A Working Girl

Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism

by Marina Warner
Knopf, 384 pp., $17.95

Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality

by Frances Gies
Harper and Row, 306 pp., $14.95

The 550th anniversary of Joan of Arc’s death in the flames at Rouen on May 30, 1431 can be relied upon to release a torrent of commemorative books and articles. But it is unlikely to add much of substance to the known facts of her career. The essential source remains the detailed record of her trial, which was published with many supporting documents by the French scholar Jules Quicherat in the 1840s. By printing the girl’s own words in all their directness and tenacity, Quicherat did for Joan of Arc very much what Thomas Carlyle’s edition of his letters and speeches did in the same decade for Oliver Cromwell. Since Quicherat’s day, scholars have filled out the political background of her career, but they are still unable to do more than speculate about some of the baffling enigmas it presents.

What was the “sign” by which Joan convinced Charles VII of his legitimacy? How was he so quickly persuaded to accept her? Was she a genuine military leader or just a regimental mascot? Why was more effort not made to ransom her after she had fallen into the hands of the Anglo-Burgundians? And why was her rehabilitation delayed until the 1450s? Reasonable answers can be suggested to all these questions, 1 but about none of them can there be complete certainty. Meanwhile it is worth remembering how little substance there is for many of the most cherished assumptions about Joan herself. Virtually nothing is known about her physical appearance, for example; and even the name “d’Arc” was one which she never used, but was attached to her over a century after her death.

No doubt it is these very uncertainties which have helped to convert her into one of the most resonant and flexible symbols in the whole of human history. In modern mythology Joan of Arc is both Roman Catholic saint and martyr for the cause of sturdy, anticlerical individualism. She stands both for female innocence and for women’s emancipation. (When Mrs. Pankhurst was released from Holloway jail in 1908 the procession was led by a suffragette dressed as Joan in full armor.) She is a French national emblem, but in no sense the peculiar property of France. Her story inspired Schiller and Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Bernard Shaw. She is commemorated in sculpture and painting. She forms the subject of what Mark Twain perversely thought the best of all his books; and she has been the theme of more historical essays and biographies than can confidently be reckoned.

The latest of these, by Frances Gies, contains no surprises or notable flashes of illumination. But it is soundly based on modern scholarship and can be warmly recommended to readers seeking a simple, unpretentious narrative of Joan’s career. Mrs. Gies is careful to distinguish direct evidence from hearsay and she is agreeably without any special axes to grind.

Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc is a much more ambitious book. It has two main purposes. The first is to “decode”…

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