SEX, violence, and a doomed love affair between a charismatic hero and a beautiful heroine: these are the promising ingredients of Melvyn Bragg’s new novel, Love Without End, which is based on the true story of Abelard and Héloîse.
The tale is a dramatic one: early in the 12th century, the “cleverest woman in all of France” became the pupil of “the greatest philosopher in the world”, and they fell in love. Their passionate affair (documented in their surviving letters, and in his autobiography) produced a son, Astrolabe, and culminated in their clandestine marriage. But their relationship was doomed: her angry relatives arranged Peter Abelard’s castration, and the pair spent the rest of their lives in separate religious houses.
Their story has been retold many times over the centuries, and is often presented as that of a real-life Romeo and Juliet. But any contemporary retelling must overcome the fact that many readers will be uncomfortable with the idea of a pupil-teacher relationship as a grand romance, and also with some aspects of Abelard’s treatment of Héloîse.
Bragg deals with this by alternating between the past and present: the historical sections of the novel are a work-in-progress by an English academic, Arthur, which he discusses with his twenty-something daughter in a parallel narrative set in Paris in 2017. Julia’s main function seems to be to protest about Abelard’s conduct at regular intervals, so that her father can explain his efforts to understand the couple, and expound on the shortcomings of 21st century life. This modern strand is by far the least satisfying part of the novel, and the big revelation about Arthur’s own broken marriage to Julia’s mother is something of an anti-climax.
The medieval strand is considerably more engaging, if strangely unevocative of 12th-century Paris. To his credit, Bragg is interested in the ideas as well as the sex, and his efforts to get inside the medieval mind-set make this more than just another historical romance about star-crossed lovers.
Those who like their fiction firmly based on the facts, and mixed with a generous dollop of philosophy, will be well satisfied. Ultimately, however, Bragg’s keenness to show us that he has done his research, makes, along with his somewhat didactic tone, Love Without End feel less like a novel, and more like lightly fictionalised biography, or an extended edition of In Our Time.
Dr Katherine Harvey is Research Fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.
Love Without End: A story of Heloise and Abelard
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