Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured” by Kathryn Harrison

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Book review: “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured” by Kathryn Harrison

It was early March of 1429 when Joan, a 17-year-old girl from rural Domremy, arrived in the city of Chinon to tell the Dauphin — Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France — that she had been sent from God to lead his soldiers.

If Joan was daunted by her arrival in a world so unlike her own, where wealth had the power to banish the squalor of peasant life [writes Kathryn Harrison], she betrayed no discomfort. If she felt any awe in entering the castle of a king, she showed none to her companions…

Joan’s attention was elsewhere, already beyond the chateau, galloping ahead of her. Long before she arrived at court, Joan had embarked on a prolonged visionary experience that would end only at her death….

The story of Joan has been told many times over the past six centuries, and it will continue to be told for many centuries more.

It’s a story of fierce faith, dirty politics, venal churchmen, trust betrayed, patriotism abused and, most especially, a girl who called herself Joan the Virgin and was called by her enemies Joan the Whore and Joan the Witch and who, for the past hundred years, has been called Saint Joan. She’s known to history as Joan of Arc even though she was never called that name in her lifetime.

Joan was a village girl who, on the prompting of what she said were voices from God, demanded — and, then, took — command of armies, inspiring her forces with her will, endurance, courage and leadership. She won for Charles his kingdom, then was captured by the English enemy and abandoned by her king, convicted as a heretic and, as a martyr, burned alive.

Before there was a word “feminism,” Joan’s was the story of a woman entering and dominating a man’s world, and then paying the price with her life. A life of breaking rules, a transgressive life.

 

Transgressive

Joan, who, in 1920, was declared a saint by the same church that convicted her as a heretic, is a key figure in French history, described by some as the George Washington of France. And she’s one of those rare Catholic saints who, over the centuries, has attracted secular writers, including Mark Twain, Anatole France, Mary Gordon, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht.

From the start of her “prolonged visionary experience” and down to the modern day, Joan has been a socially transgressive figure whom writers, no matter their take on religious faith, have tried to understand and explain, never with complete success.

Two authors with sexually transgressive histories of their own, have been, somewhat unexpectedly, biographers of Joan — Vita Sackville-West, the noted, and notorious, British novelist who, in 1936, published the woman-warrior’s life story, Saint Joan of Arc, and Kathryn Harrison, the author of Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, published in 2014.

Sackville-West was a dashingly scandalous and socially courageous aristocratic lesbian who usually wore men’s clothes, conducted a decade-long affair with Virginia Woolf and was the model for Woolf’s androgynous protagonist in her historical satire Orlando: A Biography. Sackville-West’s book on Joan was admiring and empathetic, but was criticized for what some took as veiled suggestions that the 15th-century French teenager was lesbian.

While Sackville-West’s life was, for the straight-laced of her era, an ever-evolving scandal, Harrison had one glaring moment in the transgressive limelight.

That came in 1997 with a literary act of courage — the publication of her honest and forthright memoir The Kiss which recounts her first-ever meeting with her father as a 20-year-old woman and their subsequent four-year affair. Many book critics found it impossible to relate to this story of modern incest.

 

Two virgins

Harrison and Sackville-West are women identified, to a greater or lesser extent, in the public mind with their sexual identities, and, perhaps, that’s why they were attracted to Joan whose sexual identity as a virgin was the core of whom she was. She lived a life at court and in combat and in prison among rough, physically active men, yet examinations of her throughout her short public life routinely affirmed her claim to be sexually pure.

As if to underscore this, both authors have also written biographies of another French virgin, Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who was transgressive in her own right, turning her back on the world to become a Carmelite nun and living hidden away in a convent until she died in 1897 at the age of 24.

Despite her obscurity, accounts of Therese’s sanctity and her spiritual biography The Story of a Soul spread throughout early 20th-century Catholicism, and, a quarter century after her death, she was one of the most popular of the church’s spiritual models. In 1925, she was canonized — just five years after Joan who was a major religious model for her.

The two sainted women were an unlikely pair — the confident, inspirational Joan, a world-changer who lived a very public life and died a very public death, and Therese whose spirituality was based on such self-abnegation that, even as tuberculosis was killing her, wrote, “I am the Child Jesus’ little ball; if He wishes to break His toy, He is free. Yes, I will all that He wills.”

Eight years after writing about Joan, Sackville-West told the story of Therese in a dual biography: The Eagle and the Dove, a Study in Contrasts — St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux.

Eleven years before Harrison wrote her book about Joan, she published Saint Therese of Lisieux in the Penguin Lives Series of short biographies of important historical people by major literary figures.

 

“A genuine miracle”

In telling Joan’s story, Harrison, writing for a secular audience, wisely doesn’t try to explain the voices that Joan said she heard. Instead, she takes Joan’s statements about such communication for what they are — statements. She recognizes that Joan’s experience of the voices, whatever that was, moved her to act. And Harrison’s book focuses on the actions the woman-warrior took and what she said about why she took those actions — and, most particularly, on Joan herself.

For instance, Harrison is very concerned to discuss Joan as a young woman who had a body that was rather attractive. Although no portraits of her exist, Harrison notes that Perceval de Boulainvilliers, an aide to the Dauphin, described Joan as having an “elegant figure,” a high feminine voice and “a cheerful countenance.”

The Duke of Alencon praised her young body, and her squire called her “beautiful and shapely.” Yet, even though both saw her disrobe at times during military campaigns, they said they never felt carnal desire for her, something that surprised them to no end.

That so many of Joan’s comrades described their inability to summon lust for her as a genuine miracle suggests that she was certainly not unattractive. Probably she was slender, given how universally those who had eaten with her commented on her abstemious habits. As she easily found men’s clothing to fit her while waiting for her own to be made, she might have been taller than most women of her time….

Without doubt, Joan was an athletic girl, and a strong one. The plate armor she wore immediately upon receiving it, for whole days at a time, weighed between forty and fifty pounds, enough that knights in training typically took weeks to accustom themselves to carrying the added weight.

It’s worth noting that Joan’s enemies saw this much more darkly. The lack of sexual feeling that men experienced toward her was evidence, they said, of a demon who emasculated those who might assault her.

 

Joan’s body

Kathryn Harrison traces the foots of Joan of Arc in French culture and in feminist iconography.

Joan’s body was different in another way. During the many months that he served her, Joan’s squire noted that he never saw evidence of menstruation. Harrison suggests that “the fervor of her vow of chastity” may have kept menarche from happening, or perhaps it was “the strain of warfare and imprisonment.”

Whatever the reason, Harrison describes Joan as “forever on the cusp of womanhood.”

For Joan, her body wasn’t just a body, but a kind of sign board. In a very particular and public way, she used her body to send a clear and direct message through the act of cutting her hair as short as a man and clothing herself in a man’s dress.

Her short-cropped hair not only went against the expectation that an unmarried woman would wear her hair long, but it was shorter than any women were wearing in that era. Joan’s “was the original bob, the haircut assumed by flappers as a symbol of female liberation and still known in France as la coupe a la Jeanne d’Arc.”

It set her apart as a woman who would not be doing “womanly things,” a woman who had to be taken seriously as she broke rules and operated outside the parameters of social custom. Harrison writes:

[Joan’s clothing] was the physical manifestation — the announcement — of her refusal to abide by patriarchal strictures, a defiance that was absolute and uncompromising, and both John and her judges knew that.

 

“Intact”

Joan called herself the Maid, the Virgin, and, Harrison writes, she underwent vaginal examinations on at least three occasions, once at her own request.

Two of the examinations took place when Joan first approached the Dauphin, and, as a courtier wrote, “The Queen said and told the king that she and her ladies had found her beyond any doubt to be a true and intact virgin.”

Harrison is somewhat astonished that, even with all the riding Joan did and the battles she engaged in, her hymen had remained unbroken. Indeed, after being captured by the English, Joan demanded an examination to prove her virginity, and the women who examined her, including the Duchess of Bedford, attested that she was uncorrupted.

On the morning she was told that she would die that day at the stake in a bonfire, Joan recognized that the punishment to be inflicted on her was aimed not only to kill her but to destroy the body that had been such a symbol of her life and its work. According to her captors, her response was:

“Alas, am I to be so cruelly and horribly treated that my pure and unblemished body, which has never been corrupted, must today be consumed and burned to ashes!”

Joan had remained chaste, yet, in another sense, Harrison notes, her body was far from unblemished.

Her flesh bore scars another nineteen-year-old girl’s would not, form a great many small abrasions and cuts as well as injuries significant enough to report, the crossbolt she took to the breast and the injuries to her thigh and the foot [stepped on a spike], all recent enough to appear lurid against what was by now her very pale skin.

And, in a final indignity, the fire that killed her burned away her clothing so that, as one eyewitness reported, “her naked body was shown to all the people, with all the secrets that could or should belong to a woman to remove any doubt from the people.”

 

Faith

Harrison’s concern throughout this biography with describing Joan’s body and what happened to it reflects the fact that she is a modern author writing for modern readers. Today’s reading public expects to learn personal details about famous people, details that, in earlier ages, would have been relegated to footnotes, if included at all.

But it’s more than that.

Joan could only take action in the world throughout her “visionary experience” by breaking rules. Indeed, simply to be a woman who influenced the course of events through direct action was itself the crossing of a clearly delineated line. It was a rebellion, a counter-cultural act.

Throughout this biography, Harrison points out the parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of Joan. Both were religious and cultural rebels who challenged the prevailing rules, and both died for it.

Harrison doesn’t delve into the religious meaning of Joan’s acts — what lessons her life teaches about morality and faith. Yet, they’re there for anyone to see.

Joan lived her beliefs. She left behind a comfortable existence to wage war, to suffer wounds, to put herself on the line for the sake of others. She broke rules not for the sake of breaking rules but for a higher purpose.

Was France spiritually more worthy than England? Did God choose sides in the war?

Those are the wrong questions. Joan’s life showed what could be accomplished with faith and self-sacrifice. It also showed that faith is not without cost. For her, the cost was martyrdom.

Joan’s story is about the stark simplicity of faith, and about the complex consequences of saying “yes.”

Patrick T. Reardon

1.25.17

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