The subtitle, Forbidden Love in a Hostile World, is a good summary of Mandy Hager’s new book. It is a dense work of historical fiction, rich with actual quotes from the main characters and a deep understanding of the history of the time. The story is a familiar one, that of Heloise and Abelard, lovers in the same vein as Dante and Beatrice or Romeo and Juliet, but different because they were also thinkers, scholars and deeply religious people. Lots has been written about them before, but this version is uniquely from Heloise’s point of view.
Abelard and Heloise lived during the twelfth century, with Abelard being born only ten years or so after the Normans had swept to power in England at the battle of Hastings. It was a primitive time, as Europe emerged from the period known as The Dark Ages, but one in which we see the beginning of scholarship and great religious development. All over Europe great monasteries began to flourish and huge churches and cathedrals were being built. From a historical perspective the times were full of wars, crusades, battles and power struggles, but we hear little of everyday life. So the survival of the letters between Heloise and Abelard are a unique insight into more ordinary concerns, and in particular the expression of love when everything else spoke only about a love for God.
I think the novel Heloise is a remarkable achievement, turning the story into a full scale novel, but also one which catches both the spirit of the time and the dangers that lurked for all the parties concerned. It reveals that Mandy Hager has spent a great deal of time to understand the nature of central characters but also the context of the events around them. The morales of the time and the churchmen who policed these, along with the political machinations of both church and state, are cleverly captured and woven into the narrative.
When all said and done this is essentially one thing, a love story, but it was such a complex story. When Heloise’s uncle Fulbert rescues her and brings her to live in Paris, he does not realise that her love of learning will bring her under the spell of Abelard, the most celebrated thinker of the time. Having fallen in love the two are propelled by their need to respect the positions that Abelard holds within the church and the all consuming passion he holds for Heloise. Eventually, when Heloise becomes pregnant, they will be forced to separate but both will struggle with their emotions for each other for the rest of their lives. The book captures both the length and the struggle of that relationship, as it unfolds over decades.
I enjoyed this rich story for its details but it is certainly not a quick book to read. You know that you are dealing with a well researched text when there are pages of notes, lists of real characters and places named in the text and a list of sources and references at the back. A work of erudition and of great beauty too.
REVIWER: Marcus Hobson
AUTHOR(S): Mandy Hager
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House