I’m thrilled to announce that my new novel Heloise will be launched on Monday 15th May at 6pm Unity Books, Wellington. It’s had a long gestation, first making its presence felt in 2009! Here’s the blurb:
What happens when the 12th century’s most famous French lovers are caught in the crossfire of factions, religious reform and blind ambition? Heloise is a determined young woman with an exceptional mind, longing to pursue learning rather than marriage or life as a cloistered nun. Her path inevitably crosses with Peter Abelard, the celebrity philosopher, theologian and master at Paris’ famed Cathedral School. When two such brilliant minds meet and engage, sparks are likely to ignite. But theirs is an impossible love. This is a time when the Gregorian Reforms are starting to bite and celibacy among the clergy and church officials is being rigorously imposed. Based on meticulous up-to-date research and the pair’s own writings, this novel offers a plausible interpretation of the known facts and a vivid imagining of the gaps in this legendary story. It shines a light on a changing world whose attitudes and politics are not so very different from our own.
So how did a NZ writer come to write such a book? Here’s a little insight from a lecture I gave last year.
In 2014 I was lucky enough to be awarded one of New Zealand’s premier literary honours, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which enabled me to spend five and a half months in the south of France researching the life of 12th century Benedictine nun Heloise d’Argenteuil, known since the 15th century for her passionate letters to her lover and husband, the religious philosopher Peter Abélard.
|I had been drawn to her story six years prior to this, when a childhood friend inherited (among other things) the literary estate of Irish medieval writer and academic Helen Waddell. Among Waddell’s many achievements was the authorship of a highly regarded novel based on Abélard’s life, ‘Peter Abélard’ (first published in 1933 by Constable and Co., London.) My friend invited me to visit her in County Down, Northern Ireland, and to look through the many letters and papers in Helen Waddell’s collection, to see if there was anything that took my interest to write about.
Buried inside this fascinating cache of letters, including correspondence between such people as Siegfried Sassoon, Virginia Woolfe, Stanley Baldwin and J. M. Barrie, was a letter written from Helen to her sister Mollie in 1924, at the time she was in Paris to research her book on Abélard. She had been taken ill and admitted to Institut Pasteur in Paris (a Catholic hospital staffed by nuns) and was in a delirious state for several days, after which she wrote to her sister:
‘I passed, fully awake and not I think delirious, into some strange state of being. For suddenly I was Héloïse, not as I had ever imagined her, but an old woman, abbess of the Paraclete, with Abélard twenty years dead; and I was sitting in a great chair lecturing to my nuns on his Introductio ad theologiam. It was near the end of the lecture, and I pronounced the benediction, and sat watching them go out, two by two. And one of them, the youngest and prettiest of my nuns for whom I felt some indulgence, glanced at me sideways as she went out, and I heard her whisper to the older sister beside her ‘Elle parle toujours Abélard.
It stabbed me. And even when the first hurt of it was past, the realisation that what was once a glory in men’s minds had become an old woman’s wearisome iteration. I began wondering if it were indeed true: if after all these years I was lecturing on his theology for the sake of now and then naming his name. And from that I began to remember that his theology has been condemned as heresy; and – for by this time Abélard had done his work upon me and brought me to some sense of God – I began to wonder if I had periled the souls in my charge by teaching them heretical doctrine for the sake of gratifying an ancient lust. But I remembered that Peter the Venerable had absolved him on his deathbed … I rose and went to the ark where the charters of the convent were kept, and took from it the parchment of the absolution: and I sat there hour after hour, fingering the rough edges of the great seal of Cluny in my hands, and finding some dim comfort in it. Then the morning came, and with no sense of transition I was myself, but with full awareness of the other who I had been the night before: and when the Mother Superior came to see me during the morning, I laughed and said ‘Ma Mere, I too was an Abbess all last night.’
As a result of this vision, Waddell, who had been unsure whether to write Abélard’s life as a biography or novel, was so moved by the experience she took this as a sign to tell the story in fictional form, intending one day to write the matching pair from Héloïse’s point of view. Sadly this was never to come to fruition.
Of all the papers, letters and scraps of poetry etc. I was to read at this time, it was this one letter about her almost mystical experience as Héloïse that captured me, and I began to read more about the couple, never having come across them before. I then spent the next five years collecting books on the subject and trying to decide how best to tackle it, initially thinking I would tell the story wearing my usual hat of author of young adult novels, hoping to introduce the story to a whole new generation. At this stage it was still commonly believed that at the time of her tumultuous affair with Abélard, Héloïse was only around 15 years of age, while Abélard was 37, creating a very unbalanced power dynamic. However, by the time I came to research the story in France, it was now generally thought by scholars that she must have been at least in her early to mid twenties in order to have gained the level of education for which she is famed. Because of this age adjustment, and because in the course of my research I discovered there was much more to the story than just their two year love affair, I made a decision to write it for an adult audience, to better enable me to fully explore all the themes.
With fifteen kilos of books in tow, my husband and I left for France in April of 2014, and I spent my time in Menton diving down into all the available material in English, and in travelling to the story’s significant sites throughout France.
I began by working my way through my pile of books – taking annotated notes and also marking up the books. These included several biographies on Abélard’s life, analysis of their letters (including more recent feminist analysis), Abélard’s philosophical and theological writing, time-lines of their story, 12th century French history, 12th century theology, the related work of other medieval philosophers and great thinkers of the time, monastic life and history, some of the other fiction written about them over the years, the geography of the story (i.e. the history of Paris), numerous scholarly articles on very specific details, various theses which have been written on H and A, and other useful side issues such as the politics, music, plays and other writings of both Héloïse and Abélard.
By the end of my time in Menton I had identified several gaps that still needed to be filled, including the literature and writings Héloïse was familiar with (and frequently referenced in her letters), including St Jerome, Boethius, St Augustine, Abbott Suger, Baudri, Helen Waddell’s wandering scholar poets, Ovid, Homer, Vigil, Aristotle, Apollonius, Aristophanies, Aeschylus, Cicero, Seneca, Euripides, Lucius, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, Terence of Rome, Plato, and St Bernard.
Many of these I familiarised myself with through audio books – via a site called Librivox. Each morning I would set out on a forty to fifty minute walk to listen, often having to hurry home to note down specific quotes or links. I also listened to ‘Historical Tales of France’ and “A popular history of France from earliest times’, as well as Nigel Hawthorn’s ‘Tanglewood tales’ – wonderful retellings of the ancient Greek and Roman myths. Some of these I already knew, but now I found I was listening to them with a very specific purpose: how to relate them to the story and how I could best use them to reference emotional plot points. I also took the opportunity to listen at night in bed and when driving long distances.
Like Heloise, I became enraptured particularly with Ovid’s Heroides and loved the raw emotion he gave to the words, so I analysed how each section of Heroides related to Héloïse’s story in order to use it as a recurring motif through the book to relate to particular plot points in Heloise’s life and as a mirror for her emotional state.
Last, but by no means least, I listened over and over to recordings of the letters between Héloïse and Abélard themselves in order to become as familiar as possible with the voices, story and references used. Where possible I have sought out the more ancient of translations, partly pragmatically in terms of not wanting to pay too much in copyright fees, but ultimately found that the modern translations give a greater sense of letters’ true nature for a modern audience.
It was invaluable being able to explore places of relevance specific to the story or of a comparable age in order to get an authentic feel for the 12thcentury French setting. This is something impossible to conjure up by someone from a country so recently settled and I find it a great help to be able to walk around the places I am to describe in a book, in order to pick out authentic detail that will bring a piece of writing alive – carvings in stonework and wood, wooden beams, arched ceilings, crypts, door handles, shrines… So much to notice and soak in.
We started in Brittany, where Abélard was born, and where Héloïse gave birth to her son Astralabe, then up to Normandy to explore some very authentic 12th century churches, including one in Bernay that had been stripped right out so we could see the bones of it, and the way the light fell through the windows to create awe in the very make-up of the architecture. We then travelled down past Chartres to the top of the Loire valley where the Paraclete had stood (the abbey where Héloïse spent forty-odd years of her life).
|Site of the Paraclete
Although no longer there, it is possible to find its original location, which gives a ‘feel’ for the lay of the land, the waterways and proximity to other villages etc. Close by, we went to the medieval village of Provins, a World Heritage Site, on the day of a medieval fair, and then on to nearby Sens, where the cathedral had just been completed in Abélard’s day, and where he was tried for the second (and fatal) time for heresy.
Though the Paraclete no longer exists I was able to wander around similar abbeys in terms of age, size and location, such as Vauluisant and Fontevraud, both of which existed in Heloise’s time and which she would have known. This, again, gave me a good insight into the domestic life of abbeys, including their layout of cloisters, kitchen gardens, dormitories, kitchens etc.
Most vitally, I garnered a real sense for the size of the country: how far everything is apart, and how long it must have taken to travel from one place to the other in the 12th century. It was much more vast than I’d imagined from reading maps and in the course of our five and a half months we travelled over 14,000 kms!
|Musee Cluny, Paris
Later, in Paris, I visited the Musee Cluny, Paris’ medieval museum, and studied artifacts such as lamps, bottles, coins, fabric, illuminated books etc. This also enabled me to physically step out the size of the island which the cathedral of Notre Dame now inhabits, as this small island once encompassed the whole of 12th C Paris – called Ile de la Cite.
While in France, as well as lapping up this huge wealth of sensory and built information, I also had to battle questions about my legitimacy for the telling this story. It has been known in Europe since the 15th C and many people I met had studied the letters at school or university. I received comments (with barely concealed eye-rolling) such as ‘why do we need another book on them?’ and puzzlement as to why someone like me would think I could attempt it. It was extremely challenging and I had to do a lot of soul searching. However, I believe the very fact I haven’t come from that tradition gives me the opportunity to view the material with a fresh outsider’s eye (a handy thing for a novelist) – and, also, more to the point, I don’t have a choice! This story has haunted me for so long I felt compelled to write it – and I believe that what I give it is an intelligent eye, an understanding of what makes a story work through the writing of nine novels (including several award winners), and my own emotional intelligence. I hadto believe I could bring something new to it – and if I failed, at least I’d tried.
However, by the end of all this research I still had some unanswered questions, some of which have been asked for centuries but never solved, such as: What was her parentage? Who taught her? How old was she when they embarked on the affair?
I had to study all the evidence and make my best guess: something that would feel authentic to the experts (well researched) yet still serve the story. As of now, most experts agree it seems likely she was in her early to mid-twenties in 1115 at the start of their affair, therefore I decided on her being twenty-two at this crucial time. It’s possible she was a bit older, but with no clear evidence I have gone for a believable average that still allowed me a reasonable age difference between them, as I do think the size of this gap played into some of the power issues between them.
I also decided to use this indecision about her age as a part of the story, as in a ruse designed by her uncle to stop local gossip at the time by talking down her age. I decided I would rather work with the mystery than make a guess that can be blown apart by an academic with a bee in their bonnet!
One of the other two great mysteries is the question of her heritage. There is no information of substance, though a lot of speculation (other writers and scholars have talked her heritage up, linking her to nobility), but I think some of this is artistic fancy when, really, there is no convincing proof at all – and, given Abélard’s propensity for name-dropping (as did others whose early writing I studied), it seems inconceivable to me that he would not have name-checked her family if this would have aided his case. Therefore, here too, I have come up with a fictional explanation for why we will never know this, which also helps explain her relationship with her uncle and his total unhinging at the discovery of her pregnancy and affair, which is fact.
As for who taught her to such an extraordinary level, this is the other significant mystery. I discovered a one sentence reference in a 1918 book about Abélard which spoke of a wandering Jewish scholar called Manegold of Alsace, who was a philosopher/teacher, and whose wife and daughters taught women as well. There are no other references to him anywhere I’ve been able to find (except to confirm he was a real person) but he was around at that time and I am using his wife and one daughter to fill this role. It’s a good educated guess, and explains a lot more than the usual vague references to ‘good teachers’ at her first convent school Argenteuil. It would also help explain how she knew Hebrew, which was very unusual at that time. Having made this decision, I then needed to figure out how she would have had access to Jewish schooling, and discovered a perfectly timed attack on the Jews in France which sent many of the women into convents as Catholic converts in order to save their lives.
I also had to consider the points of difference I could bring to a fictional account not previously touched upon in detail by any other author, and I believe no one has yet written (in a fictional way, at least) about several new ‘takes’ on Abelard’s actions, for instance, his so-called ‘rescue’ of her when she is found pregnant, which is traditionally depicted as very heroic on Abélard’s part, to get her away from her evil uncle, yet now looks increasingly like an act of hostage-taking in order for Abélard to protect his own life.
Also, there are some strange and inexplicable sexual references which appear to suggest that their early couplings were closer to rape than consensual sex. It’s been one of my most difficult challenges as I imagined myself into Héloïse’s head to understand her fiercely loyal and long term attachment to Abélard. He was a narcissist and quite probably somewhere on the autism scale and bipolar (or at least very moody and prone to bouts of deep depression as well as over-the-top grandiose behaviours) and at the beginning of their physical relationship he was insensitive and quite possibly abusive (it’s certainly referred to in the letters and Abélard’s autobiography more than once).
With Abélard and Heloise expert Constant Mews’ warning in my ear not to put a 21stC feminist perspective on the story (which I admit is very hard!) I’ve had to search my soul to figure out why she loved him so, given how he so disastrously affected her life. I think it comes down to four things: firstly, she lacked parental love, and in Abélard she saw a father figure; secondly, (and related to the first, in that she had no real grounding in what love was) she hadspent an enormous amount of time immersed in writers such as Ovid at a very impressionable age, and had totally romanticised love – and I think this played very much against her in later life. As well, despite a terrible start to their physical relationship, it does appear that she really did grow to love the physical expression of their relationship and was fully engaged as a sensual, sexual woman (something I think is important to show.) She wasn’t ashamed of sex; she saw it as an extension of their special relationship and relished it. Lastly, Abélard clearly had many faults but he always respected her prodigious intelligence and encouraged her to use it to the maximum, which I think in the end was the deciding factor in her love for him. She was an extraordinarily brilliant woman and to have someone at that time, when women were so downtrodden, who championed her intellect must have been a great gift.
In fact, there is some academic analysis now which seems to take the view that she actually wrote, or certainly guided, at lot of Abélard’s later thinking. I use this, and think there is clear evidence that once Abélard made it plain he would break all contact if she continued to re-litigate their disastrous affair in their later lives, she made a conscious decision that she would rather have the intellectual stimulation of a correspondence relationship with him than a physical one – and from that point on, she guided him most cleverly, eventually educating him in how to be a decent and loving human being. His later writings reveal this new softness, and two particular pieces he wrote towards the end of his life can be read as his apology to her and to their son for his desertion of them and lack of love. This, I think is vital to show, and takes the story on much further than is commonly told. I also wanted to talk about her prowess as a business woman, turning the Paraclete into an extensive estate, with several other sister houses and a reputation for teaching and ethical practice.
The other big question I’ve had to ponder is around religion and her sacrifice by entering (and staying in) the church. Many think that her final letters show that she finally reconciled herself to life as a nun, gave herself over to God and fully entered into the religious experience. I don’t believe this is true. Like all 12th C Christians she had an unquestioning belief in the existence of God and heaven – but, interestingly, after being a Benedictine nun for most of her life, in her later years she swerved more towards a Cistercian outlook, which focussed primarily on the Gospels, embracing simplicity (at odds with the wealth accumulation of the Church as corporation) and Christ’s emphasis on acts of love. I think her faith, in the end, was not about the power of God so much as the power of Love – a theme she revisited time and time again in her writing.
One last point of difference, I hope, is my integration into the story of the political and social changes of the time. At the beginning of the 12thC in France women still had some currency and status within society (in a very medieval kind of way.) But during Héloïse’s lifetime this was purposefully and sometimes cruelly stripped away. Women lost any kind of voice, and it would not really rise again for another 300 years.
It was also a time of great upheaval, as the State (in the form of the King and his officials) and the Church worked together to consolidate their wealth, power and positions by systematically attacking the nobility, the landed gentry and their appointed provosts, in order to break their provincial powers and to suck the wealth back into a consolidated state purse (i.e. a form of state/corporate takeover.) Along the way, the Church used this to evict women out of convents and hand their properties and assets over to men so the wealth was entirely then controlled by male power. The Crusades, too, had huge impact at this time – in fact, what was happening in 12th C France is not too far removed from the same kinds of strains and pressure-points going on today between warring sects. I explore this as fully as I can within the context of the book.
So how to put all this together into a compelling read? First up I had to index everything, so I could find it again without wading through my mass of notes every time! I prepared a thorough time-line made up of several chunks of Héloïse’s lifetime to which I added colour-coded references to relevant research, actions of important secondary characters, themes, obvious scenes, historical events of importance, relevant links to literature and philosophy things to stay aware of etc.
Where-ever I had noted a potential scene, I wrote it onto notepaper and when I had gone through every note book and had a huge pile of scenes beside me, I began to juggle them around, putting them into chronological order and then pasting them onto sheets to use as my scene plan.
I also took note of potential secondary characters, strongly believing that one of the points of difference I can achieve with this story is to bring the characters around this pair to life as well, to give a full impression of the political and social conditions of the time, and to put them in context of a real community.
I could have done this on a spreadsheet or some other form of screen-based work, but I found that by physically writing the points down again, and having them in a mapped-out style, they stuck better in my head and I could access the information more easily. I simply don’t have a spread-sheet kind of brain! Also, I spend so much time staring at a screen it provides a good shift of focus to return to these ‘maps’ as need be.
The other great challenge was how to wrangle all the research so the writing is totally informed by it yet doesn’t drown under the weight of it and feel shoe-horned in. As someone who teaches novel writing, this is by far the most common fault of writers attempting historical fiction. Awareness of the potential problem helps, but the real safeguard, I believe, is by making sure that what drives the story is to keep the focus firmly on the character’s emotional journey, and that everything else is an adjunct of that. Robert McKee, the guru of scriptwriters, said ‘Encase an idea in an emotion.’ I think that is probably the best single piece of writing advice anyone can give. It is almost as if once the research has been done, the writer has to trust it is somewhere in their head and then consciously forget about it – so that the job is only about this person and the journey they must make – and trust that, miraculously, the research and context will weave its way in via the subconscious. It’s a hard thing to explain, and takes a switching between the creative/emotional mind for first writing and then the analytical mind for the reviewing. Suffice to say the finished book achieves this – though not without expert editorial assistance!
Also to be woven in were the themes that arose, and this is really about the writer’s personal ‘take’ on the story. As well as the obvious ones, related to history and the real biographical details, I wanted to talk about the IQ/EQ divide, about the power of words and story, and about how one finds personal peace and acceptance against the odds.
Now the book is at the printers and time is rushing towards the launch, it is amazing to look back over this journey. I am incredibly grateful for all the help I have received from so many quarters and hope that the book finds readers who will enjoy it. And if you’re in Wellington on the 15th May, do come along to the launch!