The Last Days of Jeanne d'Arc
The novel begins in a cell, small and dark. Jeanne is forced to renounce the divine voices she has claimed as her inspiration, made to change her male clothes for a white dress, immediately making her more identifiably ‘female’ and more vulnerable to sexual attack.
How can this be? How has she been brought to such a weak position, this woman and soldier who fought and led her men so bravely, and helped bring the French to victory?
Who knows the truth. Things that compel a peasant girl to convince knights to arm her and the king of France to give her an army. History’s most important young woman. An opportunist who lied about communication with divinity – or a suffering saint in the making. (7)
The historical facts give us the bones of the story, but not the person. Born into a peasant family in Domremy, north east France, Jeanne claimed that visions of St Michael, St Margaret of Antioch and St Catherine of Alexandria commanded her to lead a force to take back land claimed by the English and to bring Charles II to the throne. She persuaded Charles to allow her to ride with his army, and her role in the subsequent lifting of the siege of Orleans saw her rise to prominence. Captured by the English, she was tried and burned at the stake for heresy, but twenty-five years later her trial was debunked by Pope Callixtus III and she was declared a martyr.
It is all so improbable that it is fascinating: a young, illiterate peasant girl donning male clothes, claiming visions from saints, being taken seriously by the Dauphin, being followed and admired by soldiers and achieving success in military prowess and strategy. It’s not surprising that her story has been told and retold in opera, theatre, novel, image, sculpture, film, television, video games and comics. As with so many figures from history, the gaps in the historical record allow us to use the woman and the story to think and argue with, to make Jeanne into whatever suits our argument.
Ali Alizadeh has studied the story for over three decades and is more aware of the dilemma than most of us:
There are many more paradoxes and complexities one may discern when it comes to the life of the so-called Maid of Orléans. For me, these are not entirely resolvable, nor are they reducible to one or more possible resolutions. In her I’ve found a potent paragon of the human subject at its most radical, most truthful embodiment.
She is one of the most extreme manifestations of the singularity of humanity, and a testament to our capacity to break with what reduces us to bare life … in her we find that most impossible and improbable phenomenon – genuine, irrefutable hope.[i]
Alizadeh’s recognition of the inability to resolve the paradoxes of Jeanne’s legend informs and, in many ways, structures his novel, and gives the narrative a lively and intelligent energy. It is one of the great strengths of this retelling of the legend. Alizadeh weaves a complex web of voices and narrative positions into a powerful portrait of two women caught inside the swirling military and ecclesiastical forces of the time.
The novel is divided into four parts, each one beginning with Jeanne in her cell, afraid and taunted by guards; there are threat of rape, and more. From the cell the narrative moves to flashbacks, each part focusing on to a differing account of the history. The structure at first seems random, but is in fact a recognition – more than that, a demonstration – of the way that a figure emerges from historical research, gradually becoming enfleshed, her personality and feelings explored.
Part I provides a summary of the war, from 1329, 83 years before Jeanne is born, through to the maid’s victory at the freeing of Orleans from the English in 1429; the latter years of Jeanne’s involvement are reported, at times, by the hour and even the minute. The narrative is third-person reportage and we watch Jeanne’s actions, hear of her fears, her tears and her determination, rather than understand her or motivations.
Part II again begins with the cell and the mounting threat of rape, then to flashbacks of Donremy and the war’s impact on Jeanne’s home village; we see the young girl and her dreams, her developing sexuality, her lack of interest in boys and marriage, her fear of the war and the first of her voices. Her longing and her loneliness are answered by visions in which the natural world seems to overwhelm and swallow her: at first it is the moon:
The white circle seems larger, expanding. Is she under a spell, or feverish, or losing her mind? Is the moon about to devour the young girl? Is she drowning in heavenly luminescence? Will future historians really know what is happening to her? (83)
The narrative point of view here is fluid, uncertain: it seems like close third person, so close to Jeanne’s mind, and yet that final sentence moves us beyond that: is this Jeanne reminiscing, aware of her own future place in history, or is this the narrator puzzling over the position he has ascribed to her? In this way, history and the personal shift and blend.
Later, Jeanne hears the voice of St Catherine answering her cry from the deluge of a sudden rainstorm. It is in Part II that we begin to discover Jeanne’s voice, and she addresses her ‘love’, as yet unknown to us. In this retelling, the natural world, the spiritual realm of Jeanne’s voices, her own developing sexuality and sense of her difference from those who will marry, all gather, inundate her, show her a future. Violence, beauty and desire intertwine in a poignant and heartbreaking precursor of the Maid’s victories, suffering and loss.
Jeanne’s account of her voices, one of the reasons she is charged with heresy, is an aspect of the story that causes historians the most trouble; if the woman is a hero, what are we to do with something so unverifiable?
Everyone has heard about her Voices, and we know nothing about their reality.
I’m sure they’re real. (Real like yours, my love.) But can one ever be certain? That it was Saint Catherine and not a demon or an imaginary thing. Informed by psychology, psychiatry and neurology, theorists peddle their theses. Epilepsy is the latest fad, but she never had a seizure. And it is known that one should not trust historical records and religious beliefs. (93)
Again, the historical narrator and Jeanne take turns to speak, and almost blend, and we remember that Jeanne is in her cell, reminiscing and uncertain. There are no claims here, only an impatience with the desire to explain – to explain away.
The Voices, mostly from Saint Catherine, are formatted as free-form poetry, moving across the page as if they float, barely even there. They could be from the devil, or they might equally come from God, and no churchman would dare to pronounce too hastily. The problem is, of course, that they cannot be externally verified, unlike the woman’s battle courage, strategic prowess and strength with the sword.
And yet for Jeanne, the voices, her determination in war, and her longing to be loved are intertwined because the voices promise her the love of a woman with red hair and blue eyes, but only once her martial victory has been accomplished. This is where Alizadeh departs from most accounts. Writing within the gaps of the record, he explores the possibility of Jeanne’s lesbianism which, like her men’s clothing and visions, was bound to bring her into conflict with the teachings and powerbrokers of the Catholic church.
The two forces, love and war, are never truly separate in Jeanne’s life. Once she has met Pieronne, the beloved she believes is promised to her, she longs for nothing more than to remain with her, and is impatient for the war to be over. Her usual disdain for bloodshed, and her pleas with the king to use diplomacy where possible, are overwhelmed by the need to be win, to be done with the war, so that she can return to Pieronne. But finally, rejected by her beloved, Jeanne allows herself to be captured.
At the beginning of Part III Jeanne is brutally raped in her cell, and she accuses St Catherine, St Margaret: ‘Why did you have me leave my village, God? To be brutalised in this evil place?’ (134) And Pieronne: ‘It’s the thought of you. You who took my heart and then broke it … It was because of you, Pieronne, that I went on to be captured. It was because of you that I attacked an unbeatable army.’ (134)
It becomes apparent that the novel is addressed to Pieronne and to Jeanne’s heartache. Her physical and her emotional suffering are one. While the military and political history provide the framework, the battles and the victories are only one element of Jeanne’s story in her desire to be loved and accepted as the woman she is.
The final chapters belong to Pieronne, imprisoned and struggling with the decision to deny or own all that she knows of Jeanne d’Arc. It is as if Jeanne’s reminiscences in her cell have conjured her beloved, drawing her from oblivion in the historical record and helping us to understand what might compel a young peasant girl from her village into French military history. It is a powerful and anguished end to the story.
Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN:9781925336405
[i] Ali Alizadeh, ‘Friday Essay: Joan of Arc, our one true Superhero’, The Conversation August 18, 2017 https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-joan-of-arc-our-one-true-superhero-81097 Accessed June 11, 2018.