Joan and Jill

V.G. Kiernan

  • Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism by Marina Warner
    Weidenfeld, 349 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 297 77638 X

In 1870, Daumier drew a cartoon of soldiers filing past a monument of the fatherland, with the caption: ‘Ceux qui vont mourir te saluent.’ Wandering about quiet French churches, one always comes on a dusty tablet with a list of long-forgotten names, and the brief valediction: ‘Morts pour la France’. Close to it very often stands Joan of Arc, in armour, sword in hand, as if pointing young men to the battlefield, to die for France, or whatever France has fought its wars for. It was tragically appropriate that she was canonised in 1920, just after a million men had died for France; she was wafted up to Heaven on a gale of high explosive and poison gas. A woman burned by the Inquisition for insubordination to Holy Church was not a person the Church could easily bring itself to honour, but towards the end of five centuries of waiting her promotion was rapid. She was made Venerable in 1903, a bizarre title for a girl of 19, and Beatified in 1909, when France was drifting towards war; drifting also into infidelity, which might be checked by a distinction conferred on the embodiment of French patriotism.

Personified France and canonised Joan are both enigmatic figures. With Joan, Marina Warner has succeeded as well as anyone could in plucking out the heart of her mystery. She is the heroine of this book: deservedly, for it is hard to think of any close parallel to her anywhere in history, even though in other times and climes, and under other gods, the storm and stress of war has sometimes given women the chance to come forward as leaders. We may think of the semi-deified chieftainess Veleda whom Tacitus describes, in the revolt of the Rhineland Germans against Rome, or of Lalla Fathma, the wrinkled old prophetess who inspired the resistance of the Kabyle tribesmen to Napoleon III. But this book is a study, not a eulogy, and admiration is seasoned by the critical spirit. ‘It is in some ways terrible to look upon such epic events with a cold eye,’ but it is necessary candour ‘to own that heroes and heroines are often the vessels of our most self-flattering illusions.’ She has gone carefully into the setting of events; some readers may wish for a rather fuller introduction to the Hundred Years War and what it was about, but there is a chronological table to assist their memories. Speaking of Joan’s strange encounter with Charles VII at Chinon, where today the docile tourist follows his guide from mouldering tower to tower, she finds an ‘irrational element’ in history which ‘will always defy analysis’, an idea that would have been worth saying more about.

Miss Warner is good at questions concerning women, and concerning religion: she is the author of a very serious study of the cult of the Virgin Mary. It is an acute observation that when a state of confusion has seized people’s notions of public right and wrong, as it did very deeply in late Medieval France, ‘there flourishes the preacher who links it firmly with private sin.’ A good part of religious history has consisted of people being adjured to repent of their own shortcomings, instead of complaining about Henry V or Mrs Thatcher. She is exact about linguistic matters, as is needful because many old French terms which come into the story require accurate understanding. Joan called herself ‘the maid of God’, and has for long now been to her countrymen ‘the maid of France’: the precise significance of the word pucelle is gone into. There are some intriguing speculations about gender in linguistic psychology, and why French abstract nouns are feminine. As to the book’s English, it is flexible and graphic; a purist may feel that now and then it lapses into colloquialisms unsuited to the dignity of the Muse.

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