Saint Joan of Arc (Sackville-West)

Saint Joan of Arc (a biography of Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West) was first published in 1936 by Doubleday, Doran, & Company, Inc. of Garden City, New York (ISBN 0-8021-3816-0) and Cobden-Sanderson, One Montague Street, London. It is currently available from Grove Press (New York City) having been re-issued in 2001.

The Grove Press edition runs to 395 pages and, in addition to the text proper, it includes numerous Appendices relating to some of the events of Joan's life, a Chronological Table, and a Bibliography of works available up to the date of original publication in 1936.

The Story of Joan of Arc's Life

As the details of the life of the subject are well-documented elsewhere, only the briefest sketch need be recorded here. Joan of Arc was born January 6, 1412 and, in response to visions and voices which she heard beginning in her 13th year, she left her small home village of Domremy, eventually making her way to Chinon to meet with the Dauphin (Charles VII, king of France) and lead an army to raise the siege of Orleans, and to accompany her Dauphin to Rheims where he was formally crowned. Later, captured by the Burgundiain opponent's of Charles, she was turned over to the English and put on trial for heresy, condemned and burnt at the stake.

In 1920, the Catholic Church formally canonized her as a Saint.

The Book's Reception

"Deeply and rightly as one mistrusts the historian who draws too freely on his imagination to fill in the details of the cold outline provided by official documents, there are occasions when it becomes only reasonable for him to do so." (Vita Sackville-West, "Saint Joan of Arc", page 66-67)

Since its inception, this book has been criticized by historians. To begin with, and as indicated in the quotation above, Ms. Sackville-West, a novelist, attempted to supply many details via speculation, sometimes on subjects for which documented evidence does exist.

It would seem inevitable that such an approach would elicit criticism, especially when applied to a personage such as Joan of Arc, who is so well-documented in the primary sources. There are two matters in particular which seem to have fueled the greatest opprobium.

The first is Ms. Sackville-West's suggestions concerning Joan's sexuality, including the implication (which, however, is never explicitly stated) that Joan may have been a lesbian, or at least attracted to women. Historians have pointed out that this was based on nothing more than the standard medieval practice of coping with limited bedspace by having guests share a bed with others of the same gender, hence Joan of Arc was occasionally bunked with people such as the nine-year old child Charlotte Boucher and other girls or women. The eyewitnesses who mention such situations also specify that Joan of Arc was chaste rather than sexually active.

Another point of contention concerns the following statement of the author's in reference to Joan: "I think it is not unfair to qualify her as unattractive" (op. cit., page 7). This latter statement is based on testimony of several witnesses to the effect that soldiers and others, with whom she spent much time, felt no carnal desire for her, but these witnesses also said that she was "beautiful and shapely", noting that they were surprised by a lack of desire for her, attributing this to the effect of Divine grace suppressing their normal impulses. Ms. Sackville-West has therefore been criticized for glossing over this context in order to make an unsupportable claim.

Historians have rejected a number of other of the author's interpretations.

Such issues have led some to condemn the entire book outright. For example, Bonnie Wheeler of the International Joan of Arc Society and the author of a book of her own about Joan, has stated that the book is "dead wrong". And yet, as a whole, Ms. Sackville-West's treatment of her subject shows a great deal of sympathy and respect. In fact, even her harshest critics generally qualify the book as being one of the most readable treatments of the Joan of Arc story.


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