Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host — infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. For the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view), with the emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.
These women — and they’re almost always women — become the public’s playthings in perpetuity. Stripped of truth, deprived of personhood, they can be claimed and used by anyone for any purpose. Exhibit A is Joan of Arc, simultaneously canonized by Pope Benedict XV and the women’s suffrage movement; sometime mascot of 19th-century French republicans, 20th-century Vichy France and the 21st-century National Front. She has over a dozen operas and several dozen movies to her name. And she’s the single thread that unites a bewilderingly diverse crowd of playwrights, writers, philosophers, poets and novelists, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Robert Southey, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West and Bertolt Brecht.
No wonder the British historian Helen Castor begins her highly satisfying biography of Joan of Arc by stating the obvious: “In the firmament of history,” the Maid of Orléans is a “massive star” whose “light shines brighter than that of any other figure of her time and place.” Indeed, Castor insists, Joan’s star still shines. But what a travesty if all people can see is the reflected vainglory of their own desires.
Castor’s corrective approach to the problem of Joan’s fame is to turn the mirror outward, changing the point of view from Joan herself to the times in which she lived. Follow her too closely, Castor argues, and “it can seem, unnervingly, as though Joan’s star might collapse into a black hole.” To those who think they know her story, this statement might seem unnerving. But Castor doesn’t mean the facts are wrong or need revising.