Joan of Arc A life transfigured

Kathryn Harrison

Book - 2014

A fully documented, inspiring portrait of the 15th-century peasant-turned-saint draws on historical facts, folklore and centuries of critical interpretation to evaluate the questions attributed to her character.

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New York : Doubleday [2014]
First edition
Physical Description
382 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map (some color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [333]-360) and index.
Main Author
Kathryn Harrison (-)
  • In the beginning was the Word
  • By angels' speech and tongue
  • A small, nay, the least, thing
  • The king's treasure
  • Who is this then, that wind and seas obey?
  • Surrender to the maid
  • A leaping stag
  • Black horseman
  • The golden cloak
  • The tower keep
  • A heart that would not burn
  • Life everlasting.
Review by New York Times Review

IT REMAINS, after nearly 600 years, a story to break your heart. In the 1420s, in a village in northeastern France, an illiterate teenage peasant girl has a series of visions telling her that God wants her to lead a French army to lift the English siege of Orléans and help crown the dauphin, Charles, king in the cathedral at Reims. Putting on men's clothing and winning over everyone by force of character and belief, she gets her army and triumphantly achieves all that the voices have foretold. Pious, outspoken, stubborn and recklessly courageous, she breaks every rule of gender, class and organized religion, and the people flock to her. Then comes her fall. Sidelined at court, she waits too long to launch an unsuccessful attack on English-occupied Paris, during which she is wounded, and then in a skirmish at Compiègne she is captured. Abandoned by the king, she is cruelly imprisoned, tried as a heretic and witch, then burned at the stake. The light of revelation ends in the agony of fire, and the legend of Joan of Arc is born. You could fill a library with books about Joan. In France alone, it's estimated that by 1920 at least 12,000 works had been written. The list of artists in her thrall include the writers Twain and Voltaire, the playwrights Schiller, Brecht, Shaw and Anouilh, the screenwriter Graham Greene and directors as diverse as Robert Bresson, Otto Preminger, Cecil B. DeMille and Luc Besson. Is there, one wonders, anything more to say? The novelist Kathryn Harrison, whose own breaking of social taboos through an incestuous relationship with her father was retold in her best-selling memoir "The Kiss," clearly thinks so. As its subtitle suggests, "Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured" both tells and observes history, interweaving Joan's own story with fictional and historical interpretations (the usual suspects mentioned above and many more). It makes for rich cultural reading. How far it illuminates or obscures Joan herself is a different question. Harrison's first task is to guide the 21st-century mind through the political and spiritual quagmires of medieval France. Absorbing a huge amount of research, she has a fine eye for detail: Imagine a world where people timed the boiling of eggs by reciting the Miserere prayer. And though she uses her novelist's pen sparingly, it can be to great effect, seating us inside the cathedral at Reims as the sun shines "through the great rose window, spraying coins of colored light over the hushed congregants." Harrison - like Joan - is impressive on the battlefield: medieval warfare and weaponry, Joan as strategist, her horsemanship and her extraordinary physical and mental stamina, carrying 40 to 50 pounds of full armor, which after a night sleeping in a field leaves her, according to her page, "bruised and weary," yet back in the saddle next morning heading for Orléans. The body underneath that armor tells its own story. In recent years, historians have done fascinating work on visionary females in medieval Europe. In a world reeling from the Black Death and endless wars - sometimes history reads like a catalog of post-traumatic stress - people were desperate for evidence of God's love, and holy women served to provide it. Eve's sin had left women ruled by their husbands and suffering the punishment of endless, agonizing childbearing. For them to be taken seriously in spiritual terms, virginity and chastity were obligatory, and the purity of Joan's body was central to her sense of self. Like many visionaries, she didn't menstruate. People talk about how little she ate, how she went for days with only the bread and wine of the Eucharist to sustain her. While anorexia would be a reductive diagnosis here (and there has been a heated debate among scholars about the role of food and fasting within female spirituality), it makes one appreciate the astonishing strength of will possessed by this young girl. Though Harrison touches on these issues, they aren't her main concern. Rather, she is interested in how Joan has been transfigured by and into art. The primary historical source material is rich and plentiful, with trial records and witness reports painting vivid pictures. At every stage, writers use - or abuse - these materials differently, reflecting their own age and cultural concerns. Brecht and Shaw refashion Joan as a force for social justice, while Maxwell Anderson, writing his play at the end of World War II, speaks to a society where women, having taken on men's roles, are being asked to go back into the home. Rosie the Riveter and Joan the soldier - what a mischievous cultural marriage. But not every extract or interpretation is that telling, and there are so many woven into each stage of her life that after a while it becomes hard to distinguish the historical evidence from the chorus of commentators. This problem is accentuated by another, more bizarre, transfiguration, which Harrison herself advances. Throughout the book, she draws overt parallels between Joan of Arc and Christ, quoting chunks of Scripture to make her point: Both are saviors, both engaged in prophecy, both drafted their own "death warrant" (Joan by putting on male clothes, Christ by throwing the money lenders from the temple), both were betrayed, tried and sent to an agonizing death. At times, Harrison slides between the two lives with barely a join, and her language is often striking: "Jesus was a holy messenger, and so was the maid of Orléans, resplendent in her circle of light." After quoting the Scriptures on Christ's death, she inserts: "'Jesu,' Joan called as she died 'Jesu!' Her essence was transformed by light too hot to touch - heir to Moses' burning bush, to the blinding flash that made Saul into Paul." Though Joan's followers may have seen her as some kind of savior and her cinematic incarnations - from DeMille's silent melodrama to Besson's mysticism - tend to the messianic, there is something in Harrison's insistence and imagery that feels more suited to the pulpit than the pages of a cultural biography. Caught between this relentless Scriptural comparison and everyone else's interpretations, the real Joan of Arc is in danger of getting lost. And that's a shame, because in all manner of ways, she is an unexpected, obstreperous character. She dictates haughty letters to English generals, chases prostitutes out of army camps, admonishes soldiers for swearing, slaps down the hands of men who dare to touch her, wavers between defiance and terrible vulnerability and, when challenged over her visions, answers her erudite, though grossly unscrupulous, interrogators with an untutored sophistry that needs no playwright to embellish it. "'Was St. Michael naked?' "'Do you think God has not wherewithal to clothe him?' "'Did he have any hair?' "'Why should it be cut off?'" Harrison ends her book with Joan's eventual canonization in 1920. The case against her at those proceedings cited her immodest behavior and attacked her for giving in to "the anger that is customary of military persons" and for facing death not like a martyr but "with great anguish and fear." The clerical jury didn't accept the arguments, and Joan was duly made a saint. But history is not the past seen through the lens of God, and it is Joan's rambunctious humanity as much as her divinity that makes her powerful, both for modern audiences and historians. At a time when so few women's voices - let alone young, illiterate ones - were heard or recorded, hers sang out fresh and clear, reaching long into the future. There are some kinds of miracles within the past that don't need to have God attached. SARAH DUNANT'S latest novel is "Blood and Beauty: The Borgias."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 14, 2014] Review by Booklist Review

The fact that a new biography of Joan of Arc is published every few years is testament to the fact that the story of the French peasant girl who led an army against British invaders, for the glory of God and country, never ceases to fascinate. As each succeeding generation reexamines Joan's life, the psychological spins increase, and in novelist Harrison's deft hands, the latest analysis is both vividly detailed and historically grounded. Casting a modern eye on a medieval legend, she is able to breathe new life into the girl, the warrior, the messenger from God, and the saint. Various intriguing angles, including Joan's sexuality, her feminism, and her possible schizophrenia, are scrutinized through a twenty-first-century lens. In addition to Joan's early years and her fiery path to battle, Harrison also includes Joan's trials, execution, and canonization in the compulsively readable narrative.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Joan of Arc was the subject of rumors and legends even in her own time, and from the 15th century onward her experience has been appropriated according to the needs of the age and artist. Novelist and memoirist Harrison (Enchantments) makes Joan's story almost surreal as it's untethered from time or context. Harrison compares Joan to Jesus: "Where no tangible historical records or artifacts provide a counterweight to the pull of a narrative tradition shaped by faith, the historical truth of a life like Joan's or Jesus's gives way to religious truth."¿ But it is never clear whose truth is being discussed. Harrison relays the events of Joan's life by quoting other interpreters such as George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Cecil B. DeMille, and Luc Besson. Often it is implied that these are a reflection of Joan's own reality. Harrison draws on previous biographies-and the records of her trial-for the established facts of the brief life and tragic execution of the Maid of Orleans. However, just as many, if not more, of Harrison's citations refer to films or fictions, and a host more from other biographers. Too many other reported conversations are not cited at all. In the end, Harrison's jumble of biography and hagiography falls between two stools. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Prolific novelist and biographer Harrison (Enchantments) has penned an engrossing narrative of the life and times of Joan of Arc (1412-31). Countless writers over the centuries have presented varying interpretations of the peasant girl who saved France, and this volume is no exception. Depicting Joan as a courageous heroine who defied the gender limits of her time, Harrison consciously and deliberately identifies characteristics of Joan with those of Jesus Christ. Defining "transfiguration" as an "unnatural brilliance associated with mystical experience," the author equates Joan's transfiguration with that of Christ and finds numerous parallels in their lives. Part biography, part medieval history, this is also a cultural and intellectual investigation of how Joan has been presented in poetry, drama, art, and film; references to these depictions are interspersed throughout the text. Creative use of dialog reconstructed from a variety of sources adds to the volume's readability. Even those familiar with the subject's story will find fascinating material here, as Harrison describes the layers of meaning attached to Joan's virginity, appearance, and asceticism. Details of her biography are placed in the context of Christian symbolism, medieval notions of proper womanhood, and contemporary prophecy and folklore. VERDICT For general readers interested in biographies of renowned figures. [See Prepub Alert, 4/7/14.]-Marie M. Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

The versatile Harrison (Enchantments, 2012, etc.)novelist, biographer, memoirist and true-crime writerbecomes the most recent in a long list of authors to tell the story of the unusual warrior. Born in 1412 and executed just 19 years later, French peasant Joan of Arc began listening to the voices of angels at age 14 ("hers alone, a rapturous secret"). She did not suspect at first, nor did anybody else, that those angels wanted her to undertake a seemingly impossible task: to lead an army of Frenchmen into battle against the mighty enemy forces from across the channel in England. The tale of Joan of Arc has been told countless times, so why revisit it, especially when hard evidence is lacking? For starters, Harrison's editor suggested the topic. At that point, the author decided 21st century readers required a new narrative of a life so improbable and heroic. Harrison knew, of course, about the daunting list of previous interpreters, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. She wisely examines some of those previous interpretations, finding some of the speculation and historicism plausible but some of it wanting. Harrison examines Joan as a sexual being as well as a warrior and perhaps a schizophrenic. The sexuality angle becomes especially provocative when Harrison discusses how God may have favored Joan due to the virginity she advertised so boldly. The author recounts the battle scenes in sometimes-excruciating detail and gives plenty of space to her arrest, trial and execution. She also provides a chronology. The vivid stories of Joan's remarkable life never died completely, leading to her canonization as a saint in 1920. Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.