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Book Review: Joan of Arc – A Life Transfigured

By (October 23, 2014) One Comment

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfiguredjoan cover

by Kathryn Harrison

Doubleday, 2014

“A saint is a story,” writes novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison at the beginning of her quite good new biography of Joan of Arc (canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920, in response not only to her sanctity but also to a very popular Cecil B. DeMille film from a few years before), and whatever problems readers are going to have with how Harrison tells this story will crop up right away in the text. Her approach, suffused with a novelist’s imagination, is to take the whole spectrum of Joan’s incredible life, the facts, the flagrancies, and the fantasies, mix it all together, and then, as Joan herself might have said, let God sort it all out. And so, before the narrative proper has even begun, Harrison gives us a summary like this:

Her birth was prophesied: a virgin warrior would arise to save her people. She had power over the natural world, not walking on water, but commanding the direction of the wind. She foretold the future. If she wasn’t transfigured while preaching on a mount, she was, eyewitnesses said, luminous in battle, light not flaring off her armor so much as radiating from the girl within. The English spoke of a cloud of white butterflies unfurling from her banner – proof of sorcery, they called it. Her touch raised the dead. Her feats, which continue six centuries after her birth to frustrate even more modern and enlightened efforts to rationalize and reduce to human proportions, won the allegiance of tens of wonder-struck thousands and made her as many ardent enemies. The single thing she feared, she said, was treachery.

Not exactly a brief for Scientific American, is it? It’s as evocative and readable as anything written in English about Joan in many years – and that’s true for this whole book – but there’s a troubling ambiguity hovering around it like those banner butterflies. Joan of Arc could not, in fact, control the wind, nor could she heal the sick or raise the dead. She was a charismatic ecstatic who traded – consciously and unconsciously – on the credulities of an age that also tried dogs for murder and paid money to kneel in prayer before jars of the Virgin Mary’s still-warm breast milk. If you’re the kind of reader who can’t get past an author those kinds of faintly disparaging sniffs at the modern and the enlightened, this biography probably isn’t for you.

If you can overlook – or even come to enjoy, which is surely Harrison’s goal here – these novelistic flourishes, you’ll be well-rewarded with one of the best biographies of 2014. Harrison takes the story of Joan – born a peasant girl in 1412, impressing the future King Charles VII with both her piety and her horsemanship, leading French armies in a series of surprisingly successful campaigns against the invading English, getting captured by the English in 1430, and getting burned at the stake in 1431 – and, as her book’s subtitle promises, transfigures it, back-filling all the mystical drama that was most certainly real to most of the people who lived in Joan’s age. There’s scarcely a dull or time-serving page in the book; even that bane of travel-writers, encountering new towns, is done with superb color and control:

In its size and splendor, Chinon would have struck most small-town girls, few of whom traveled far from where they were born, as a vision from a fairy tale, an imposing stone structure complete with conical turrets whose bright, restless pennants advertised its occupants’ coat of arms. The foundations of the castle were built on an altitude higher than any land in sight; its battlements rose from a ledge of rock that overlooked the river Vienne, a slab of shadow looming over any army so foolish as to try to scale its height. The Vienne is a major tributary of the Loire, its banks peopled ever since rivers were used as trade routes, in prehistory, and the strategic advantage granted by the chateau’s height was joined by its unusual physical grace. Joan reached Chinon in the middle of the day on March 4, 1429, and lodged at a house belonging to a woman she characterized, in anticipation of her examiner’s maligning her hostess, as having a good reputation. There she was forced to do what she hated: wait.

Notice the wonderfully-modulated downward-cadence of those lines, bringing us with swift, sure strokes to the hint of foreboding and then to a fittingly abrupt halt. Such creative flourishes enliven Harrison’s book from its retelling of Joan’s spectacular, anomalous career to the long and equally-fascinating story of her ‘afterlife’ in books, movies, and the popular imagination, and they work equally well when Harrison is praising her famous subject as when she’s – very gently, almost apologetically – criticizing her:

Because frontal attacks were as bloody as they were successful, costly to victor and vanquished alike in terms of fatalities, the French army had been reduced to an estimated two thousand soldiers, not nearly enough to continue to defend Orleans while recapturing all the cities along the Loire currently occupied by the enemy. The violence of the direct charge was part of what terrorized the English, used as they were to haggling over ransoms while pinching off shipments of wine and chasing down spoils of war. If Joan never, as she swore, killed a man, she did inspire a single-minded savagery, and her reputation among the English was a a leader of what both she and her judges termed “massacres.”

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured provides the most vivid and compelling biography of Joan since Mary Gordon’s much shorter success in 2000 (that volume was part of the Penguin “Brief Lives” series that produced so many odd classics, and Gordon, too, is a novelist by trade), and the book’s final chapter, “Life Everlasting,” is in some ways its best, quickly and elegantly summarizing the chaos in the wake of Joan’s execution, and the beginnings of the strange “afterlife” in which she would live for future generations; the chapter includes a priceless little swipe at an admittedly easy target, Jean Chapelain’s enormous twelve-volume work about Joan and spares a few harsh words for a satire on the subject penned by Voltaire, who, we’re told, “squinting in the glare of the Enlightenment, imagined his pen mightier than the Maid’s sword.”

There’s another crack at the Enlightenment! But at least you’ve been warned: signs and wonders.