In her recent book, “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured," novelist and historian Kathryn Harrison creates a fascinating portrait of the teenager who saved France.
Harrision did a prodigious job of marshaling the available biographical sources and deftly handles the multitude of interpretations Joan has experienced in the 583 years since she died at the stake.
The wonderful thing about the historical record of Joan of Arc is that there is so much of it. The quotes from the real Joan of Arc in the book are like fireworks of personality and character. As Harrison points out, “Though she was uneducated, her mental acuity gave her the advantage over Sorbonne-trained theologians three times her age.”
Harrison inserts dialogue from plays, novels and movies to give a running cultural history along with the real history. The fictional quotes move the narrative along, but the reader needs to be careful to not misattribute them to Joan herself.
If somebody wants a book that definitively declares Joan’s visions faked, hallucinatory or real, this isn’t the book. That isn’t to say, however, that Harrison doesn’t have her own opinions.
Take, for example, this breathtaking declaration of the author’s belief: “To equate female sexuality with disobedience and pollution and judge women exclusively on the basis of their sexual conduct is a cornerstone of Judeo-Christian tradition.”
But if the idea of looking through a modern feminist lens at the events of the 1430s bothers some people, they might still benefit from reading a book that shakes up their preconceptions. It is precisely the sort of shaking up that Joan gave her world.
Be forewarned, however. The book has plenty of violence, vulgarity and frank discussions about sexuality both modern and medieval.
Harrison’s book is a superb way to learn about the life and surrounding culture of Joan of Arc. It is well-written and is unique among the many biographies of the saint. But Joan would probably be very baffled and even dismayed at some of Harrison’s conclusions. This is not a condemnation of the book, but a recognition of the clash between time, cultures and agendas.
It is hard to write a biography without love (if only of the Stockholm syndrome variety), but if there is love for Joan in Harrison's book, it is subdued. In the end, the reader will know a lot about Joan and her times, but, perhaps, not really know Joan herself.
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