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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Maid and the Queen. The Secret History of Joan of Arc

A study for a major painting I am working on...
Nancy Goldstone was the last author I read in my search for the true story of poor, abused, mysterious little Jeanette of Domremy, better known as Joan of Arc. I had already read so much about her that I was becoming skeptical, finding her story, or the story being perpetrated through so much printed hero worship, completely suspicious. The advertisements about Goldstone’s book seemed to suggest a secret current of people and powers, a behind-the-scenes expose’ on the real Joan I was digging for. Perhaps there were even less than pious explanations for her extraordinary legend.  I was at the peak of near worship myself, or incurable skepticism, and quite eager to finally get the real scoop. If Goldstone made one false step I was ready to ditch her book as just another Hail to the Maid. And there have been quite a few offered up in the past century.

For many years Mark Twain’s attempt to explain Joan was considered the standard but the legendary writer has considerable competition now.  And he should.
Primed and pumped I ordered her book, a double helix of two outstanding women of France, contemporaries, who more than any others shaped their country and its present character; Joan of Arc and Yolande, the Queen of Sicily.

Goldstone did not disappoint.  In fact, I can say with some confidence this is the best written, most accurate, most thorough, most objective treatment of the Maid of Orleans that I have been able to find. Goldstone builds much of her book on the foundation of another excellent book, which I had just read, Regine Pernoud’s Joan of Arc; By Herself and Her Witnesses.  Pernoud created an invaluable study of first person accounts concerning the life of Joan the Maid, but this is the final say on the most amazing female military leader in human history.

And the verdict is in. Joan was for real. But she was not self-made, as legend might have suggested.
I thought I had been well prepared, but what Goldstone brings to the trough captured me and made me want to live it all again… knowing full well the horrific ending. Goldstone is a master of baking things down to the essentials.  She not only identifies them, sometimes a daunting task with such complex and numerous subjects as these, but she fleshes them out quickly, and concisely, and her handling of this cast of thousands if nothing short of genius. So many dukes and duchesses and yes, bastards.  (The “Bastard of Orleans” turns out to be a new hero of mine!) And I read this wild, epic scrape of greed and avarice and actually understood it.  Even the chapters following the aftermath are essential reading.

Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily, is firmly established as the most important, yet virtually unknown political force in France of the Fifteenth Century. She is brought to life, even immortalized by Goldstone, who came to know her using fierce research and rare intuition… Goldstone shares her almost intimately, so that, in consideration of her immense influence on France and its history, and her anonymity, you can only read on with wonder.   Her slight of hand was actually an iron grip on the future, the very existence of France. Yolande is France’s true Matriarch, if there be one. She is reconstructed as seemingly the only sane person amongst countless wretches… a dutiful wife, able to raise the children AND run a kingdom in her husband’s absence;  An unshakable patriot, a shrewd business woman, and a surrogate mother to a pitiful little prince who would one day be her son-in-law and the king who Joan of Arc would almost literally hand the crown.  Yolande was King Charles’ VII secret weapon... so secret he did not realize it until way too late in his reign.  But not too late to enjoy the fruits of her masterful labors.
And that may be the incredible irony of this book, that both of these extraordinary women, so able and effective, had to achieve their goals in spite of the contentious, vengeful men around them, and terminal incompetence, especially in the king.  Goldstone weaves these women and their legacies like a noose around the men of their time, both English and French, and let’s not forget those nasty Burgundians…  a noose which seems to have always caused the “fairer sex” to suffer from male resentment: Joan was captured, humiliated and executed; Yolande ostracized, foiled, and frustrated because the men in power failed to recognize either’s significance. Or maybe they knew it and chose failure instead of allowing these two French visionaries to exercise their gifts to their highest potential. Still, France was saved, in a series of miracles and human reversals that will leave you dizzy. Nancy Goldstone has given us a most vivid slice of France, if not an even more important human secret, that women have always either run things… or should have.

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