Joan of Arc is neither a neglected historical figure nor one whose life needs a great deal of explication even at our 600-year remove. A peasant girl who came out of nowhere to lead French armies against the hated and reviled English invaders, she would be a heroine in any culture to which she belonged. I’m not familiar with the kind of bio’s writers have set down for her through the centuries, but I’m guessing that Katherine Chen’s Joan is not typical. Certainly not the beneficiary of a divine visitation such as George Bernard Shaw described. No, Chen’s Joan is no Little Bo Peep.
She was a shepherd girl, yes, born into near-poverty and raised in mean circumstances. She had a dearly beloved sister who died early. Her mother seems non existent. Her father was a brute who beat her regularly. She was a big girl, big enough that when it came time to don her armor and head out to battle she was often mistaken for a man. She served valiantly and led her countrymen to many victories, inspiring her armies to head across France and toward Paris. Take Paris, and they would win it all.
However, as her palace enemies prophesied, her danger came not from the English or any other army. Instead, her prominence inspired jealousy and political infighting for which she was ill prepared to deal. Despite her battlefield prowess and the peasant origins that helped make her the idol of the populace, they were no match for the royal machinations which made individual spoils rather than French victory the priority. Joan never really comprehends her fate. She was after French victories. Her adversaries were after something else entirely.
Chen doesn’t treat us to a burning-at-the-stake scene, for which I am grateful. I am grateful as well for a portrait of this legend that neither prettifies her nor casts her as divine. Refreshing.