13 March 2019, The Tablet

Veiled passions

Veiled passions

Love Without End
(SCEPTRE, 306 PP, £18.99)
tablet bookshop price £17.09 • tel 020 7799 4064

Most legendary pairs of lovers – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Heathcliff and Cathy – are imaginative creations. Abelard and Heloise were historical figures whose disastrous affair, recorded in their own words, has inspired many writers. Melvyn Bragg in his new novel frames them in a modern story and modern judgement.

A middle-aged English lecturer, mourning his broken marriage in a borrowed flat off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, is finishing his novel about Abelard and Heloise. His daughter, anxious about her father and dubious about the book, is with him. The novel, which we are reading, recounts the passionate love affair between Abelard, brilliant philosopher in twelfth-century Paris, and his precocious student Heloise, whose uncle (father?) is a canon of Notre-Dame. Scandal overtakes them: Heloise has a child; her furious uncle has Abelard castrated; the lovers part, Abelard becoming a monk and Heloise a nun. Fifteen years later Abelard writes his History of Calamities, as a letter, though not to Heloise: he has been persecuted for his radical philosophical method and is living in a barbarous monastery in Brittany.

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