The Austin Chronicle

Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.

Kathryn Harrison's look at Joan of Arc and her cultural legacy seeks to redefine this heroine for a new generation

Reviewed by Anne Harris, November 28, 2014, Arts

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

by Kathryn Harrison
Doubleday, 400pp., $28.95

A sweeping undertaking of massive proportion didn't restrain the spirit of the Maid of Orlèans, nor does it seem to have intimidated Kathryn Harrison. Arguing that each generation must redefine Joan of Arc for its own era, this author of seven novels; a true crime book; a memoir; essay collections; and a biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (who herself authored "pious re-creations," or skits, of scenes from Joan of Arc's life which were performed among nuns), set out to do just that. Harrison isn't alone in her curiosity; the unlikely story of Joan of Arc has fueled conjecture and interest for centuries, with the result of inspired works from the likes of Shakespeare and Voltaire to Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw. It is in an overview of artists' interpretations, Joan's letters, known historic fact, and "centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation" that Harrison seeks her new muse. It all melds together in a conversational, somewhat chatty tone that occasionally works against her. Casual, sometimes incongruous references to works such as Cecil B. DeMille's 1916 silent epic; several comparisons to Jesus, in the form of direct quotes; and the tendency to assign mischievous behavior in passages such as "Without [King] Charles' permission to mobilize, it was all the fighting [Joan] could get away with ...," all feel offered up as part of a fabric of truth. Like any reinterpretation of fact, whether faith-based and murky or contemporary dramatization, when artistic conceit is done well, it makes for a dishy read, and to Harrison's credit, footnotes aplenty attempt to ground us in fact as opposed to fiction. The engaging text, combined with a generous array of color plates and photos, engrosses like a good Hallmark Channel made-for-television movie, which makes it perfect for holiday reading.

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