The Female Warrior: Katherine J. Chen’s Joan
WRITTEN BY ERIN PAGE
Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church nearly 500 years after her death, a testament to the enduring public interest in her life and works. Among stained-glass window displays of barefoot hermits and veiled martyrs, Joan stands out in saintly iconography with her armor and boyish haircut, often portrayed waving a banner or leading a battle charge. Mythologized even in her own time, to retell her story one must find a place within a crowded field of ballads, books, paintings, and films. In her novel Joan (Random House US/Hodder & Stoughton, 2022), Katherine J. Chen has not only found a foothold to stand among the many portrayals of Joan of Arc’s life, but she has also found something new to say about the role of a woman at war that will resonate soundly with modern audiences.
The plain, eponymous title gives the reader a hint at Chen’s approach. To take on this ambitious retelling, Chen said:
“I had to consider and really mull over how to translate Joan’s story into fiction, and to do so, you have to somehow peel back the stonework, the marble, and the gilding that we, as a society, have used to adorn her. You have to see her as a person, just a person. A human being, a young woman, of extraordinary ability, yes, but a flesh-and-blood individual, who sweats, cries, laughs, shouts.”
Chen’s Joan d’Arc is a plain-faced and plain-speaking peasant girl who grows into a tall, broad-shouldered young woman. She prefers playing at games of war with her brothers to quiet housework and preparing to please a husband. “Certain characters in the novel, even those who are Joan’s allies, don’t necessarily know how to treat her or how to behave around her because she is a woman.” Chen didn’t want “to make Joan too much one of the boys; she has perhaps joined their club, so to speak, for the time being, but she is not and never would be one of them. Gender isn’t the only barrier to this. It’s also her status. She’s not a noblewoman. And she is aware of this. I think the Joan of this book is incredibly self-aware of her womanhood and how it sets apart and distinguishes her.”
Joan doesn’t strive to please others. She is active, pursuing her own interests and moving with unfettered momentum until she meets an obstacle, and as she grows both physically and mentally stronger, she sets to knocking down anything in her path. When she leaves behind a childhood of hardship and tragedy, she finally finds her place in the physical realm of combat. Eschewing priestly intervention, Joan makes a direct appeal to her god for the chance to protect and avenge the few people that she loves, and this makes her extraordinary. The war to free France from English invasion becomes her singular focus; her unschooled physical genius and unwavering drive will be her triumph and her downfall. For Chen, “I think I wanted Joan to be a very physical book. Yes, the fighting, I believe, is occasionally stylized, but it felt necessary to ground the book in a certain level of physicality and therefore reality.”
Chen develops a deeply nuanced character study of Joan and her world as she recounts the well-known saint’s life. With regard to the visceral feel of the medieval world she depicts and Joan’s movement within it, Chen asked:
“How does Joan become Joan? How does she respond to violence? And it made sense and felt believable to me that she would be well-acquainted with stories and accounts of violence, with living perpetually on the edge of her seat and being extra aware of her environment, and with knowing that violence is wrong but also realizing the means that must be taken to end it.”
Joan possesses great talents in her battle to protect the weak, and also weaknesses within herself. “Her whole, very short life is a tumultuous, violent experience.” Moreover, Chen adds, “I considered the duality of how Joan both receives violence on her own person and how she metes out violence to others.” While some of the most fascinating interactions are between Joan and other women, her choice to pursue the life of a soldier limits her socializing almost exclusively to men. Political maneuvering with the powerful and enigmatic duchess Yolande of Aragon is tantalizingly brief on the page. There is a sense of Joan longing to understand the more typical women of her society, like her sister and the women of the French towns she comes to liberate, at an internal war with her desire to sacrifice herself to the cause.
Joan’s faith and religious persona are organic to her surroundings and her role as a leader of an army. Spiritual visitations and overt miracles are subtly reinterpreted. As Chen explains:
“Ultimately, I think I delve into a different kind of faith, and faith in a higher being is a part of it. I like the idea of God’s hand being at work but totally invisible. I like the idea of the physical manifestation of God’s blessing or presence in the world being human genius and/or talent. The journey Joan takes is, among other things, a journey of personal love to a more expansive love, that is, from love of those who are good and kind to her—her uncle, her sister, her dog, her friend—to love of people, to understanding other people’s suffering and willing to be a beacon, a source of hope, and a leader to them, of not raising herself above people, on a pedestal, but choosing to stand with people.”
Told in clear, beautiful prose, the resulting story depicts the fires of faith in Joan’s life as both a secular and spiritual being, at once flawed and heroic. Chen’s novel is captivating and exemplary of how to develop an historic female character.
About the contributor: Erin Page is a marketing specialist, technical writer, and writer of fiction. She is currently at work on a novel retelling of an epic tale set in Ancient Ireland. www.erinpage.com
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)