Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard
By Melvyn Bragg,
Review by Shirley Whiteside
In 12th Century France, Heloise, a clever and well-educated young woman, and Peter Abelard, a revolutionary philosopher, became famous for their intense and scandalous love affair. That they were separated by the strict morals and mores of their day made their love story endure. Their letters tell of the triumphs and tragedies they experienced, and how their love withstood their years apart. Melvyn Bragg uses the frame of a man writing about the pair in 2017, helped by his estranged daughter, to explore and comment on the lovers’ story.
Heloise, renowned for her learning and exquisite command of Latin, leaves the isolation of a countryside convent and moves to Paris to live with her uncle, Canon Fulbert, unaware that he is actually her father. Forbidden from attending lectures at the nearby Cathedral school because she is a woman, she rails against the quality of the tutor she is offered. ‘An ignorant Bible-babbling clerk, who comes to this house and tells me what I knew as a child.’ Heloise, like everyone else in Paris, wants to be taught by Peter Abelard, a brilliant, radical philosopher who is becoming famous throughout France for his scholarly, ecclesiastical lectures. Bragg succeeds in showing how important philosophical debates about the true meaning of the Bible were in this century, and how the rivalries between philosophers became ferociously competitive. Canon Fulbert manages to secure the services of Abelard as tutor to Heloise, revelling in the reflected glory this appointment shines on him. Abelard and Heloise’s intellectual jousting soon leads to a feverish, physical attraction and the two become lovers, hiding their lust in plain sight of the unwitting Canon. When Fulbert does find out about the affair, he executes a hideous revenge on Abelard which Bragg relates in clinical detail.
Bragg’s depiction of 12th-century Paris is oddly lacking in atmosphere. The bustling city, a world centre of learning, does not feel like a dangerous hotbed of radical new ideas. Bragg keeps telling the reader that Abelard is charismatic but he fails to show why women swoon over him and his students are so devoted. Similarly, Heloise is a nebulous figure and does not spring into life until she becomes a Bride of Christ and struggles to leave her love for Abelard behind. Their legendary romance was said to be astonishingly passionate but in Bragg’s hands their couplings are dull and prosaic. Even as their relationship turns from lust to love, there is no impression of an irresistible magnetism drawing them together.
Back in the present-day, Arthur is in Paris researching and writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard when Julia, his daughter, unexpectedly arrives for a visit. She offers to read and comment on Arthur’s work, hoping it will bring them closer. Damaged by her parents’ divorce, she wants to know why her father walked out of her life. Their relationship shares some traits of Heloise and Abelard’s, as Julia questions and spars with Arthur’s interpretation of the lovers’ letters. Julia finds Arthur’s willingness to excuse Abelard’s arrogant and chauvinist behaviour puzzling. Equally, Arthur cannot understand why Julia can’t see the couple in the context of medieval society.
As a frame, Arthur and Julia’s story feels more like a vehicle for Bragg to comment on the various interpretations of Heloise and Abelard’s relationship than a story strand populated by flesh-and-blood characters. Arthur is one-dimensional while Julia’s childish goading of her father soon becomes wearing. Their story lacks tension and the resolution is a damp squib. Perhaps Bragg felt that the intricacies of life in the 1100s needed explanation and context for the modern reader, but the father and daughter story feels redundant.
The lives of Heloise and Abelard were full of drama but in this plodding novel their story is diminished and lacks the thrill and turmoil of forbidden love. Bragg has obviously spent time researching the religious politics of the period and reading the couple’s letters but this has resulted in a rather dry lecture rather than a story full of lust and jeopardy. An opportunity to bring these fascinating characters to life again has been sadly missed.