Heloise by Mandy Hager (Penguin Random House, 2017), 382 pp., $38
Hilary Mantel, in her second of five Reith Lectures, commented on the tendency of women writers to falsely empower female characters in history, in rather the same way we might attribute power and influence over her father to Ivanka Trump. She talks of the desire to ‘rework history so victims are the winners’. This is not a criticism that can be levelled at Mandy Hager’s Heloise, though some of the psychological insights that Heloise d’Argenteuil and her nuns arrive at might owe more to our times than the twelth century. It seems we can no more escape 2017 than Heloise could escape 1098–1142.
This story of a little girl, taken from her keepers at age five and carried off to Paris, is vividly and thickly told. The surroundings are richly described, like a thin tapestry faintly warming a stone wall. Heloise’s clothes are ‘three sack-cloth gowns of charcoal black, threadbare scraps of underthings, one tired woollen cloak’, although she does eventually have a rabbit-lined cloak when Clotild, a timorous nun in charge of provisioning, becomes a notable huntress. The nuns who will follow Heloise to found the convent at the Paraclete, where she will become abbess, walk for days on muddy roads, gather twigs to make brooms to sweep a floor clean of dirt and droppings, sleep in rough beds stuffed with straw.
There are bridges deliberately burned on the Seine, and a willow tree beneath whose drooping branches Abelard and Heloise make love. There are long journeys on horseback and the aches that follow. Nothing is as rich or as dangerous as king against Pope, or the prevailing orthodoxy, fought over in church schools where Heloise, in a disguise that hides her gender, first encounters Abelard and argues with him. Bands of students – think of the Paris riots of 1968 for a clue – follow their champions. Power and conformity are dangerous games and friendship is light when measured against survival.
Heloise’s longing for learning could have been amplified – we see it in action for the larger part of her life but not so clearly in childhood. And in later analyses of male/female behaviour a modern tone creeps in (unless cynicism knows no century). It is noticeable that near the end of Abelard’s life when Heloise wants to help him, this assistance must be offered through gentle wiles and an indirect approach. Once he is buried in the grounds of the Paraclete, memories of their early passion can flow freely.
There is great richness in the drawing of character. From the first appearance of impetuous, hot-tempered but loving Fulbert, the reader is drawn into vacillation, violence, hysteria and tearful reconciliation. To the last, when she is writing to her son Astrolabe, Heloise is going over old lacks and wounds and seeking cohesion and understanding. You could say each of the main characters is a kind of novelist. One of Mandy Hager’s great skills is to turn the reader off and then on to the same character, condemning them one moment and then inclined to offer a bed and broth. The external world is as dangerous as Trump’s. Christianity might be simple at heart but it is poor politics to admit it; fear and schism, fast footwork and slippery alliances work better for the powerful.
Then there is the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard, both great polemicists and reachers for the stylus and the slate. Love is only their initial subject:
To the singular joy and only solace of the weary mind,
that person whose life without you is death … may
the first time I forget your name be when I no longer
remember my own
(Abelard to Heloise)
Low in the grave with thee
Happy to lie,
Since there is no greater thing left Love to do;
And to live after thee
Is but to die,
For with but half a soul what can Life do?
(Heloise to Abelard)
A pattern appears and then repeats: ‘That night, when all are tucked up in their beds, Heloise creeps out through the gates and along the lane to the middle of a nearby field. Here she releases the howls that rise in waves from the pit of her belly into the sky.’ This is followed by: ‘Slowly she collects herself, breathing through the pain until she is left with a silent ache. She kneels in the long meadow grass, then rocks back to hug her knees. Above her the stars pierce the velvet dark and a crescent moon shines so bright it bleeds a rim of silver that maps its complete orb. “Farewell, my heart, my body, my love …”’
All around are practical souls: Stephen de Garlande, Jehanne, Mother Basilia, Matilda, as if love must rage against a plain background. Women may not have power but they can debate even if their convents are threatened; they offer examples of kindness and endurance. Jehanne, herself badly treated and adamant she will never take the veil, seems to have debated the differences between men and women all her life. Nothing, it seems, overthrows so rapidly as a theological war.
Heloise’s memory of first setting eyes on Abelard is pure romance:
Peter Abelard’s eyes exude a vivid and fiery cast that sets her heart thumping out of beat. So, too, does his vast smooth forehead, which hints at the scope of his prodigious mind. His face is capped by curling sable locks, and from his bearing it is clear he knows full well his mesmerising power.
Heloise attends his lectures in disguise. He comes to board at Fulbert’s house, and the inevitable happens: the meeting of minds, then physical love; there is a child, Astrolabe, who is fostered. Love wanes under persecution. Revered ecclesiastical figures possess rat-like cunning and thin moustaches.
Mandy Hager’s research is prodigious and for the most part worn lightly. A little judicious tightening, a few sentences cut might have allowed more liveliness; at times there is over-explaining. But these are small quibbles and do not take into account the amount of detail to be conveyed. That the characters rise splendidly above all this – it is impossible not to feel affection for Stephen de Garlande, or Matilda, or Heloise herself going about her abbess’s duties, or Abelard writing himself out of a perilous psychological state – is a great achievement, worthy of a soft bed or a fur-lined cloak.
‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks their readers’, Mantel said. It is an ethical framework in which Abelard censures Bernard of Clairvaux: ‘It was as much a campaign of hate as weapons; an excuse to attack all people at odds with those of Bernard’s fundamental zealotry. Heretics, Jews, Cathars, Muslims, all targets of Christian swords and spears. Dear God, there were acts of terror and slaughter so foul they wiped out entire innocent populations …’ Sound familiar?
Abelard and Heloise are famous in song, story and poetry, and this novel adds to the narrative. But oddly, as if she were following Mantel’s instruction, Mandy Hager has succeeded even more splendidly with her supporting cast. Canon Fulbert (my favourite), who firmly establishes 1098 in the way he uses his fingernails to scrape at the layers of dirt on Heloise’s five-year-old body, may be able to give a scholarly definition of ‘dialectic’ or ‘rhetoric’, but in his private life he can follow none of it. It is rather a joyous discovery.
ELIZABETH SMITHER is an award-winning poet and writer. She has published nineteen collections of poetry, as well as a number of novels and collections of short stories. Her latest book of verse, Night Horse, was published by AUP in 2017. She lives in New Plymouth.