September Books 8) Peter Abelard

8) Peter Abelard, by Helen Waddell

I have long been interested in Helen Waddell; although she was born in Japan, her father ended up in our part of County Down (and gets a mention in my PhD thesis because of his amateur clerical researches into local ecology), and I was always aware of her papers in the QUB Special Collections room. Here, she takes her expertise and interest in the great love story of Abelard and Héloïse in the early 12th century, and gives it a fictional twist.

It’s not as good as it should be. Good points about the book include that she has not blandly adhered to the historical chronology of events, and she is quite charmingly discreet yet clear about such crucial events as sex in the convent refectory and the mutilation of Abelard by Héloïse’s uncle’s men. She also gives us a very good idea of where the two protagonists come from, with excellent sketches of Abelard’s family back in Brittany and Héloïse’s loyalty to the convent in Argenteuil (thanks to which the book sails through the Bechdel test), and the background scenery in Paris is also very convincingly sketched.

But while we have a good idea of where they come from, I wasn’t so convinced about where they go to during the book, particularly in the case of Héloïse – this is her story as much as Abelard’s, and it is quite unjust that she does not get equal billing in the title. History remembers her (and Waddell characterises her) from her later correspondence with Abelard, where one might get the impression that her relationship with him was the only interesting thing that ever happened to her – a twelfth-century version of the Sarah Jane Smith we met in School Reunion, perhaps. (This thought may require a separate post, or at least discussion in comments.) But I don’t think that the historical Héloïse of the 1130s is a reliable witness to her own state of mind of 1116-18, when you take into account who she was writing to and the passage of time. In particular I was struck that their baby son drops out of Waddell’s narrative without a trace, which can hardly have happened in real life. Perhaps also a reader today is less satisfied with the narrative of Heloise sacrificing all for her lover than the reader of 1933 would have been.

With Abelard, as you might expect given Waddell’s other work, she portrays him much more convincingly as a poet and lyricist than as a scholar – indeed, the scholarly scenes are the least convincing in the book, probably because she has taken fewest liberties with the historical facts. Rather bizarrely, one of Abelard’s friends ends the book by prophesying him as the John the Baptist-like fore-runner to Thomas Aquinas, which is really a bit absurd but is placed in such a way that you get the impression Waddell thinks this is the whole point of the story.

Anyway, it’s an interesting effort, but more that it was tried at all than that it is particularly good.

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