Is there a good reason to (re-)read this book? Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell

The connection between Helen Waddell’s 1933 novel, Peter Abelard, and Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons may seem tenuous. But my head was still full of Winona’s voice when my eye was caught by this book, sitting in a bookshelf on the landing. I remembered how Helen Waddell had carried me back into Heloise’s world many years ago, and picked it up to see whether it happened again. Although the book is rarely mentioned now, when the book was first published it was a best seller, and Google tells me ‘this work has been identified by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it’. Wow!

At the time I first read Peter Abelard I had not heard of the story of Abelard and Heloise, and knew almost nothing of their world. I think Helen Waddell would have expected her readers to know more than I did then, her world was that of a scholar of mediaeval history, and the story of Abelard and Heloise was repeated and retold throughout that period. So, although it may be a plot spoiler, I am going to tell some of what is known of the history of Peter Abelard and Heloise of Argenteuil.

At the beginning of the twelfth century Peter Abelard was a theological scholar, (there was little opportunity to be any other kind of scholar at that time). Abelard thought Christian theology should be developed by examination of many sources, including Greek philosophers. When sources were contradictory then the arguments of each side should be compared, and conclusions drawn. He was not prepared to accept what was written by any one particular saint as the final word on any aspect of theology. This contradicted the accepted practice of the church at that time. Abelard was a charismatic speaker, he gained great support among young men who came to study in Paris. He also seems to have been assertive and arrogant, and he certainly antagonised the church hierarchy. The worlds of theology and academic study were not separate in Abelard’s time, scholars usually took holy orders of some kind, and although they were not forbidden to marry, marriage was frowned on and would prevent a scholar gaining any kind of preferment, or – as we would now say – promotion to, or even retention of, a university post.

Abelard agreed to tutor the niece of a clergyman, Canon Fulbert, in lieu of paying rent for a room in the Canon’s house. The niece was Heloise of Argenteuil, who had already established her reputation as a brilliant scholar, an exceptional achievement for a woman at that time. Abelard and Heloise fell in love and had an affair, there was a child and then a secret marriage. It is usually said that it was the Canon, whose trust Abelard had betrayed, who arranged for Abelard’s castration when the marriage became public.

What happened afterwards is the reason the story of Abelard and Heloise has continued to be told. For Abelard didn’t die, nor disappear into some kind of secluded exile. He and Heloise both took holy orders and joined religious communities, while both continued to be scholars, in their separate institutions. Much later in their lives they wrote letters, which still exist, to each other, partly about personal matters but they also discussed theology and details of religious life.

I read Helen Waddell’s book decades ago, and I remember being carried up into exalted realms of scholastic rigour, religious fervour, and ecstatic romance. Since then I’ve learned more history, studied some theology and philosophy, and examined ideas about a teacher’s responsibility to their students. So, what do I feel re-reading the book?

First, I feel great respect for Waddell’s scholarship, her work is full of historical detail and quotations. Waddell assumes her reader can follow her, through contemporary quotations (translated at least), through the back streets of early twelfth-century Paris, through the complexities of theological disputes. I probably appreciate more of this now, when I first read the book I was simply swallowed up by Helen Waddell’s world, and lived it, most of her references washed over me, unexamined. Now I read more critically, and am happy that those few details I am familiar with, and biblical references I recognise (among the many from twelfth century poetry, then-extant theology and other religious writings that I must take on trust) give me confidence both in her description of early twelfth century Paris and in her interpretation of the protagonists in her novel.

Helen Waddell tells most of her story through three points of view, those of Abelard, Heloise, and their (presumably invented) confidant Gilles. Waddell’s Abelard is not perfect, his reckless arrogance invites attack, but she portrays him as brilliant, intellectually honest, and her Abelard absolutely loves and respects Heloise. His initial despair after his castration is within the character she has described. Beyond the pain and mutilation, Abelard, who has never accepted being anything but best in any field he enters, must cope with what he sees as the ultimate humiliation.

Waddell’s Heloise (aged nineteen) chooses to be Abelard’s lover. Waddell describes Heloise as wishing to support Abelard in whatever way he needs, and choosing to suborn her own preferences to that end. This may not be a role that a twenty-first century woman, from a privileged European background, might be likely to choose; but Heloise made her choice in 1117. Over eight hundred years later I knew many women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations who considered this the right way to live. As Helen Waddell describes her, Heloise’s character is both consistent and admirable.

What did I gain by re-reading this book? First, the chance to spend time with interesting characters, to get to know them better, to feel involved with them and care what happened to them. Second to re-appreciate why the story of Abelard and Heloise has meaning in the twenty-first century. Beyond the romance, Abelard’s approach to learning anticipated the way we build knowledge today, and his ideas influenced thinkers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas more than a hundred years later. Heloise showed a degree of self determination which is rare in a heroine of the time, some of Heloise’s writings have been praised as early feminist works. I feel it is important to understand more about the circumstances of philosophers whose ideas have influenced history, and therefore our lives. How wonderful to do this while reading a great work of literature.

When I finished re-reading Peter Abelard I was disappointed; the book ends before Abelard and Heloise meet again, or begin to exchange letters. It seems that Helen Waddell intended to write sequel(s), but family and academic responsibilities, then illness, prevented her from doing so. How sad that is. I was doing some internet checking of what I have written here when I found that, after years of the book being out of print, less than three years ago Pan published a re-issue of Peter Abelard with a forward by Kate Mosse. It is good to know that Helen Waddell’s work is still admired.

As usual, I’m replacing the book in its niche with a promise I shan’t leave it there so long this time.

About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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