The Maid and the Queen: A Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone

I really enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 1 in January, mostly because it include Joan of Arc and mentioned Margaret of Anjou, who married Henry VI. Joan of Arc has fascinated me since I dressed up as Joan for my sixth grade Medieval feast, and Margaret of Anjou is an ancestor of mine. Shakespeare’s version obviously portrays the War of the Roses from England’s perspective, and it fails to give depth to the internal struggles of France during this era. Obviously, it’s fiction, but I became intrigued by the era as I read Shakespeare.

To my delight, this spring Netgalley provided me with a review copy of a new biography about Joan of Arc and others in her era. The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone (March 2012, Viking) is subtitled “A Secret History of Joan of Arc,” but this subtitle fails to encompass the scope of the book. Because much is unknown about Joan, her unique story and her impact on French history is only understood by considering the French political situation, the locale in which she lived, and the political leaders who supported her, thereby enabling a poor peasant (albeit one who spoke with angels) to rise to power in the French military.

Interestingly, Ms Goldstone begins by discussing the romantic legends prevalent in the era, particularly the story of Melusine. Ms Goldstone argues that because of these superstitious traditions and folkloric legends, when a peasant woman named Joan claimed to speak with angels and declared she could bring military victory to France, local leaders listened to her, considering her the fulfillment of prophecy.

Yolande of Aragon is the queen of the title, the mother-in-law to the dauphin of France, the man who would become Charles VII after the English were driven out of France. One of her other children, Rene, was also an influential leader of the era; his daughter Margaret of Anjou became queen of England when she married the young Henry VI1. Because Yolande was widowed at a young age, she and not her husband wielded power among the royal leaders of the era. She was directly influential in helping Charles VII regain his throne at the end of the Hundred Years’ war.

I was not at all familiar with the history of the Hundred Years’ War. Occasionally, I felt a little lost as to the unfolding events, especially if I set the book aside for a few days. But in general, Ms Goldstone’s book was written for the general reader who is not a historian. I enjoyed the complicated account of an insane French king (Charles VI) and the drama of the opposing political leaders. Although I can’t say I will certainly remember all the details, because of the breadth of the book, I feel I now better understand France in this era, and I look forward to following up with a more general history of the Middle Ages.

In sum, I found The Maid and the Queen to be a nice follow up to the obviously fictional Henry VI part 1 by Shakespeare. It helps that it also is about my ancestors, Yolande of Aragon, Rene of Bar, and Margaret of Anjou, as well as about the intriguing and unknown Joan of Arc. These are subjects I want to learn more about, and this book certainly piqued my interest further.

Note: I read a digital copy via netgalley.com from the publisher for review consideration

  1. Her influence on that marriage caused the territory conquered in France to be lost to the English and restored to France. She is my ancestor on my father’s side.

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto

Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto1 blends two stories of seeking for one’s identity in the midst of war-torn Mozambique. In the first, an old man and a young orphaned boy have fled a refugee camp and seek shelter in a burned-out bus on the side of the road. Near a corpse, they find a set of journals written by Kindzu. These journals, which tell Kindzu’s story, form the bulk of the novel by portraying life during the Civil War2 in a fantastical magical realism setting.

I tend to enjoy reading magical realism because it mixes fantasy in to seemingly realistic settings and gives a story a very different feel3. In Sleepwalking Land, that not-straight forward feeling was perfect in providing me, a reader unfamiliar with both Mozambican history and life during a civil war, with a dream-like introduction to life in a confusing political and violent setting. I struggled to understand the reasons behind various violence and betrayals, and yet I realized that understand the context absolutely did not matter: Couto’s book instead illustrated how life (such as it was) continued for the people in the land, and the confused tone of what was real or not provided a perfect atmosphere for the hopelessness of the era.
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  1. First published in 1992 in Portuguese as Terra Sonâmbula; translated by David Brookshaw and published in English in 2006.
  2. According to Wikipedia, the Mozambique Civil War lasted from 1977 (upon freedom from colonialism) until about 1992)
  3. I must point out, however, that as in most magical realism, there is a fair amount of sexuality in this book. I personally didn’t find it very tastefully written this time…

Henry VI Part 3 by William Shakespeare

I wish I could finish off my series of posts on Henry VI with as much enthusiasm as I had for the second play, but 3 Henry VI (written 1595) was simply not as enjoyable as 2 Henry VI was.

In the first place, 3 Henry VI is simply violent from the first scene, when Richard Duke of Gloucester enters with the Duke of Somerset’s head and York and Montague compare bloody swords. The play also has lots of betrayal: no one can trust each other, and promises are broken from one scene to the next. “An oath is of no moment,” says Richard Duke of Gloucester in Act 1, scene 2. The leaders themselves are unsure who they want to follow and they frequently change loyalties from one king to the other. It should be noted that the cast of characters includes King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion as to who is actually ruling England during the years portrayed in this play.

But by focusing on the fragility of power, Shakespeare manages to poignantly touch on the pointlessness of greed and power. Although I disliked King Henry VI in the previous two plays, in this play, his steadfastness is the most enjoyable aspect. He remarks on his life and the pointlessness of war, and the scenes in which he does so are the most memorable of the play. So, while the play does for the majority of the moving action illustrated the ultimate chaos that comes from power and greed, it also draws the other parallel in its quieter, more subtle scenes: the pointlessness of war, the danger with leadership being an inherited calling, and the tragedies associated with betrayal. Continue Reading

Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 (written maybe 1588 or 1592, possibly revised 1594) dramatizes the beginning of the War of Roses (which lasted from 1455 to 1485). It portrays the animosity between the leaders of the House of York and the leaders of the House of Lancaster as they bickered amongst each other for power, even as England continued the quest to control France, whose army was led by the warrior Joan of Arc.

Does that sound like a lot going on? It felt like it was a lot as I read it. My main problem was remembering who was who, and I found myself frequently referencing the cast list as I read the play. Henry VI Part 1 is commonly named as one of Shakespeare’s poorer plays1, and I’m not surprised. I am fascinated by Joan of Arc and for personal reasons I was intrigued by the historical aspects of the play, but nothing truly remarkable made Henry VI Part 1 stick out for me. I do look forward to reading the next two parts, because I’m hoping my greater familiarity with the characters, plus the “better written” reputation, will make it a more satisfying read.Continue Reading

  1. Harold Bloom, in his volume Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, uses terms like “bad” “botched” and “crude,” but of course we know we must take Professor Bloom with a grain of salt