One of history’s great loves is reexamined by a former French publishing executive.
Here, the tale of Heloise and Abelard is narrated by the fictional William of Oxford, an itinerant young copyist whose wanderings take him, in 1116, to the abbey of Fontrevault and two life-altering encounters. The first is with eminent scholar-teacher-theologian Peter Abelard, who has by his 40th year become both revered and reviled for the matchless rational powers that take the forms of “his audacity and his blasphemous comparisons.” The second is with the beautiful Heloise, niece and ward of powerful Canon Fulbert—with whom William falls instantly and unrequitedly in love. Over the succeeding years, repressing his yearnings, William becomes Abelard’s devoted disciple and a pained witness to the great teacher’s passionate appropriation of the willing Heloise, herself possessed of an intellect as powerful and hungry as is the romantic desire Abelard stirs in her. As William moves in and out of Abelard’s orbit, the famous story is told: of the lovers’ “secret marriage” and the birth of their son; Canon Fulbert’s violent revenge (the castration of his niece’s seducer); Abelard’s distracted transformation from argumentative rebel into “a man of God who has been punished but purified”; and the years of separation, ending with Abelard’s death and Heloise’s renunciation of the world as she becomes a respected abbess. Audouard has researched his materials impeccably and constructed a sometimes affecting but otherwise middling narrative. The problem is William. Audouard’s emphasis on his emotions distracts attention from his lovers—and William’s arbitrary journeys and meetings never become anything but storytelling strategies. Only at end, when the celebrated exchange of letters from which the world knows of Heloise and Abelard is finally acknowledged, do we understand why Audouard created this really unnecessary character.
The story is much better told in Helen Waddell’s deservedly popular 1933 classic Peter Abelard.