The review that I’m about to give Joan of Arc: A History has nothing to do with the historical accuracy of the book. On the contrary, I found this to be an extraordinarily well researched and cited biography.
Unfortunately, that mega-effort did not lend itself to a readable or enjoyable book.
The general idea behind Joan of Arc is sound. Helen Castor wanted to present Joan’s story in context with an extended history of France for years before and after her appearance on the world stage.
In that way, she thought that the legend of the woman could be separated away from the reality. The reader could appreciate the main players, the attitude towards spiritual visions, the belief of divine will in war and the monarchy, and capture the overall general flavor of the time period.
It was a good premise, but it just didn’t work. Maybe this was a doctoral thesis that Castor tweaked a bit and published? It reads like that.
Why is it that experts on topics are rarely able to translate that interest and depth of knowledge into stories that the general public would enjoy? I love medieval history, especially the backgrounds of the handful of female figures who made it into print during that period. This should have been right up my alley.
Joan of Arc: A History read like a school textbook- the dull kind.
Actually, it reminded me of translating Livy’s History of Rome from Latin into English during college. It should have been fascinating stuff as he was writing about a particularly exciting period in Roman history when Hannibal was crossing the Alps to invade. But, sadly, Livy got caught up in listing endless details, particularly the size and shape of the elephants. Through description after description, the pace of Hannibal’s army slowed to a trickle and then it turned into a snooze-fest.
That also happened in this book.
If you enjoy scholarly research to the point that you just have to have it and nothing else will do, read this book. If you want history to come alive and punch you in the face, pick up something (anything really) by Margaret George or Bernard Cornwell.
I particularly liked The Memoirs of Cleopatra or The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers. George may not have the exacting research standards of this biography, but her historical fictions are informative in addition to a delight to read.
I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. Thanks for reading!