Review: Leslie Barneson Ali Alizadeh

What Lay In The Ashes: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

In the preface to her historical account of the life and death of Jeanne d’Arc, Larissa Juliet Taylor observes that the sainted virgin warrior ‘has, in the nearly six centuries since her death, become everything to everyone – a Catholic, a proto-Protestant, a right or left wing partisan, anti-Semitic, nationalist, anti-colonialist, and even the face on cheese, chocolates, baked beans, and cosmetics’. From the minds of Shakespeare to André Malraux, Mark Twain to Luc Bresson, tens of thousands of literary, scholarly, dramatic, political, and visual representations of the maid have emerged, each one contributing to the re-imagining of this canonical figure though retellings, re-enactments and revisions. In the opening pages of his novel, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, Ali Alizadeh challenges them all: ‘And how little… anyone… knows about the truth of Jeanne’s life.’

The novel is told in four parts, each opening with Jeanne sitting alone in the dark cell from which she would eventually be led to the stake. It recounts the young warrior’s childhood and entry into history in a series of extended flashbacks. Part I begins with her capture on 23 May 1430. It then touches on her subsequent trial and abjuration before summarising the century of bitter conflict over France that set the scene for her heroic rise and tragic fall. Part II returns to the early decades of the fifteenth century, when the war comes to Domrémy, a small village in Lorraine, where Jeanne is a young girl. These chapters narrate Jeanne’s coming of age, weaving the individual struggle of puberty and nascent desire into the narrative arc of violence in the region. In Part III, before the fiery dénouement of Part IV, we reach the climax of both conflicts. Jeanne becomes the valiant warrior, the figure who would be canonised, triumphing at Patay and Troyes before falling at Compiègne. But she also finds and loses the great love promised to her by Saint Catherine, the love largely absent in other accounts of her life and death. Alizadeh’s challenge to the record centres on this very question. The quote above continues:

About the great love, the unspeakable love, clutching the heart of the loneliest woman in all of Christendom. About the sky-blue eyes and games of chess. The forsaken warrior virgin destined to die in complete solitude. No one suspects that she has known love. She knows the immensity of her loss.

At various moments in the telling of Jeanne’s life, Alizadeh offers metareflections on the stories that have already been told. What forms have these stories taken? And what has been left out of the telling? His narrator repeatedly asks the reader to ponder the chasm between the young woman and the ‘tendentious interpretations’ that have risen from her ashes: ‘Will future historians really know what is happening to her?’ this narrator wonders while describing Jeanne’s first vision, an out-of-body experience of drowning in the moon’s ethereal light.

The significance of visions in the story of Jeanne d’Arc, and of the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Marguerite, who would bring her the mission to save France, is as poorly understood as it is widely known. The narrator notes that epilepsy is the latest ‘informed’ explanation of Jeanne’s visions before dismissing all the ‘future experts’ – the psychologists, neurologists, historians and religious authorities – as mere peddlers, traders of theories. In recounting Jeanne’s desires for her closest childhood friend, Marguerite, and her passionate encounters with Piéronne, the blue-eyed angel promised by Saint Catherine, Alizadeh’s novel offers its own provocative theories about the maid, but not without pushing the reader to note the form they take, to consider the details they neglect, and to confront the historical evidence they lack: ‘Is this an outrage against faith and historiography? The future Catholic saint cannot have been a lesbian?’

In Alizadeh’s novel, she is. Jeanne d’Arc’s sexuality is a lingering, contentious question, though few titles exist that tackle the possibility of her lesbianism. A quick perusal of Taylor’s index shows that the extensive historical biography, for example, includes discussions of Jeanne’s gender, virginity and piety, citing multiple instances where her comportment was guided by sexual purity. But it says nothing of desire. The study covers the relationship between Jeanne’s attire and her identity and recounts details about various interactions with women. But it offers no commentary on one nobleman’s claims that ‘she always preferred to sleep with young girls “and did not want to sleep with old ladies”’. It is understandable that a young maid, fearless warrior or not, would find it safer to sleep with women than with men. It was, in fact, a common practice in medieval Europe and carried no sexual connotations. And one would not expect the historian to draw conclusions about Jeanne’s sexual preferences based on such vague archival material. The possibility nevertheless remains, as we have no reason to doubt that same-sex relations between women existed in the early modern period. In The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc Alizadeh explores this possibility through the figure of Piéronne the Breton, the fictional – or forgotten? – disciple of the strident Franciscan priest, Brother Richard, and his false prophetess, Catherine de la Rochelle. In her brief, but doomed, affair with Piéronne, the warrior finds a passion and a love she feared she would never know.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc blends fiction and nonfiction in its reconstruction of Jeanne’s life, not to offer a new conclusion about the warrior, but to urge us to view her otherwise than through the lens of her canonisation. The fictionalised exploration of Jeanne’s homosexuality may raise the ire of those who would consider themselves the guardians of a chaste legend; it is also essential to Alizadeh’s insistence on the maid’s humanity. In imagining this forbidden love, which historians might see as a distortion of the evidence and religious authorities would no doubt deem blasphemous, Alizadeh creates a space in which to return to the warrior the ‘truth’ of a life lived. For at its heart, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc is the story of a woman who experiences the fears, uncertainties and desires that made her human but that were eclipsed when she became the subject of myth. Through this other lens, Jeanne is ‘just [a] woman who loves… [w]ho heard voices when she was a girl… who rose up against the English lords and Burgundian dukes… who feels happy when dressed like a man…’.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in his telling Alizadeh underscores the connection between the universality of puberty and the singularity of Jeanne’s visions, the first of which takes place on a moonlit walk through the familiar valley of her youth. In this moment of solitude and distress, at the end of childhood and just before ‘the shock of blood between her legs,’ Jeanne is uncovering the powers and creative possibilities that lie within her. ‘So small in the presence of the moon’s greatness,’ Jeanne is an individual reflection of the macrocosmic cycles of nature, of which every human and every human endeavour – including war and nation building – is part. Before she became a warrior, Alizadeh reminds us, Jeanne became a woman. A woman who wore men’s clothing. Surviving testimonies suggest that Jeanne justified her masculine attire with reference to its suitability for warfare. This made it no less controversial. The charge of heresy for which she was convicted rested on two details: her supernatural powers and her transvestism. In her study of female cross-dressing in medieval Europe, Valerie Hotchkiss cites descriptions of the maid’s feminine physique, her breasts in particular, which her black tights and tunic failed to conceal. Nevertheless, scholars tell us, her contemporaries continued to question whether she was a man until her naked body, not yet devoured by the fire, was given as proof of her sex.

In the novel, it is the red-headed innkeeper of Neufchâteau, another early object of Jeanne’s nascent desires, who tells the young woman she must dress as a man and save France. Alizadeh imagines this potentially transformative encounter with La Rousse as the war finds its way to Lorraine. She befriends the young maid, encourages her, and eventually shares with her ‘The Ballad of Belissant,the prophecy that echoes what Jeanne’s voices already inspire in her. The innkeeper, a ‘very marginal figure’ in the annals of history, might also be its ‘unknowing agent’. Her presence in the novel is not a counter to the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Marguerite, the actuality of which we can neither confirm nor refute. On the contrary, La Rousse is yet another feminine force about whom we know so little, another hole in the record: ‘And could it not be here that she first hears the legend of the Maid of Lorraine?’ Alizadeh’s narrator asks.

And if it’s La Rousse who tells Jeanne about the myth, and if the myth is to become her reality, what does she think about it all? Is she ready?

Well, what do you think, Jeanne? (my emphasis)

Alizadeh’s novel does not merely identify the gaps in our knowledge of Jeanne d’Arc through its fictionalisation of her trajectory; it makes deliberate, and at times, ambiguous use of narrative voice to draw attention to the questions that remain and to dramatise attempts, including the author’s own, to confront them. In the sudden shift from the third to the second person in the questions above, Jeanne herself is interpellated, asked to explain. It is as though the narrator has tired of speculating and seeks to clarify matters at the source. But Jeanne addresses La Rousse in her response, and the reader understands immediately that the narration is, in fact, a continuation of the two women’s exchange about Jeanne’s destiny from the previous chapter. The effect is one of simultaneity: the question is at once historical, fictional, and actual. How did the young women from Lorraine come to the path that would lead her to Charles VII’s side, to the battlefield, to martyrdom? Was it divine intervention? A chance encounter? A young woman’s determination to leave her family and village behind?

Well, Jeanne? The question remains.

The recourse to fiction in the reconstruction of Jeanne’s life offers another important possibility; namely, it creates a space in which she might tell her own story. Here again, Alizadeh’s use of narrative voice is noteworthy. The first third of the novel is filtered through the perspective of the third-person narrator, who relays the historical context, the conditions of Jeanne’s trial, the humiliations of her imprisonment and the earliest memories from her childhood. Many of the paragraphs in this part of the novel are constellations of fragmented phrases that give narrative form to the sense that something is missing. From the novel’s beginning, the narration isolates details from the whole, separates actors and events and disrupts the flow of information:

The first day of perpetual imprisonment. Clasps her hands and loneliness gives her permission. To cry openly. In a cage of stones. A small window and empty torch-holders.

Often what is missing in these fragmented sentences is the subject, and very often the legendary subject herself. Where is the voice of Jeanne d’Arc in the tens of thousands of histories, biographies and works of fiction that depict her life? At best, her speech is reported or quoted in manuscripts pertaining to her trial, or approximated in re-enactments. Indeed, Alizadeh’s prose reminds us that the canonisation of a martyr necessarily entails the individual’s absence. Was Jeanne d’Arc really the warrior who saved France, or is this name merely a site of mythic investiture?

But then, Jeanne speaks. In the novel, Jeanne’s discovery of her innate powers as she transitions into womanhood is accompanied by the narration’s discovery of her voice:

I remember that night, my first vision. I was feeling lost like a stranger. […] I wasn’t myself any longer, I was changing.

The sudden appearance of the first person in this passage is unexpected and unsettling, as though the Maid of Lorraine were actually appearing before us, looming above in the night sky, her ‘vitality and desire filling the universe’. Her voice and the perspective it delivers evoke themes foregrounded throughout the novel: memory (versus history), solitude and alienation, transformation and fear. As the narrative advances, Jeanne continues to interrupt from the dark cell in which she is imprisoned, adding detail and layers of emotion to the story of her last days and telling specifically of her desires to be loved, to be cherished by another. Jeanne’s narration makes frequent, often parenthetical, use of the second person. And it eventually becomes clear that she is conjuring Piéronne so that she might share the story of her life with her lost lover. Jeanne is neither contradicting nor elaborating on what has already been said; she is reaching beyond the confines of the myth, reaching out in search of a now impossible human connection.

The final pages of Alizadeh’s novel turn to the last moments of the virgin warrior’s life, but they do not recount her much-rehearsed death. Jeanne is led to, and mounts, the stake, but she is not set aflame here. The reader is left to imagine her death, to experience a moment that may actually be beyond the limits of telling. Instead, it is Piéronne the Breton who is to burn before us. Piéronne, who is overcome with love for the woman she abandoned and refuses to denounce her before the court, is publicly condemned for heresy. Only a few lines have been written about this trial, Alizadeh tells us; there is a lone paragraph in Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, an anonymous account of the events of 1430. And nothing suggests that the individual sentenced was Jeanne’s lesbian lover. The person, the possibility, the pyre – the details have all but disappeared from the record. And at the end of the novel, it is not the martyr who remains, but the question. What do we truly know of the sainted virgin warrior who saved her country and was then sacrificed for it? The novel’s response lies perhaps in its closing reference to the fabled heart that lay in her ashes, the heart that would not burn, the heart that could not be destroyed. We know that Jeanne d’Arc loved.

Works cited

Valerie Hotchkiss. Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
Larissa Juliet Taylor. The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.