Gallantry and its discontents: Joan of Arc and virtuous transmasculinity in Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West

The medieval crossdressing warrior Joan of Arc became a popular figure during World War I and its aftermath, appearing in silent films, political posters, plays, novels, and speculative biographies. Her youthful idealism, chivalry, and courage associated her with young soldiers sacrificed on the field of battle, and her canonization in 1920 made official the centuries-old veneration of her as a virgin martyr. Modern figurations of Joan emphasize the ethical dimensions of her transmasculinity, where queer gender identity and desire are actively engaged in the struggle to build a more tolerant world. Looking at Cecil B. DeMille’s film Joan the Woman (1916), Radclyffe Hall’s novels The Unlit Lamp (1924) and The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Vita Sackville-West’s biography Saint Joan of Arc (1936), I argue that Joan’s chivalry and saintliness model an ethical transmasculine gender that emerges in wartime, but gradually shows up elsewhere in modernism to insist on queer social justice, fighting “for the good of all.”


The production of Joan during the Great War and its aftermath as a figure of what I am calling virtuous transmasculinity offered her gender comportment – gallant chivalry, courage, fortitude, and self-sacrifice – as a noble way of being queer. Joan’s youth – she was only 19 when she died – made her a powerful symbol of martyred innocence to the young Allied soldiers fighting at Verdun and the Somme. Viewed as a paragon of virtue at least 1400, when Christine de Pisan praised her for doing what 5000 men could not do by saving France, Joan of ArcJoan became the “perfect” World War I propaganda tool, according to recent film historians, because she embodied the nobility of sacrifice, and linked the deaths of soldiers to abstract ideals of “eternal greatness.” Joan’s transmasculine saintliness helped bring together traditional discourses of virtue with newer discourses of sexology and psychoanalysis, including the work of Freud, who increasingly sought to reconcile a wider range of sexual and gender behavior with the greater good, and whose famous text about lesbian desire and transmasculine chivalry, “Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” was published the same year Joan was canonized.


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Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.