The Bookshelf: Author David Elliott on the Timeliness of Joan of Arc

Apr 26, 2019

About a dozen years ago, New Hampshire author David Elliott was in Germany on a book tour with his wife when she suggested they hop over the border into France. Before he went, he thought, “I have a lamp that looks like the Eiffel Tower – that’s good enough for me.”

But after just spending 20 minutes in Paris, he says he fell in love with the city and France.

Elliott’s new book takes on a topic Francophiles may enjoy. It's called Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc, and it's written in different forms of rhyming verse.

Last week, NHPR’s Peter Biello stopped by David Elliott's home in Warner where he keeps his writing studio in the smallest bedroom of a house built in 1830.

Scroll down to read a transcript of the interview.

David Elliott's Top 5 Reading Recommendations:

  1. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison. There are many biographies of Joan of Arc, including Mark Twain’s.  But to me this is the best of the bunch. From the Washington Post review: “It is impossible for Harrison to write an uninteresting book. She is too skilled a prose writer, too good a storyteller, too alert to passions and the human heart to produce a work that ever flags. But read Joan of Arc for what it tells you about the world in which the subject lived and the half-millennium of culture that has continued to mythologize her. In this striking volume, it is clear that Joan fell victim to more than an era’s intolerance. She became a victim to other dreamers’ dreams." 
  1. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwall. This is the first in a series -- I haven’t read the others – which chronicles the tribulations of Alfred the Great as he struggles to fulfill his dream of uniting many disparate and warring kingdoms into one England. Oh, yeah, and then there are the Vikings. Like Game of Thrones without the dragons. Meticulously researched. Based on historical fact.
  1. Any book of poetry by Richard Wilbur. If every American just read one poem a day, what a better world we would be living in now. And we couldn’t do better than to start with Richard Wilbur.
  1. Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman.  I love a good adventure story, especially when it’s true. Hoffman travels to New Guinea to see if he can answer once and for all what happened to Michael Rockefeller who traveled there in 1961 to collect sacred carvings from the cannibalistic Asmat people. The official story is that he drowned. But Hoffman’s evidence says otherwise.
  1. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf.  I love Australian writer David Malouf’s prose -- elegant, precise, poetic –almost as much as I love his imagination. In this novel, he imagines the life of Ovid after the urbane Roman poet was exiled to live with “barbarians” in a village on the outskirts of the empire. This is one of those books that once finished, makes you sigh as you hold it to your chest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you so interested in Joan of Arc?

The truth is I had no interest in Joan of Arc. And I knew really nothing about her. But, I woke up one night at about three o'clock in the morning and I saw Joan of Arc's name floating in the air in front of me. I know that sounds a little other worldly, and I want to make all your listeners know I do not have crystals on my desk -- there would be nothing wrong with that, but that is not my way of living in the world. But I do pay very close attention to my dreams. I did a five year [yin yang] analysis with an analyst in Columbus, Ohio. And I am familiar with the mysterious ways of the unconscious. So the next day or two, then, I spent time just reading about her, and I saw both the timelessness of her story and also the timeliness of her story.

Can you talk a little bit about the timeliness -- why you think Joan of Arc's story is right for this moment?

There are a couple of things. I'm not the only person who thinks so; she seems to be in the zeitgeist right now. Just a few months ago Shaw's play Saint Joan closed on Broadway, and at the same time Glenn Close was starring in a play about Joan of Arc's mother, and we now hear Joan of Arc's name invoked frequently with the Me Too movement. So when Bill Cosby was convicted, not his accuser, but someone else who he molested, referred to the accuser as the Joan of Arc of that moment.

But what I discovered is that Joan of Arc, when she was 13, she was illiterate. She was a peasant. She was just a girl in France. And when she was 13, she saw St. Michael, she says, and St. Margaret and St. Catherine -- they appeared in her garden. And eventually they said to her, 'You are going to end the Hundred Years' War; you're going to have King Charles VII coroneted.' He was kind of hiding out in the south of France. He was the son of the current king. So she waited three years and then by the time she was 16, she put on men's clothes. And from that moment forward, she was always in men's clothes. And part of that was she was in the company of men, and it was safer for her -- it was harder for somebody to rape her if she [was] wearing men's clothes.

And she also cut her hair to signal to people that she was not like your typical French woman of the time.

Right. Because the long hair was kind of an enticement. Long flowing hair showed young men that she was available. So she did cut her hair and that was also a problem. I think the patriarchy of the time could not take it that she was, as she says in the book, invading the landscape of men.

Which was fine for Charles VII when Charles VII was in trouble. He needed her at the time, and she had just such a force of personality that she could command an army. But then once he was coroneted, he turns around and says you know what that is pretty abominable.

That's really what happened. After she had him coroneted, she lifted the siege at Orleans, and then she went on to Paris. That was her first real defeat. And so the people around Charles then began to say, 'Look she's not who she says she was; she's kind of outlived her purpose.' So when she was captured, he could have ransomed her, but did not. And then they turned her over to the church and he did her in. But then 24 years later, he sort of thought, 'Hm. This does not look good for me to have a heretic having been the one who had me coroneted. I know. Let's have another trial.' And so they revoked the Trial of Condemnation. And 600 years later she became a saint.

So what do you hope readers take away from this book?

For any young men who are reading the book, I really want to say to them, 'If a woman comes into your life who is smarter than you in some way or more capable than you in some way, the manly thing to do is get out of the way.’ And to any woman who reads the book, I would say, 'If there is a man in your life who are a boy in your life who will not get out of the way get rid of them now.’