Many people have asked me which parts of the book are based on known facts and which bits are my fictional ‘take’. In fact, very little is ‘made up’, and where it is, the conclusions I draw are based on all the differing opinions and scraps of evidence, weighing them up to decide upon the most logical explanation for the gaps in what is known.
Where there were gaps — such as any definitive answers about Heloise’s heritage, how and where she was so thoroughly educated, her age, and how well she got to know her son in later life —I’ve incorporated the current conjectures, while leaving such matters open. It seemed strange to me that, when so much else has come to light, Abelard (more than able to name-drop if it worked to his advantage) never wrote of such things, or did anyone else. Given that Heloise was known and spoken about so much during her life-time, why would such basic facts remain unknown? This mystery has been built into the novel, rather than taking any particular stance on it.
Of the numerous pivotal characters in the book, only one (Jehanne) is totally fictional (though there is little doubt Fulbert would have had a housekeeper of some description), while characters such as Gertrude and Saris were based on other historical figures from the time (in their case, the wife and daughter of travelling philosopher Manegold of Alsace.) As well, some of the more incidental nuns are fictional, though those listed in the appendices were real.
As readers will see in the bibliography and references at the back of the book, most of the story is based on the historical evidence and conjecture of a wide range of international academics and biographers, including Heloise and Abelard themselves. With Dr Constant Mews discovery of early letters from the pair, a much clearer picture has been gleaned of the early years of their relationship. And by digging into the politics and social constructs of the time, in order to place their thoughts and actions into context, a more complex reading of their attitudes and behaviour was possible.
With this in mind, here are a few of the frequently asked questions and my response (spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the book, stop reading now!):
Was Abelard really as charismatic and handsomely imposing as described?
Short answer is yes! The description of his appearance and the level of his magnetism is well documented.
Did Heloise go after Abelard because she viewed him as a ‘catch’?
Although Heloise, in her letters, admitted to secretly enjoying the fact that many women in more influential positions swooned over Abelard while he had secretly chosen her, her letters clearly show that she was swept up by the fact he actively pursued her and expressed his love. Having thought long and hard about why she would continue to love him despite the way he treated her, it’s my conclusion that, just as she was drawn to Abelard’s vast intellect, she was seduced as much by his respect for her intellect as by the man himself.
But what about the rape at the start of their relationship?
Based on the Lost Love Letters discovered and analysed by Dr Constant Mews, and studied by others, it does appear that Abelard’s initial sexual encounter with Heloise may have been non-consensual. It is also clear that this offence was eventually forgiven, and that Heloise went on to fully embrace her sexual side and that their physical relationship was mutually satisfying.
As an aside, I thought long and hard about how to represent this shift from victim to willing participant, before realising little has changed in this regard, and that many women still have to find a way to accommodate the non-consensual taking of their virginity and/or trust. I tried to show how this accommodation may have been reached in this case, remembering that at the time there was no questioning of the church’s control and attitudes towards women (as very second-rate citizens with few, if any, rights) and no alternative in many cases – to flee or fight meant ostracism with the risk of extreme poverty and danger (or into the church, where men also held all the controls.) There was no feminist narrative or free choice for women and Heloise was no exception – except in her own internal drive to be educated and have a meaningful and loving relationships with those around her. That she survived and pushed the envelope in terms of thinking about male and female power was extraordinary – but must be observed within the context above. Things we may shudder at now (such as her repeated forgiveness of Abelard’s behaviour towards her) were not even questioned in her day. For me to have written her as any more cognisant of the gender issues and more outraged by the behaviour, would be me imposing my 21st century thoughts onto her.
Would Heloise really have been beaten by her uncle?
Both Abelard’s own autobiography, and the commentary around the Lost Love Letters, imply that Heloise was physically assaulted by her uncle when he learned of their affair. It’s hardly surprising, given the treatment of women in a historic and global context.
Didn’t Abelard rescue Heloise to protect her from her uncle’s wrath?
The story Abelard tells of ‘rescuing’ Heloise from her uncle when she discovered she was pregnant shows, when put into historical perspective, that (according to the laws of blood-feuds) Abelard feared for his life and sequestered Heloise with his family in Brittany as much for his own protection as for hers. While his family held her, no revenge could be taken on Abelard for fear his family would then take it out on Heloise.
Was Abelard really mentally unwell?
Abelard’s mental health issues were documented and grew progressively worse over the course of his life. Twice he collapsed and returned to his family for long periods of time earlier in his career, each time after he indulged in prolonged public verbal jousting with his mentors/teachers. He was known to have periods of manic activity (such as when writing several of his books and establishing a community at the Paraclete), followed by crippling depression, and towards the end of his life became increasingly paranoid and frenetic, riding around the country, refusing to stop for rest, believing there were forces afoot to murder him (as described in the book). Academics and biographers have speculated upon the cause, suggesting a range of possibilities from such things as a brain tumour, a bi-polar-type mental disorder, extreme depression with swings to grandiose and reckless behaviour, through to narcissistic personality disorders.
Did I endow Heloise with more ‘feminist’ attributes than is correct?
I don’t believe so. I was very aware from the start that I needed to try and represent her thinking within the context of her day (as above re rape). I think we read her thoughts and actions as ‘feminist’ today because they have since been labelled as such, when in Heloise’s case they were the result of independent thought, hugely influenced by the classical, theological and philosophical texts she read at a very formative time. Heloise’s own actions, words and beliefs were surprisingly modern in this respect – I did not have to make them up or over-state them. For instance:
- Heloise roundly resisted marriage (both for its threat to Abelard’s career prospects and for domesticity’s threat to both their intellectual aims) and pursued further education for education’s sake, imagining herself able to live quietly with Abelard, sharing in his teaching and writing. The first letters discovered (in the 15th century) show Heloise at first raging against Abelard’s ten year desertion of her, before changing tack when he threatened to cut off all contact again unless she stopped speaking of the past. She then set about to give him ‘tasks’ to help her in her daily life as abbess at the Paraclete, including seeking his suggestions on how to remodel the monastic ‘Rules’ to better fit women’s bodily needs. When Abelard responded, there is evidence she ignored much of what he wrote (as too inappropriately and punishingly prescriptive) and over time slowly introduced a more Cistercian slant on the Paraclete’s way of worship, focussing on the Gospels and loving intent.
- She was also known to have introduced more female saints into the Paraclete’s yearly celebration cycle, as well as writing female-orientated plays and liturgies that became part of the Paraclete’s daily practice.
- It is clear from her letters that Heloise educated her nuns (another reason why so many flocked to her, at a time when access to education for women was being withdrawn as more and more nuns were ejected from convents), and shared Abelard’s thinking with them, as well as his letters of instruction.
- With women being dispossessed from the church and rights to inheritance, the Paraclete’s numbers swelled, until seven sister-houses were established to house them all and Heloise took responsibility for their physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing.
- She also fostered excellent relationships with her neighbours and benefactors – and was so successful in building the Paraclete and its assets that at one stage Abelard accused her of using her feminine wiles for gain.
Did I depict Heloise’s later years as too virtuous?
No! In fact, she was spoken of in glowing terms by many, including in two letters from Peter, abbot of Cluny (Peter the Venerable), who wrote: You are one of the living creatures of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision . . . you are a student and disciple of the truth, but . . . also a teacher and master of humility — yes, a master of humility and all heavenly learning, appointed so by God . . . Your learning enchants me, your religious life even more, which I have heard so much about from many quarters.
Did she really play a role in shaping some of Abelard’s later work?
Academics have suggested that Heloise worked with Abelard, especially in compiling the theological inconsistencies he wrote about in ‘Sic e Non’ and that two of Abelard’s later works (Lament of the Virgins of Israel for the Daughter of Jephtha and Lament of David for Saul and Jonathan) represent Abelard’s change of heart in his final years, using these as a means to express his apology of the way he treated Heloise and grief at the loss of his son. It has been mooted that, through her ongoing correspondence with Abelard in the later years of his life, she was able to ‘humanise’ him and help him express such feelings as above. It is also thought possible that other writing believed to have been Abelard’s exclusively may, in fact, have been either the result of further collaborations, or Heloise’s own work, credited to him.
Surely, in the context of the time, Heloise would not have been concerned about anti-Semitic sentiment?
On researching, I discovered that at the time she was first at Argenteuil (in her formative years) there was a routing of Paris’s Jews, with many men slaughtered and many women converting to Catholicism and hiding away in abbey’s to protect themselves. I consider it highly possible Heloise would have seen what was going on and the impacts on the women in Argenteuil’s care. I do not believe it is outside the bounds of possibility that she was sympathetic to their suffering. She certainly was known to have studied Hebrew (very rare then among men, let along women) – at least enough to read some of the important texts, if not speak it fluently. And, given her focus on loving intention and her wide reading of classical texts that explored the full range of human emotions, it hard to believe she could not feel compassion for other’s pain. Evidence also shows that others known to her softened their attitudes towards Jews. For instance, Peter the Venerable (Abbot of Cluny) and Abelard himself.
Were the clergy really as abusive to women as claimed?
The Catholic church throughout Heloise’s lifetime was riddled with accusations of abuse of the women in their care, as portrayed.
What happened to her son?
The very latest thinking by Dr Constant Mews is that Heloise’s son Astrolabe converted to the Cistercian sect and may have spent time at Cherlieu, an abbey within travel-distance to the Paraclete, thereby increasing the possibility that Heloise and Astrolabe spent time together.
Why are some of the quoted texts from a different era?
This was a purely pragmatic decision by the publisher to swap out some of the quotes I chose to older, out-of-copyright translations that would not cost for reproduction rights.
Feel free to ask more and I’ll happily attempt to answer them!