What were Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc thinking and feeling during their hours of deepest crisis and despair?
Shorr (Backlands, 2015), who co-founded the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, combines sturdy biographical research with some flights of imagination to portray three different women caught in the vises of three very different sets of circumstances. Austen (1775-1817), Shelley (1797-1851), and Joan of Arc (1412-1431)—each faced considerable darkness but persisted until light appeared. Austen found herself growing older with no marriage prospects and “without a penny to her name”—then picked up her pen; Shelley had to deal with the deaths of three of her children and a husband (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) whose eye roamed before he drowned, leaving Mary widowed at 25; Joan, after winning battles for France, was captured and knew a flaming death at the stake would be her fate. In all three stories, Shorr employs a similar strategy, interweaving historical and biographical facts with imagined actions, thoughts, and dialogue. She is not explicit about the connections among the women’s lives; she does not point out, for instance, that neither Percy Shelley’s nor Joan’s heart burned in the flames that consumed their bodies: Shelley’s, a cremation on the beach at Viareggio; Joan’s, a fiery execution in Rouen. Regardless, the author’s voyages into the minds of the women are impressive. Joan battles with another “Joan,” whom the author calls “Girl X,” a timorous version of herself who wants only to live. Mary comes to terms with her husband’s infatuations with other women, deciding each is more muse than potential lover. Jane realizes that her work, “that spark she’d trusted, had caught fire, and lit her life.” The detail is a little thick in the Mary section, and the text is a little long in Joan’s.
A fresh and instructive investigation of three iconic lives and minds.