Beyond the pale, Kathryn Walls

Mandy Hager
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770992

Heloise is Mandy Hager’s reconstruction in novelistic terms of the lives of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, told from Heloise’s point of view. While both Abelard and Heloise read a great deal, neither of them had ever read a novel. They had, no doubt, read Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography as distant in time from the 12th century as the 12th century is from our own. But Augustine saw no point in the concrete realisation of experience that characterises most novels. Unlike Hager, he does not mention things like the off-putting “flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores” of the convent dormitory, or the impression made on him by “streams of fish gut and animal entrails that [ran] down to meet the river”, or where the privy was. His subject was his psyche as a model for the reader’s. Being an African, he might have been black, but his skin colour remains a mystery. And yet, Hager, whose novel is rich in evocations of earthy reality, is not genuinely concerned with “the medieval body” (although the subject is currently being done to death by academics). Indeed, she has followed in the steps of Augustine (in this respect, at least, as so many great novelists have done) by focusing on the trajectory of her subject’s inner life. Paradoxically, while she has sought to establish authenticity by appealing to our senses, the effect here is decorative. What is truly authentic about her novel is quite different. Hager has, impressively, studied a wealth of primary and secondary texts in order to reconstruct Heloise’s mental and emotional development.

This development did not, of course, take place in a vacuum. Heloise was taught Latin as a child, and as a young adult, living with her well-connected uncle (Fulbert) in Paris, she was tutored by her lover-to-be. Peter Abelard was the very model of a (post-)modern French theorist. Like Ferdinand de Saussure, he argued that words were arbitrary signs, taking a compelling position that his rivals (in a period characterised by intense and intellectual competition) were able to represent as subversive as regards faith and obedience. He was adored by students who flocked to his lectures, and – one might add – by himself.

As he describes it in his own autobiography, his seduction of Heloise was a sinful act that, because he was living with her in her uncle’s household, he had accomplished with ease. This relationship led, famously, to Abelard’s castration by Fulbert’s agents. But Abelard represents Fulbert’s revenge as providential. This was in accordance with his notion of the sinfulness of sex. Heloise, however, understood love as it was conceived of by the 12th-century troubadours. Just as the Church was modeling its representation of the relationship between Christ and Christian on the relationship between lovers, so also these poets were representing the erotic relationship on the model of religious devotion, lending it a quasi-transcendental quality. (Anyone who has studied medieval love lyrics will know that opinions are divided as to whether their representation was a construction or whether it was a reflection of “human nature”.) Male authority, I hasten to say, had absolutely no place in this kind of relationship, thought to be incompatible with marriage. Heloise never repented of her love for Abelard, and even once he had gone public with his own conventional repentance, she continued to expect devoted attention from him. The fact that religious and erotic longings mirrored each other implies, I think, that they were mutually exclusive. If so, however, to say that Heloise ignored the fact would be an understatement. Although, once Abelard was an abbot and she an abbess (you could not make this up), Abelard did not always meet Heloise’s expectations, he did provide her with practical support and doctrinal advice that (at least according to Hager’s account) Heloise valued more for his willingness to engage than for its conventional substance.

The facts as outlined above are fascinating enough. Commendably, in my view, Hager has appreciated this, and incorporates all but the standard medieval sexism apparent in Abelard’s final communications with Heloise. In her more speculative fleshing out of the history, she represents Heloise as a woman attracted to Abelard first of all by his reputation. This leads her to go to his lectures. Noticing her in the crowd (he even addresses one of his questions to her), he decides to take up his lodging in her uncle’s house. As his student, Heloise impresses Abelard with her mental acuity, just as he has impressed her with his. Hager represents Heloise countering Abelard’s dangerously rational scepticism on the subject of the Trinity with her own more poetic understanding. Here, for Heloise’s view (though not, of course, for her invented dialogue), Hager draws on her fascinating primary sources.

At the same time, however, she is concerned to represent Abelard as a “catch”, thus casting Heloise in the conventionally novelistic mode of Elizabeth Bennet and her descendants as the winner in a competition between females for the most sought-after mate. Furthermore, if Hager’s Abelard is endowed with looks and charm in addition to his wonderful brain, so also is her Heloise. There ought to be a term for the scene, so standard in romances, in which the heroine “self-deprecatingly” appraises her own reflection. Heloise registers “[t]wo eyes . . . the brackish brown of muddy water, lips too plump to foster the required pious delineation” (not to mention cheekbones that are “overly pronounced” and a nose discouragingly “nondescript” in its straightness). Hager does not, of course, mean to imply that Heloise is a hypocritical narcissist; the implication derives from the difficulty of conveying such details while continuing to tell the story from Heloise’s point of view. In accordance with a larger emphasis on violence against women (Heloise is subsequently beaten by Fulbert, and she is not the only female victim of male abuse in this novel), Hager portrays Abelard’s initial sexual encounter with Heloise as – in the end – a rape. From this, and her other sex scenes, it would seem that she wanted to be explicit while avoiding a clinical tone. The goal is surely right, although Hager’s frankness combines uneasily with Heloise’s mental coyness:

His first deep kiss swallows her moan, the wetness of his mouth igniting something she is loath to name. The strength of it bewilders her; it breaks her open as his hands travel up and down her spine … digging into secret spaces as he shuffles her over to the bench and gently lays her down.

She can see nothing … not sure where he will come from next. When his hands run up her legs, ruching her gown towards her waist, her panic takes the lead.
She catches him by the wrists, “Enough!”
It is as if her plea further sets him alight.

While many a novel would end with the resolution of the love relationship, Hager takes us through Heloise’s pregnancy and the birth of her son, into something close to disillusionment with Abelard. He now acts in his own interest, revealing rather more about himself than his brilliance and his (soon to be eliminated) sex appeal. It is in its treatment of Heloise’s history in two distinct phases, the second being what might be described as post-pubescent, that Hager’s novel is particularly challenging. The trajectory of her narrative resonates with her personal interpretation (which she attributes to Heloise) of Abelard as manic-depressive. Heloise, by contrast, becomes the model of wholeness and maturity.

Hager endows her characters with an idiom designed to locate them in the past. Heloise’s father is her “sire”, and people say “Does it not?” instead of “Doesn’t it?”, “How do you fare?” instead of “How are you?”, “salve” instead of “cure”, “in truth” instead of “in fact”, and “arse-winds” instead of I-don’t-know-what. Fragments of medieval and classical texts are woven into the narrative (the sources being full, but unintrusively acknowledged in an appendix of endnotes). But the characters occasionally slip into talking as we do – about “counterfactuals”, for example. And the incorporated translations into heroic couplets of Homer, Virgil and Ovid by the likes of Dryden and Pope jar with the medieval context.

These things having been said, there is a question as to the extent to which the historical novel can ever be about the past. Nearly 50 years ago, the critic Hayden White set the trend according to which even ordinary history books are liable to interpretation as the product of contemporary imposition. As knowingly observed by one of Hager’s own characters, “[w]e all write history in the image of our fancies.” We should not be surprised, then, when Hager’s 12th-century characters are as appalled by anti-Semitism and by the Crusades as we are. Hager’s Heloise is, in the confidence of her intellect, a model for contemporary feminists. There was, however, such a thing as a past. Mandy Hager certainly finds the present there, but she also realises that, pace White, the past can defy our expectations of it.


Kathryn Walls teaches medieval and early modern literature at Victoria University of Wellington.

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