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Michel Tournier: Gilles et Jeanne (Gilles and Jeanne)

The theme of Gilles de Rais is not new to literature and certainly not to French literature. J K Huysmans, who wrote just before our time period, wrote a superb novel called Là-Bas (Down There; Là-Bas: A Journey Into Self) which is about a nineteenth century Frenchman writing about Gilles Rais and which I can strongly recommend. What is not well-known, at least for English-speaking readers, is that Gilles de Rais is not just known for torturing and killing children but also because he fought with Joan of Arc. Indeed, I wonder why the English translation of this book kept the French title, as many English speakers will not make the connection with Joan of Arc’s French name.

This is a short novel and, as the title says, focuses on the relationship between Joan and Gilles. It starts when Joan recognises the Dauphin in a crowd, though she has never met him before, and his father, Charles VI, entrusts her to the care of Gilles. They swap stories and Gilles then says that he will follow her wherever she goes. He follows her in all her battles with the English. However, when things go wrong and the dauphin, now king, retreats, Gilles goes back home. Joan is arrested and sent to trial. He tries to rescue her but she is condemned to death for heresy and burnt at the stake, which Gilles witnesses. Meanwhile, Gilles has become very rich from an inheritance and founds a church dedicated to the Holy Innocents. However, seeing the children in the church awakens in him the feelings that will make him a monster. We follow him, as he gradually becomes a monster and, while some try to help him, he is finally arrested and sentenced to death, dying with Joan’s name on his lips. This work tends to hagiography, overpraising Joan of Arc and trying hard to make the comparison with her goodness and Gilles de Rais’ wickedness or Joan’s focus on the spiritual and his on the physical. Nevertheless it is very well written and well researched. Incidentally, French writer, Gilbert Prouteau maintains that Gilles was innocent.

Publishing history

First published in French 1983 by Gallimard
First published in English 1990 by Weidenfeld
Translated by Alan Sheridan