Vita Sackville-West mostly published novels, but also a few biographies, and this one is apparently the most well-known. I doubt that it’s often read: it’s long, detailed, has many elegant maps and eleven appendices including family trees and speculative genealogies. It’s a proper historian’s book, and has probably been superceded several times since 1936. History is tricky to write about, because there will be later discoveries and theories to update it, and make earlier studies redundant. Vita’s solution was to be scrupulous in her referencing and citations from the 15thC sources, and to approach her subject as a novelist would.
She assumes that her reader is already familiar with the legend and myths about Saint Joan / Jeanne d’Arc, so the first part of the biography feels like running across quicksand trying to keep up. One learns fast this way. We follow her speculations about Jeanne’s motivations and background in Domremy, but this is never placed on a map so I was in the dark as to where in modern France this is. Vita clearly expected her reader to be familiar with French geography and have a passing acquaintance with medieval French, since she rarely translates her copious quotations from the documents arising from Jeanne’s trial. Through her speculations we learn a vast amount about the Hundred Years War, medieval French politics, and the question of culpability when a Dauphin is tacitly agreed to have been illegitimate even by his noble mother.
The crucial points of what Jeanne saw when and where are lightly skated over as if everyone of course knows this, so this part needs extra reading. Once Jeanne sets off to gather support to fulfill her visions’ commands, Vita attempts to tackle the equally crucial point of understanding why soldiers and nobles of increasing importance believed the bald statement of a peasant girl who had had conversations with Saints Margaret, Catherine and Michael, and why they fell in unquestioningly with her demand to be taken to the Dauphin. I still don’t understand it, but she makes a good attempt at theorising the medieval French mind, and the utterly different expectations of the importance of religious visions.
Vita’s novelising begins when she steps back from the narrative, after the conclusion of the Siege of Orléans, and considers Jeanne’s life as a play in four Acts. She turns to speculating how Y and X must have felt after the events of Z, based on the evidence known about their circumstances. She slips in adjectives which allow names to leap into life as personalities, and creates characters out of recorded relationships and actions: all this adds texture and feeling to the people who follow, adulate, imprison, care for and serve Jeanne in her short life as the saviour of France from the English. Vita is severe about Charles VII’s disloyalty and ungratitude to Jeanne for ensuring that he wins back his throne, but she is clearly very interested in him as a character, returning again and again to his motivations and inadequate behaviour.
Her feminism is strongly in evidence too; sarcastically asking about the burden of proof of virginity, and turning over the Church’s bizarre attitude that a woman dressing as a man was a de facto heretic. She feels for Jeanne, but is fascinated by Jeanne as a legend and a phenomenom. Saint Joan of Arc (1936) is a long but intriguing read, and an elegantly written one.