Desperately Seeking Joan

Woman behind the hype

A favorite of Charles de Gaulle and Charles Péguy, not to mention Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc has long been a historical figure whose popularity tells us perhaps more about those who revere her than about the martryed saint herself. Joan’s curiously malleable legend has been championed by secular French republicans and Catholic monarchists, Dreyfusites and anti-Dreyfusites, Nazi collaborators and resistance figures alike. The popular imagination seems never to tire of her, and the story of the maid of Orléans has been the subject of at least twenty films, most effectively in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, most recently in last year’s thoroughly contemporary The Messenger (see Richard Alleva,"Dames at War," December 17, 1999). There is something about the story of the teen-age girl who led an army against English invaders and helped to crown a French king, only to be betrayed and condemned for heresy and witchcraft, that never fails to fascinate. It is a story that clearly has captivated novelist Mary Gordon, and below she writes on how the multifarious nature of Joan’s legend and the elusiveness of her personality can expand our ideas about sainthood.

Even centuries as the angel of men’s imagination did not make it easy for Joan of Arc (1412-31) to be named a saint by the Roman Catholic church. It was in 1869,...

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About the Author

Mary Gordon, professor of English at Barnard College, is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, and a memoir.