Jehanne d’Arc was an illiterate peasant girl, extremely pious, doggedly stubborn and blessed, or cursed, with visitations from heavenly emissaries who delivered verbal messages from God. Nearly half a millennium after it rigged a public trial and burned her at the stake in the market square in Rouen, the Catholic Church declared Jehanne to be a saint and martyr.
History, and Kimberly Cutter’s intimate novel The Maid: a novel of Joan of Arc, both tell us that Jehanne did lead French troops to significant victories at Orleans and Patay that succeeded in ending the Hundred Years War. She saw Charles the Dauphin crowned as the rightful King of France in the cathedral at Reims, as her voices instructed her. She rode into battle at the head of the French army for a brief year, changed history, was captured and spent the next year as a prisoner, in chains and on trial.
Jehanne often identified herself as La Pucelle, the maid, underscoring her virginity and dedication to God’s service. This was actually clever marketing for her time because unconventional women were discounted as witches and sluts and beneath contempt and, for Jehanne to succeed in her mission, she needed a platform and very good press. Even as a virgin who sent the camp followers packing and would not allow swearing in her presence, she was under constant assault for being unthinkable, unnatural, weird and possibly mad.
Her battle tactics were as unorthodox as her outlawed male dress but they were brilliant and effective. Her courage at the front of her troops in every sortie was legendary. And her victories gave her enormous credibility. The Maid shows us all this about Jehanne but digs into the pressures and the circumstances of her days, the hesitance to embrace a fate that seemed dangerous and improbable, her sheer helplessness to do anything more than follow her voices and beg for them to guide her.
The book is faithful to the considerable history we have of Jehanne’s brief life and her tumultuous times. Hers is not an unknown story – the long public trial and interrogations are documented facts that can be read in the original court manuscripts today. What is imagined are her reactions to the people and daily events in her life, the mystery of the disappearance of her sister in the middle of a war-torn France, the personal conversations with patrons, supporters, soldiers and even the weak-willed heir to the throne. She seems to have known always that her time would be short and her death the result of betrayal. She seems to have worked her legend in order to achieve her aims.
I confess I am fascinated by Joan of Arc and have been since the nuns told us her story in a bloody year of Lives of the Saints as our lunchtime read-aloud. She was anything but a wimp – this girl didn’t mince around in a little white dress avoiding patent leather shoes that might reflect her little white Catholic girl underwear to the salacious second-grade boys who were constantly on alert for a glimpse. She rocked it with swords, horses, tough talk and battles. She won. Nobody sent her home – she won. They had to burn her alive to stop her. That part was gruesomely fascinating and just proved how awesome the chick was. Forget stigmata and founding religious orders and healing the sick. Do not mess with Joan of Arc. Just. Don’t. We loved her.
The Maid is less glamorous than Lives of the Saints filtered through seven-year-old imaginations but no less fascinating because the story it tells is real. Jehanne La Pucelle was devoted, savvy, stubborn as hell, a great warrior and a larger-than-life personality. She burned to do the will of God and in the end her passion consumed her as completely as any flames. She was twelve when the voices first spoke to her. She was seventeen when she defeated the English and crowned the French king. She was nineteen when she may have been assaulted in her cell, slipped back into the forbidden, protective male clothing that violated Church law, was condemned for it and marched to the stake.
She is still a gutsy and enthralling icon; her life is a gift to a writer with its quick pace, major events and dramatic conclusion. The Maid is a rich read if you like Joan of Arc stories and it will probably hold your interest even if there is no Sister Mary Scholastica reading aloud over the peanut butter and jelly in your past.
The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc Kimberly Cutter | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011