Friday, December 7, 2012

Verity and Joan

In all likelihood, if you ever took a literature course anywhere in the United States educational system, you read the literature of war. Maybe it was the Iliad, or the Aeneid. A Farewell to Arms. A Separate Peace. Maybe you read "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or poetry by Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke or one of the other War Poets. Maybe you talked about the Lost Generation, and its effect on the arts. Perhaps you were asked to memorize the Saint Crispin's Day speech. 

Yesterday, I finished reading a great book, one of the best books I have read, and easily the best war novel I have ever read. It was Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. It's the kind of book that rewards an unspoiled reading, so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about it, but it is set during World War II, and is unflinching, strongly written, very well-researched, and I recommend it to everyone.

And - while I would love to be wrong about this - I don't expect to ever see it canonized in the classroom, as one of those great novels (that just happens to also be a war novel) that speaks to the human experience (although it does) because the two main characters are both young women. They're not nurses, or the brave girls back home. They are characters who are active in the conflict, in ways that are historically accurate. But when it comes to war, those are just not the stories that we are supposed to tell. Think about the list above. Think about the war literature you were taught in school. (Ask yourself if it was even presented as war literature, or if it was just part of the canon of great works.)

I wrote part of my dissertation on Joan of Arc. Joan did not wish to directly kill anyone, so instead of her sword, she carried the standard when she rode into battle. But she was part of the strategic planning for the assaults she lead (including the successful raising of the Siege of OrlĂ©ans), and testimony from her contemporaries said that she was a gifted military strategist. She was injured twice in battle, and was captured during a failed assault. Yet there is a small and vocal minority of people who are dedicated to proving that Joan was nothing but a figurehead - the medieval equivalent of a cheerleader for the French army - and that all of the evidence to the contrary is false. Why? Because she was a woman and "everyone knows" women weren't allowed to do the things she did. 

There has been a lot written recently about sexism in historical writing (and other important conversations as well, including the problems of racism in historical writing, and of treatment of LGBT characters and relationships. ) The flip side of these inaccuracies is that when women (or people of color, or LGBT people) do show up in history, or in historical fiction, they are treated as myths, as falsities, as things that couldn't possibly happen because "everyone knows" that the truth is otherwise.

The truth isn't otherwise. It's complicated, and complex, and is influenced heavily by the person writing the story. Everyone has an agenda when they write, even historians. But we owe it to ourselves to look for the truth even when it seems strange or impossible, and to question the verity of the truths we have been told. More, we owe it to our stories.

1 comment:

  1. ...which brings me back, of course, to Virginia Woolf's "A room of one's own":

    "Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’."

    Though at first sight her point seems to be the opposite of yours, I think they're rather complementary.