Thursday, October 31, 2013

Joan of Arc... and Deborah Samson

Joan of Arc is a name that comes up often when I mention the novel I've written on Deborah Samson, and, indeed, the connection is a logical one: women dressed as men, going in to battle.  

Just as in earlier posts I took a look at the Molly Pitcher legend in comparison to Deborah Samson's battlefield experience, I'd like to compare Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, to Deborah and see what can be gleaned about women dressing as men, about women on the battlefield, about society's attitudes towards martial women and towards the "masquerade" of cross-dressing.  (Meaning that these were prolonged instances of disguise.)

To start this topic off, I'd like to justify the comparison.  Placing the two in conversation is not an invention of my own mind.  In fact, it is quite likely that this is a comparison that Deborah herself would have made.

Piece of Evidence #1:  Early in the war, when the American forces were in disarray, Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis that just as Joan of Arc had "driven back like men petrified with fear" "the whole English army," thus now America needed "some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers."  It is likely, though not certain, that Deborah would have seen The American Crisis.  Her hometown of Middleborough was a politically astute and involved place, a crossroads of commerce, and the pamphlets (and discussions about those pamphlets) were likely present. 

Piece of Evidence #2: Deborah was a voracious reader as a young woman.  We don't have a record of the books that she read, but we do have evidence of what was popular and readily available at the time.  These included chapbooks mostly featuring tales of adventure.  One prominent and popular such book was The Maid of Orleans, about Joan of Arc.

So, admittedly, this is tenuous evidence and supposition.  But at least it is possible -- well within the realm of the believable -- that Deborah had heard of Joan of Arc and thought of Joan of Arc in the context of the Revolutionary War.  

It would be too simple to say that Deborah might have read Paine's pamphlet and regarded it as a call to arms, as an invitation to be that Joan of Arc.  For though Paine's language, as I quoted it above, does suggest that, reading the passage in full reveals the sort of misogynistic frame that infiltrated all levels of discourse at the time.  Here's the full quote:

"In the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment!"

The tone of the first line is to suggest that the English defeat is all the more humiliating and outrageous because it was at the hands of a woman.  The line does not suggest that Joan, being a woman, is all the more heroic.  In the second sentence, notice the diction "spirit up" (like a cheerleader) and "fair fellow sufferers" -- fair might suggest a reference to other women and not to men; sufferers also makes this group passive.  This reading is strengthened by the phrase "ravage and ravishment" -- again, crimes that women, not men, are likely to suffer.  

This is not to undermine my piece of evidence: Deborah might well have heard mention of Joan in the context of the Revolutionary War.  Moreover, given that she is a product of her own time, the language and bias of Paine might not have rankled her as it rankles me.  Where I see diminishment (Spirit Up!  They were beaten by a girl!), Deborah and other women might have felt encouragement; Paine is, after all, suggesting they can do something.

Moving on from this basis, I'll take a look at more specifics of Joan's adventures and reception in comparison to Deborah's.

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