“Of all my frustrations with the Christian Church, besides its demonising of women, there are two that most confound me: the preoccupation with unquestioning obedience and the notion of original sin.” So says one of Heloise’s early teachers – a Jew who was forced to convert and who along with her daughter had faced the worst that the patriarchal society of 12th Century France could inflict. And Heloise’s exploration of the life and character of Heloise is unflinching in its descriptions of the endless abuse and disempowerment of women.
I grew up with a rosy image of the love story of Abelard and Heloise, both chaste and devoted to God, sitting alone in their separate communities and allowing their love to inspire each other through regular correspondence. Mandy Hager throws that image over the battlements. In its place is the sad tale of a woman thwarted by her times, and one who falls in love with an unstable, vainglorious, unpleasant man. “Why does God allow women’s fate to lie in the hands of men whose first thought is not for the well-being of their lady or their child, but for themselves? It seems Eve’s punishment for disobedience is to never be forgiven, despite all the Bible’s lofty claims.”
Heloise was the victim of male power from the outset, her mysterious father abandoning her to rural drudgery. She is found and rescued by an uncle, a man we at first think might have escaped the blind prejudices of his times: “It is one thing to worship God’s instrument of delivery and quite another to forgive the sins of Eve.” Growing up in Paris, Heloise takes every opportunity to nurture her brilliant mind, and inevitably she becomes aware of, and under the influence of, the brilliant scholar and teacher Peter Abelard. The story once to two come together is one of endless misery, ecstasy and apparent mental illness.
The text is littered throughout with erudite quotes, amongst which are those from Abelard and Heloise themselves. The parallels between Heloise and her longing for Abelard, and Penelope’s long wait for Ulysses is often remarked on: “She feels like Penelope trying to make contact with Ulysses, writing into a void”. These, at times quite lengthy, quotes often interrupt the flow of the narrative – but in doing so they give a glimpse into Heloise’s intellectual depths. Denied the freedom to act fully in her society, she mentally comments on it in cutting and insightful ways.
The only slight niggle I had with the novel was that Hager could have let the narrative make the points (which is does well) and have the characters voicing them less often: “How wrong that the Bible’s guidance is so often held hostage by men whose self-imposed power gives then licence to speak on women’s behalf.” Although having said that, the frustrations of the time (and now) is portrayed well by the endless lamenting of women’s powerlessness and the corruption of the Church: “To Heloise it appears the Church’s stand against attachment and simony is more concerned with property and power slipping from its hands that with the purity of its leaders”. The period in which the novel is set is awash with religious posturing – it was the time when celibacy was imposed, and openly flouted, if to do so was safe from retribution: “ … religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”, a quote from Seneca that nicely sums it up.
As well as the mysteries at the heart of religion that Heloise ponders, are the mysteries in the hearts of women: “How strange the variances between the male and female of every creature God has made, she thinks, from voice and size, to countenance, to completely different ways with which to view the world”. Reading the novel I puzzled over her devotion to a man purely because of his mind, when his behaviour was so reprehensible. Even at the end, she includes her contributions to Abelard’s work as a measure of her worth – not her creating a haven for women in the Oratory of the Paraclete, or her teaching of many women, helping them rise above their helplessness by giving them the power of inquiry.
Heloise is a fine portrayal of a woman, and one who does not stand separate from but rather as an example of, other women of her times. She so very nearly follows in her mother’s tragic footsteps, and she finds the light of intelligence and the thirst for knowledge in the women around her. It is a story of the biggest mystery of them all – how half the world’s population ended up subjugated by the other half. Putting Heloise in her place once again in the book, Abelard reminds her “There is not one meadow flower, Heloise, that does not work its way to air through dirt” – to which she adds to herself: “What he failed to mention was that if more dirt gets piled on top, the flower rots and dies.” A wonderful and important read.