Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 12, 2018

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Heloise, Mangy Hager’s first work of fiction for adults, has been longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and it turned out to be interesting reading, though *chuckle* perhaps not in the way that its author intended it to be.  It is a retelling of a story many already know: the doomed love of the famous 12th century French lovers whose letters have come to exemplify passion and romance for a thousand years.  Hager’s novel, the blurb tells us, offers a plausible interpretation of the known facts and a vivid imagining of the gaps in the lives of the philosopher and theologian Peter Abélard – who was compelled to be celibate by his position as a secular canon – but who seduced his younger pupil-scholar Héloïse d’Argenteuil who subsequently became his not-so-secret wife and then a reluctant nun. Both of them paid a terrible price for their forbidden love, which makes for a good story even if you already know its outline.  But what made it interesting for me was its problematic aspects…

In order to discuss this, it is necessary to reveals elements of the story, so be warned:

SPOILER ALERT

The novel is written entirely from Heloise’s point-of-view, tracing her rescue from an unhappy foster-home to her uncle’s Fulbert’s care and placement in a convent at Argenteuil, now a suburb of Paris.  There she gains access to education from the Jewish convert Saris, learning Latin and Greek and exploring the works of Ovid and Virgil.  But when the convent is closed due to political manoeuvring, Heloise takes shelter under her uncle’s roof in Paris, and pining for her lost education opportunities, she discreetly attends male-only lectures by the famous teacher Abelard.  Highly intelligent, Heloise is frustrated by the restrictions on education for girls in this medieval era and is delighted when her uncle allows Abelard to take lodgings with him and to teach the teenage Heloise.  They enjoy intellectual word play and robust discussions, but eventually the first of the problematic incidents takes place.  Their mutual attraction and shared passion leads to him forcing himself on her.  In this novel, although she loves him and he loves her, it is unquestionably rape.

And she forgives him.

It turns out that she has quite a lot of forgiving to do.  Hager’s Abelard is selfish, arrogant, domineering and impulsive, and eventually Heloise comes to realise that what she interpreted as concern for her welfare, was more likely protecting his own interests and safety.  But – fascinated by his mind and convinced of his intellectual legacy – she forgives him for hiding her away with his family when she is pregnant, (and failing to protect her, in her innocence, from that).  He fails to protect her from her enraged uncle’s fists as well, and the violence of Fulbert’s fury almost kills her, but oh yes, she forgives him too.

Heloise forgives Abelard for neglecting her for months while he is busy with his career, failing to write and to visit, leaving her in a state of constant anxiety about his fate and hers.  But when he eventually does turn up, forcing himself on her a mere three weeks after the birth (ouch!) she is so delighted that he shows some interest in his son that she overlooks it all, going on to forgive him for lying to her about the fate of this infant son so that she doesn’t see Astrolabe again until his adolescence; for making her go through a sham secret marriage; and for finally forcing her to take the veil though she has consistently rejected that option because she cherishes her independence. And not until very late in the novel does Heloise ever contemplate career options for Abelard that would have enabled them to be together.

So when I encountered these problematic aspects of the novel that portray Abelard in a less-than-flattering light, and Heloise’s loving letters are quoted in the wake of behaviour that most of us would consider unforgiveable, and all this reprehensible and unloving behaviour is excused by a diagnosis of Abelard’s ‘mania’ (this, made a thousand years after the man has died) and the very young Heloise has the wisdom to be understanding about it, well – handicapped by not knowing which aspects of the novel are based on solid research and which are plausible interpretations or a vivid imagining of the gaps – my ‘credibility antennae’ start to quiver.

I don’t want to read a novel like Heloise only to have to spend my time tracking down the authenticity of the research on which it’s based, but what on earth is a card-carrying 20th century feminist to think about this? Heloise as befits a somewhat rebellious personality has her moments of doubt, but they are always resolved with forgiveness and understanding.

Here’s an example, when in a moment of crisis, a stanza from one of Abelard’s poems torments her:

Be my spirit for me… This phrase tolls on while every wrong he ever did her unfurls like a court roll in her head.  His bodily force, his vanity, his total absorption with himself, his insistence on marriage and that she take the veil, the stealing of her son…

Be my spirit for me… And yet, and yet… had he not also marvelled at her mind and shared the tools to open it?  Had he not woken the woman in her and enabled that fleeting glimpse of Heaven? He rarely talked down to her; he listened and valued her input into his works.  He may be a man with many failings, no doubt of that, but is not everyone imperfect?  Surely this is the lesson of Adam and Eve?  Godlike perfection may be the ideal to strive towards, but in the garden somewhere will always lurk a snake.  (p.235)

Maybe that is really how it was, but all the same, it’s a strange message to send to a contemporary readership, especially in the wake of issues raised in this post by WA author Rashida Murphy.

PS The church infighting about obscure matters of theology is, I guess, necessary for the storyline, but I found it detracted from the narrative drive.

But for an entirely different reaction to mine, do listen to this podcast at Radio NZ.  Elisabeth Easther is almost breathless in her enthusiasm and she shares none of my misgivings at all!

Alys on the Blog has a fine review as well.

Author: Mandy Hager
Title: Heloise
Publisher: Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2017
ISBN: 9780143770992
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $30.50 AUD

Available from Fishpond: Heloise


Responses

  1. The retelling of a well known story can be to update the historical record, which seems unlikely in this case, or to draw our attention to the analogies with contemporary situations which is what Shakespeare did for instance. This author seems to have done neither of those things. Unless of course she’s an advocate for submissiveness in women.

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    • Well, that’s the tricky thing… the story of these two and their disastrous love has been romanticised since forever, and Hager has done a good job of de-romanticising it.
      But Heloise for a modern readership is an awkward character. She was, in one way, a feminist before her time, demanding education and refusing to be defined by her gender. Like many, (although forced there) she found some freedom in a convent under female leadership and she became an abbess herself. But a feminist icon she cannot be because her life story also shows that she was submissive to an unworthy man and to God. (She had rebellious thoughts but she still believed in God). So rewriting this story for a modern age is rife with both possibilities and problems.
      I can’t think of a way for an author to resolve these issues and yet be faithful to the historical record and also the era the story is set in. I acknowledge the difficulty of the author’s task, but I still find the book unsatisfactory for that reason… though that very unsatisfactoriness is what makes it perfect for book group discussions IMO.

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  2. You are a much more forgiving reader than I am, Lisa. I’d find it hard to persevere with a story like this, for all the reasons you point out.It is inexplicable to me that writers are still toying with the idea of love and forgiveness as balancing out abuse. I’ll give this one a miss,despite your insightful review.

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    • There was a story at ABC Online recently about the physical abuse of the wives of clerics and how the religious message of forgiveness made it more difficult for them to identify what was happening as abuse and to do something about it. So I think it’s important to look at the impact of religious belief on this social problem. What muddies the issue here is two things: an historical novel based on the historical record means that it would be inauthentic to have Heloise standing up for herself and rejecting the violent love of this very flawed man (which is what you and I would advise a woman to do!) , and secondly, portraying Abelard as a man with a serious mental illness (bi-polar by the sound of him) doesn’t exactly give him an excuse, but it runs up against the narrative that mental illness should be treated like any other illness and any problematic actions be regarded as a symptom and not a moral failing.
      I think it would be useful for book groups to unpack these issues because the second issue in particular needs thinking through. What is the ethical way to behave when in love with someone whose destructive behaviours are damaging?

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  3. Thanks for taking the time to read and review Heloise. You might find this interesting: https://mandyhager.com/2017/12/13/frequently-asked-questions-about-heloise/

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    • Thanks, Mandy, I did visit your site in the process of writing my review:)

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  4. […] Heloise by Mandy Hager (Penguin Random House), on order 4/1/18 Now on my TBR.  10/2/18 See my review […]

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  5. […] Heloise by Mandy Hager […]

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