it is but it is politically convenient to pursue the possibility. Naturally, Lady Collendon’s cook becomes a person of interest. We get introduced to a variety of characters who we might be tempted to think of as ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. But as the story unfolds, Herbert Howard Jones shows us that these people aren’t so ordinary.

Herbert Howard Jones has set his story in a fascinating time in English history. After World War II, it was conveniently forgotten that there had been Nazi sympathizers in Britain among both the lower and upper classes. When I was researching my novella, Cold in Canada, I discovered that both Fascism and Nazism played roles in the political life of pre-War England. Most disturbing to learn about was that the recently abdicated King Edward and his new wife, Wallis Simpson both met with the Fuhrer, possibly with the hope that when Hitler invaded Britain, he would put Edward back on the throne.

Those who have a Prime account and have watched The Man in the Castle know that the triumph of Nazism wouldn’t have stopped with England. If it had spread, it would have meant the extermination of not just the Jewish people but Catholics and other Christians, as well. (In fact, in the early 1930’s, Catholic politicians in Germany didn’t hide their lack of support for National Socialism. Pope Pius XI spoke out against the new regime in Germany, until it became clear that his words were causing prominent Catholic citizens to be persecuted or to disappear altogether. Later, at Dachau, there was a dedicated clergy barracks and 1,034 priests died there.) And those who have seen the movie, Race, about black American sprinter Jesse Owens at the Munich Olympics in 1936, know that Hitler wasn’t fond of other races debunking his theories about the superiority of the Aryan race.

But in the early 30’s in Britain, some people thought that Mr. Hitler wasn’t doing a bad job in Germany.

Thanks to movies and novels like Remains of the Day and now, Lady Collendon’s Cook, more people than ever know that history can be a terrifying reminder that we don’t see what’s coming even when all the signs are in place.

The great appeal of Jones’ book, however, is that despite the vivid backdrop, when you’re done reading it, it’s the individual characters who you will remember, and not just Lady Collendon’s cook!

You can read Lady Collendon’s Cook for free here:

Lady Collendon's Cook by Herbert Howard Jones

If you're interested in a contemporary story about a young couple who solve a mystery set in pre-World War II England, check out Cold in Canada:

Cold in Canada by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong

And finally, if you'd like an alternative history set in Canada, one where the Germans won World War I, check out Storm and Stress:

Storm and Stress by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong

The New Curate by Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan

There is a touch of P.G. Wodehouse in this light novel about a bishop who sends out a curate to a parish priest for the purpose of breaking the priest’s heart in six weeks after a careless remark made by the priest.

My New Curate by Rev. Patrick Sheehan starts with the comedic departure of the present curate preceded by all his possessions and followed by villagers calling out plaintively after him.

But despite the light humour, the observations are astute. For example:

"How has it come to pass in Ireland that “poet” and “saint” are terms which denote some weakness or irregularity in their possessors? At one time in our history we know that the bard was second only to the King in power and influence; and are we not vaguely proud of that title the world gives us - Island of Saints? Yet, nowadays, through some fatal degeneracy, a poet is looked upon as an idealist, an unpractical builder of airy castles, to whom no one would go for advice in an important matter, or intrust with the investment of a five-pound note."

How true. And Father Dan, the narrator, goes on to say:

And to speak of a man or a woman as a “saint” is to hint at some secret imbecility, which it would be charitable to pass over in silence.

For those in our world today who think that religion is the outdated musings of an ancient Bronze Age culture, Father Dan remarks:

For what does modern literature deal with? Exactly those questions of philosophy, ethics, and morality which form the staple material of theological studies and discussions in our own colleges and academies.

Father Dan is a man who tried. He tried to rouse the sleepy parish he was assigned to thirty years earlier. One can feel the salt in the air as he describes what might be the most languid fishing village on God’s green earth, a salty damp air reputed to turn anyone with energy into the most impassive of citizens. And now Father Dan sees young priests serving Mass in the cathedrals in parishes he once dreamed of.

“And so I drifted,” he says. “… drifted down from high empyreans of great ideals and lofty speculations into a humdrum life, that was only saved from sordidness by the sacred duty of my office.” It is Father Dan’s faith that sets this book apart from other light novels of the day.

"After all, I find that we are not independent of our circumstances. We are fashioned and moulded by them as plaster of Paris is fashioned and moulded into angels or gargoyles by the deft hand of the sculptor."

Father Dan’s new curate arrives at a significant point in Father Dan’s life. “Even my love for the sea had vanished . . . Altogether I was soured and discontented, and I had a dread consciousness that my life was a failure.” He sees himself as, “the barren fig tree, fit only to be cut down” and cries out for a way to escape the inevitable fire for dead wood. In answer to the prayer comes his new curate.

So even if it’s unusual circumstances that bring Father Dan’s new curate to his parish, this is a well-written story of God’s timing being the best timing.

You can read The New Curate for free here:

My New Curate by Canon Patrick Sheehan