I’ve been fascinated by the story of Joan of Arc for almost a lifetime and I remember a journey when I was a child to Joan’s beloved Church of St Catherine of Fierbois, a church that is now dedicated to the memory of this young woman and saint. So, with the image of Ingrid Bergman in my mind, one minute resolute and clad in armour and the next defenceless and tied to a stake, I was very interested to read Kimberly Cutter’s interpretation of The Maid.
The problem with reading a novel (or watching a film) about Joan of Arc, here Jehanne, is that you know how it’s going to end and the more engaged an author makes you feel with this character the more it’s going to hurt. Making no attempt to avoid this inevitable conclusion, the imprisoned Maid is our companion as she explains her journey from a cell to a sympathetic bishop. This isn’t an intrusive device, however. For most of the book, we follow Jehanne through her short life until its end, encountering the people she met, some of whom loved her while there were others who betrayed her.
From the moment that Jehanne gave herself up to the forces of light, angels that speak to Joan with the utmost love and care, she is a pawn in the making. It’s not surprising that the Dauphin’s court fall on The Maid as a potential saviour because, as this novel makes obvious, these are terrible days for France, with both the Burgundians and English raping and burning their way through the people, homes and livestock of a country.
The first half of The Maid presents an unflinching account of what it may have been like to live under constant threat. There are plenty of near escapes although Jehanne’s beautiful longhaired blonde sister, Catherine, is not as fortunate. Joan’s father is brutal and she is often beaten. Listening to the voices and putting her faith in them gives Joan both her calling and her charismatic appeal.
What is extraordinary about The Maid is that this is a true story (or at least a legend with truths behind it). Joan of Arc was just a teenager. She had nothing but her own strength to protect her from the soldiers around her, friend or foe. In this novel, we have a Joan who cannot remove her armour because of the protection it provides. Similarly, when she is imprisoned she refuses to take off her male clothes because of the danger of rape. When she does finally give in and put on a dress there is a very clear suggestion that her maidenhood is robbed from her.
Everyone around Joan is almost by default less than her. The men that swear an oath to her, the pitiful Dauphin, all of their stories appear almost inconsequential against the legend of Joan of Arc. And with that we have my problem with The Maid.
This is Kimberly Cutter’s debut novel and she does a fine job of breathing life into a young woman of whom everyone has their own image. Fifteenth-century France is well realised and the battle scenes are horrifyingly realistic. You can well believe that soldiers would lose their lives in just a few inches of mud and water because of the weight of their armour and then there are the cannon balls giving war a new bloody terror. But Jehanne is so central to The Maid that for me her fanaticism becomes almost too much. Joan is relentless and her courage is resolute. Her fear is almost her only human trait but she does all she can to stamp it out. She has moments of weakness for the men whom she lets close enough to love her but they are fleeting. So, for me, I could never warm to Jehanne. I admired her and marvelled at her but she never escapes from that medieval world of superstition. While it is true that Joan got what she wanted – the flames ensured her sainthood – it makes her very difficult to warm to as a heroine.
This distance from Jehanne is offset by Kimberly Cutter’s fine, crisp prose. The descriptions of life in the country and in the besieged citadels are extraordinarily vivid. It presents an intriguing glimpse into the medieval mind which here seems so different from today. I found the first half a compelling pageturner, but once Jehanne is fixed on her path to martyrdom and seedy politics begins to take over her fate, I began to lose my grip on the novel. Towards the end, I just wanted it over with. Ironically, it is very possible that this is due to the skill of Kimberly Cutter.