A Saint’s Lives

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, (Doubleday), 400 pages, released October 28, 2014

Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the best biography I’ve read in quite some time—probably the best one I’ve read in years.

I’m one of those non-Catholic girls who grew up reading lives of the saints and fantasizing about converting (at least while I was still in junior high). My first encounter with Saint Joan took place in the gift shop at Holy Hill, a large Catholic church near my mother’s childhood home that was a destination for Catholics and non-Catholics alike because of the views its tower gave of the surrounding countryside. I picked up a comic-book version of Joan’s life, read it in the car on the way home, and was hooked.

Harrison’s book is very much unlike that first version I read, which was pure hagiography. I may be wrong, but I suspect Harrison has been interested in Joan for quite some time. She’s thought about Joan, looked at her from this angle and that, pondered the way she’s been received by different generations.

In fact, Harrison’s book is something like four books in one (or perhaps the best pages of four different biographies excised and stitch together within a new cover. There’s the straightforward biography; the discussion of the way Joan’s life has been interpreted in the arts (theatre, film, painting); the consideration of Joan in the notions of gender prevalent in her own time; and a very interesting comparison of Joan with Christ. Early on she tells readers:

The life of Joan of Arc is as impossible as that of only one other, who also heard God speak: Jesus of Nazareth, prince of paradox as much as peace, a god who suffered and died a mortal… a messenger of forgiveness and love who came bearing a sword, inspiring millennia of judgement and violence…. More than any other Catholic martyr, Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.

Harrison goes on to list some of these similarities in the opening of her book—a birth prophesied, an ability to command the natural elements and foresee the future, a body transfigured—and returns to these regularly throughout the book. (I’m hoping the above quote gives you a taste of her compelling prose style as well as one of her primary tropes.)

Harrison ends the first chapter with a penetrating observation: “It seems Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest. Is this because the stories we understand are the stories we forget?” Not only is Joan remembered, every generation wrestles to understand its own version of Joan. Shaw presents her as a religious reformer (despite her devotion to the religious practices of her own time). Brecht told her story twice; she becomes a hero of the working class in his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. In discussing these works, Harrison illustrates how tempting it is to hold up the mirror of Joan’s life and to see one’s own time.

In her own time, Joan was a heretic simply because she donned men’s clothes: a fact that was overlooked during her early victories, but made much of when leaders of church and government found it useful to have her toppled from her pedestal. Although witch burnings had occurred before her execution by fire, Harrison see Joan’s death as a turning point in European history: “Her trial, its verdict, and the publication of her example united for the three centuries’ worth of zealous, often hysterical, witch hunts amounting to the theatrically cruel execution of as many as a hundred thousand women.”

Harrison is a perceptive, eclectic thinker, and being able to savor four hundred pages of her research and reflections on Joan of Arc is an exceptional treat. Although the year’s not quite yet over, I feel confident that Harrison’s Joan of Arc will be the best biography we see this year.

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