Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Abelard and Heloise, a passionate love story and a life-changing book.

When author K.M. Grant visited Scottish Book Trust, she told us about the book that changed her life- 'Peter Abelard' by Helen Waddell- considered to be one of the best written and engaging accounts of two of the most famous lovers in history.

Watch K.M. Grant's story below.

It is difficult to outline the story of Abelard and Heloise concisely - not only because there are a lot of twists and turns, but also because there are conflicting accounts of what took place and why, so this synopsis is by no means definitive.

Peter Abelard was one of the most prominent minds of the 12th century, a philosopher and theologian - who fell in love with his brilliant and beautiful student Heloise and had an elicit affair with her under her uncle's own roof (he was her live-in teacher). Their love affair was not simply a torrid seduction of innocent student by dirty old teacher but seemingly a meeting of minds.
The secret affair was discovered and Abelard was severed from her - and his, ahem, manhood - by her disapproving uncle. In fact I don't think 'disapproving' is a strong enough term for his attitude towards poor Abelard. This ruined Abelard's life and ended his career, Heloise lived the rest of her life as a nun and went on to become a successful Abbess. Their correspondence was passionate and moving, painting a picture of their relationship and feelings for each other- disrupted but circumstances beyond their control.

Some people rate this is the greatest and most tragic love story of all time- some don't approve of it's status as a 'love story', thinking of it more as an account of a relationship subject to the rules and values of patriarchal Medieval society.
Heloise was by accounts a remarkably intelligent and brilliant woman who had been given a fantastic education- she had strong ideas of her own and expressed herself passionately. However she was treated like a piece of property by the men in her life- that was simply the social norm at the time.

Is that why this story chimes so much with us - even today? Who could stand to think of a young, intelligent, hard-working and conscientious woman being deprived of her self-determination and having her lover savagely attacked by her relatives?

Just because she fell in love with a partner who others disapproved of?

In Alexander Pope's poem 'Eloisa to Abelard', Eloisa/Heloise expresses envy of the vestal virgins she sees in her convent because they are at peace with themselves - the line with which she describes their contented state is "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind," which inspired the title of a certain film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.

This is another theme which chimes with people today, regretting an action or event so much that it becomes a fixation, envying those who seem to have no regrets.

I think these very human themes and concerns are what has made this story of timeless fascination to writers who have written their own account of the story.

Helen Waddell's version seems to be widely acclaimed as a really enjoyable and engaging novel and the most readable account of the story for discerning modern readers. I will be adding it to my list of books to read - one of many from The Book That Changed My Life.

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