A scholar investigates the medieval passion of Heloise and Abelard and gleans insight into his own romantic woes in the latest by British broadcaster and author Bragg (In Our Time: Celebrating Twenty Years of Essential Conversation, 2018, etc.).
Peter Abelard is a nobleman who gave up his birthright to lecture in philosophy, and Heloise is the well-educated niece and ward of high ranking Parisian cleric Canon Fulbert. (Bragg posits that Fulbert, who honors celibacy only in the breach, is actually Heloise’s father.) It may be unclear to modern readers why these iconic lovers were considered so transgressive long before each took holy orders: She is in her mid-20s and he is in his mid-30s, and the main impediment to their marriage—besides Heloise’s own fierce independence—is the fact that Abelard teaches at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame, where his self-imposed chastity has enhanced his reputation as a cerebral ascetic. In a metafictional frame story, Arthur, a British professor, is in the Latin Quarter writing a novel about the pair with the help of his daughter, Julia, who also hopes to extract the real reason for her parents’ estrangement. Abelard is hired by Fulbert to tutor Heloise, and the two fall helplessly in love and lust. When Heloise becomes pregnant, Fulbert beats her, and Abelard spirits her away to his ancestral Brittany, where she gives birth to their son, Astralabe. From there, the 12th-century European mores motivating what follows are tangled indeed. Suffice it to say that the couple’s attempts to mollify Fulbert—including a secret marriage—fail spectacularly: His hirelings drug and castrate Abelard. Thenceforth it’s the monastery for him, the convent for her—correspondence and one distant encounter will be their only congress. The biggest narrative challenge is historical reality: All the drama is front-loaded into a short time span. For the next few decades this notorious liaison plays out (in history) only in letters and (in the novel) thoughts, extrapolated from the letters. This approach muffles the sad plights of two brilliant people who were, essentially, punished for having too good a time. And the moral for Arthur’s marriage is less than profound.
A promising story hobbled by the known facts.