- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007


By Donald Spoto

Harper SanFrancisco, $24.95, 222 pages

Donald Spoto has written bestselling biographies of such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Tennessee Williams and Ingrid Bergman. But all is not glitz and silver screen for Mr. Spoto, whose “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life,” published in 1999, earned kudos for its discourse on faith for the new millennium.

Mr. Spoto has a Ph.D. in theology and for many years was a theology professor. His grounding in matters of faith on the one hand, and his attraction to more temporal subjects on the other, just might have found a perfect synthesis in “Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint.”

It is a lively, accessible book that balances the eventful trajectory of Joan’s short life — she was only 19 when she died — with a cogent discussion of faith, mystery and early church politics.

In his foreword, Mr. Spoto acknowledges the vast material already written about Joan. He acknowledges that some were convinced “that she was a cunning charlatan, a deluded patriot, a sexually confused peasant limited by a culture of fear and superstition, or a pitiable psychotic.”

He reckons that “we have more detailed evidence about her than anyone else in the history of the world up to her time. We know far more about Joan, for example, that we do about Moses, Plato, Jesus of Nazareth, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Buddha or Muhammad.

“For the last two and a half years of her life we can construct almost a day-by day account of her whereabouts and actions. We also have several letters she dictated, three of them bearing her simple signature; there is scarcely a single contemporaneous French memoir or chronicle that does not mention Joan the Maid.”

Mr. Spoto acknowledges that “recent discoveries are begging for a new look at some key original French and Latin documents in light of modern linguistic studies.” He allows as how he has been researching Joan for over 30 years, and for him what takes center stage in his subject’s life is less her military feats and her historic influence but her “undiluted faith in the God she believed was guiding her.”

The book proceeds chronologically from Joan’s birth “in 1411 or 1412” in the village of Domremy, in eastern France, and despite Mr. Spoto’s stated intention to focus on matters of faith, he gives lively snapshots of Joan in battle, her life among family members, her trial for heresy and her death.

For all the modern resonance Mr. Spoto seems eager to find for Joan’s faith, he is equally as eager that we not mistake her for one of us. He writes, “only by interpreting Joan’s life in light of her times and her language constructs can we begin to understand her. She was not a seventeenth-century Italian girl, a nineteenth-century English maiden, or a twentieth-century American teenager… . We are looking for a girl who lived in an era and a place vastly different from our own — she is Joan of Arc, not Joan of Arkansas.”

The awkward construct of the last sentence notwithstanding, the book captures the spirit not only of Joan’s faith but her heroism. Its robust narrative covers the tumultuous period of the Hundred Years War between England and France and places the teenage Joan center stage.

After a vision from God and without consulting her family, the young girl decided to take up arms and help restore the kingdom of France. Before long, Joan was directing soldiers and fighting tirelessly on the battlefield. She became a national hero, a guest at the King Charles VII’s court and a captive of the English who shrewdly calculated that Joan’s demise would damage France. Tried for heresy, the English regent John of Lancaster ordered her burnt at the stake in Rouen.

Though Mr. Spoto might argue that modern readers should return to Joan’s piety as the defining characteristic of her life, this reader was more interested in her guts. Mr. Spoto’s well chosen quotes from the court transcript of her heresy trial go a long way in feeding interest in and regard for her sheer pluckiness:

Questioner: Do you believe you would do wrong in taking a woman’s dress?

Joan: It is better to obey my sovereign Lord God rather than men.

Questioner: Do you know whether your countrymen [those loyal to Charles VII] firmly believe that you were sent by God?

Joan: I don’t know if they believe that — but even if they do not believe it, I am still sent by God

Questioner: If they do believe it, are they right?

Joan: If they believe that I am sent by God, they are not wrong.

There are marvelous touches throughout the book that demonstrate Mr. Spoto’s passion for his subject. The writing is graceful and assured and the book moves at a brisk pace. But inevitably, it is what Joan has to say that is the most transfixing.

In a chapter entitled “I Won’t Fly Away,” in which one of Joan’s early military conquests is described, Joan encounters “an unstable and volatile friar named Richard, who firmly believed that for some reason the world would end the next year. He had been preaching about Joan, telling people that she knew the secrets of God and that she could magically penetrate any city walls.

“His inference was clear: she might be a witch. ‘When he came toward me,’ Joan recalled, ‘he made the sign of the cross and tossed holy water all around. I said, “Be brave and approach — I won’t fly away.’”

In the book, Mr. Spoto is careful to weigh (and dismiss) many centuries’ worth of claims of instability, insanity, even Meniere’s disease, that have been leveled at Joan. And though the book lacks the raw drama of George Bernard Shaw’s “St. Joan,” there is much here to relish and ponder. In the end, however, Winston Churchill gets the last word:

“Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. She embodied the natural goodness and valour of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang.”

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