The virgin queen

Joan of Arc

Mary Gordon <em>Weidenfeld & Nicoloson, 168pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0670885371

Joan of Arc is one of the few foreigners we in Britain have allowed to become famous. The visionary cross-dressing peasant warrior who saved France and was burned at the stake for her pains has inspired countless poems, plays and films, and currently presides over France's Front National. So some biographies, you might think, are more needed than others. But can there really be anything left to say about Joan? Marina Warner's magisterial 1981 study, combining cultural history with the deconstruction of an enduringly potent myth, was surely the last word on the subject? Ah, but Warner's book was 346 pages long, and so a boiled-down version is felt to be appropriate.

One of Warner's main points was that Joan resides as much in the stories woven about her in successive centuries as in anything approaching verifiable historical fact: on one level, she is her own myth. In that sense, further versions of those stories can be added, and welcomed.

Mary Gordon, a novelist who has repeatedly tackled Catholic themes in her work, was probably a good choice for the job. She has produced a sympathetic and personally inflected account that emphasises her heroine's youth, her shining sincerity, her cockiness and her capacity for making mistakes. Joan becomes an adolescent for our times, idealistic and stubborn. Gordon's prettily printed and packaged little book works like a tender meditation, or a maternal reverie. She has not been able to consult all the secondary sources, since these run to over 20,000 volumes, but she has read the transcription of Joan's trial record in W S Scott's translation, and she acknowledges her indebtedness to the "excellent" studies on Joan by Warner and by Edward Lucie-Smith.

Joan's mission was produced by the long-drawn-out dynastic wars between England and France which resulted, in 1422, in the one-year-old English Henry VI and the 19-year-old French Charles VII both being proclaimed kings of France. Following Warner, Gordon argues that Joan was not a solitary hero getting the Dauphin crowned by sheer force of individual bravery and will, but someone who acted symbolically in a world of symbols, combining, in her costume and gestures, aspects of chivalry, sanctity, prophecy and political nous. France was ready for Joan, or her equivalent.

Gordon explores the pre-Renaissance context of faith and mysticism that made it possible for Joan to be hailed as, first, saviour and powerful miracle-working virgin; and later, as harlot, witch, idolater and heretic, passing from briefly acting the role of heroine to being booed and hissed off stage. Her final appearance in this cruel theatre was on a high platform, crowned with a paper cap listing her crimes. We often think of her purely as a political victim of English ruthlessness and French duplicity; but, in fact, she was trapped by the finicky, hair-splitting theology of priests who could not cope with intertwined mysticism and earthiness, and was condemned on religious grounds as a lapsed heretic. Simplifying Warner's complex unravelling of the creation and manipulation of different aspects of the myth through history, Gordon efficiently brings an iconic figure into focus for a modern audience.

Michele Roberts's new novel, The Looking Glass, is published by Virago, £15.99

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all