‘I still think he was a bastard.’ This is the opinion that Julia, daughter of the novelist Arthur, has about Peter Abelard. In Melvyn Bragg’s narrative, Arthur is finishing his novel about Abelard and Heloise, living in Paris, separated from his wife, and visited by Julia. She gives a modern woman’s view of the behaviour of Abelard towards his beloved Heloise. ‘She didn’t ask to be a Bride of Christ,’ Julia protests; and Arthur’s telling of the great love story makes that clear. Heloise’s taking of the veil is forced upon her by her lover’s seemingly selfish logic. Arthur’s answer, and undoubtedly Bragg’s too, is that the infatuated pair must be judged in the context of the medieval church.
Abelard and Heloise is one of the greatest love stories of all time. It belongs with Tristan and Iseult, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet. Bragg has mastered his sources, chiefly the letters of Abelard and Heloise and Abelard’s autobiographical Historia Calamitatum. By the pen of Arthur the novelist, Bragg with his own flair and perceptive imagination tells their story. The love-stricken couple ‘came through, despite the questionable seduction, the castration, the persecution, the deceits, the stupidities, and the failings’. It is the classical battle between Eros and Agape.
In 1993 Bragg received Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award. He might be in the running again. Abelard is transfixed by ‘the shameful mess on the bed… blood and semen’. ‘He bit her shoulder and the stroking became clawing as he sought to penetrate through excess the secret of this love-force…’ We might have been spared the details.
Yet this should not detract from Bragg’s ability to live inside the minds of these two mighty philosophical and theological intellectuals. He understands their agonies, their manipulation by the hypocritical church hierarchy and persecution by the brutal discipline of the monastic orders. Abelard founded for Heloise the Abbey of the Paraclete and ruled that ‘convents should be subject to monasteries’. She lives her last years in a state of religious hypocrisy. Bragg’s understanding of the modern view is Julia’s response, ‘She’s so brave out of so much pain from that bloody philosopher of hers. But she won’t give in.’ Bragg writes his version of this life-long love with ease and confidence. It is a pleasure to read; and to be reminded of Chaucer’s fastidious Prioress whose shining gold brooch declares: ‘Amor vincit omnia.’