In a new series of blogs, I will be exploring the great love stories of history, both real and imagined by poets, playwrights and authors.
I am starting today with one of my favourite stories, whose legend has endured for almost a millennia, that of Abelard and Héloïse. It is a true story dating back to the 12th century.
Héloïse was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Her wide knowledge and intelligence made her nominatissima, ‘most renowned’, in Western Europe. Young scholars require tutelage, and so it was that in 1115, as a young woman (some say as young as seventeen, others argue she was in her early twenties), Héloïse came to be a student of the well-respected Parisian teacher and philosopher Pierre Abelard.
It was a meeting of brilliant and bright minds, and the two quickly fell deeply in love. Abelard convinced Héloïse’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, to let him move into their home, where he would tutor Héloïse. A passionate, but illicit, affair began, the culmination of which was Héloïse falling pregnant. She was whisked away to Brittany to stay with her sister for her confinement, and once the baby – a son named Astrolabe – was born, she returned to Paris.
Fulbert, understandably, was enraged upon discovering the affair, and to appease him Abelard proposed marriage to Héloïse, but a secret marriage, for he worried the move would affect his prosperous career. Secrets have a way of getting out, however, and in this case Fulbert was the perpetrator: he began telling people of the ‘secret’ marriage.
Indiscretions were not tolerated in the 12th century, and the repercussions were grave: ultimately, a group of Fulbert’s friends attacked Abelard one night and castrated him. Full of shame, Abelard turned to the monkhood, donning his robes at the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. The heartbroken Héloïse, meanwhile, took the vows of sisterhood as a nun – reluctantly, it must be said, although she accepted her fate, becoming prioress, eventually, at the Oratory of the Paraclete in Champagne.
You may be wondering, what makes this love story endure? So far it has been no more than a thwarted illicit affair. It is what comes next that has made the story of Abelard and Héloïse go down in history: the two lovers began a correspondence by letter that has stood the test of time – passionate and intelligent debate captured forever in ink and paper.
These are not mere love letters, however, for the story of Abelard and Héloïse is, ultimately, a tragic one. Abelard repudiates their love, their relationship, recasting it as sinful lust and directing Héloïse to turn away from him, to God. Poor Héloïse! Modern-day academics have suggested that Abelard’s harsh, somewhat arrogant take on their relationship at this point may in fact be a deliberate attempt by Abelard to protect Héloïse. In his book Abelard & Heloise (Hacket, 2007) William Levitan writes: ‘Here the motive is part protective…for Abelard to take all the moral burden on himself and shield, to the extent he can, the now widely respected abbess of the Paraclete.’
Whatever the truth of their feelings in the end, the two lived out their lives apart – celebrated for their learning, yet alone. After their deaths, however, their bones were laid side by side. In 1817 their remains were moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery:
Ever since, people have paid homage to the lovers at their tomb. Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad:
[A]mong the thousands and thousands of tombs in Pere la Chaise, there is one that no man, no woman, no youth of either sex, ever passes by without stopping to examine… This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise — a grave which has been more revered, more widely known, more written and sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in Christendom save only that of the Saviour. All visitors linger pensively about it; all young people capture and carry away keepsakes and mementoes of it; all Parisian youths and maidens who are disappointed in love come there to bail out when they are full of tears; yea, many stricken lovers make pilgrimages to this shrine from distant provinces to weep and wail and “grit” their teeth over their heavy sorrows, and to purchase the sympathies of the chastened spirits of that tomb with offerings of immortelles and budding flowers.
Mark Twain went on to tell the story of Abelard and Héloïse in his own imitable way, culminating in a scathing judgement passed on the ‘dastardly seducer’ Pierre Abelard (you can read it for yourself at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/innocents/chapter15.html). Unromantic, certainly, but with the ring of truth to it: Abelard hardly comes across as a kind and loving man. But in legends, the details are often not important; what matters is sentiment. Tragedy, in fact, as with Romeo and Juliet. Had Abelard and Héloïse eloped together and lived a long and happy life, no doubt nobody would visit their graves.
Over the centuries, the story of Abelard and Héloïse has inspired many creatives, from artists (the painting above is by English artist Edmund Leighton) to poets, notably Alexander Pope in the 18th century and Christina Rossetti in the 19th. I love the Rossetti poem, ‘The Convent Threshold’, for its ending, full of hope for reunion – for a happy ever after which perhaps, if you so believe, Abelard and Héloïse found in the next life:
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in Paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.
What author, when writing romance, is not in some way inspired by Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet? It is one of the most romantic works of literature ever created. Take this proclamation from Romeo:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
I simply cannot read this without sighing! And Juliet’s expressions of love are just as beautiful, as in:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Without doubt Romeo and Juliet inspires the romantic in me, for it is so full of emotion – but not only romantic sentiment; there is also pain and fear and betrayal and frustration and fury and the agony of separation.
In my latest novel, Legacy, I had cause to revisit Romeo and Juliet and consider the emotional landscape created by the discovery that the two would-be lovers are from feuding families.
Ruy’s family heritage can be traced back to the de Fallas, a prominent family in Andalucía. His grandfather, Salvador de Rueda, was once engaged to be married to a woman from another of the elite families in the region, Isabel Herrera; but he broke off his engagement to marry instead Alexandra de Falla (Ruy’s grandmother). Alexandra, meanwhile, had captured the interest of Isabel’s brother, Felipe, who was determined to marry her – but she only had eyes for Salvador.
The result: both Felipe and Isabel Herrera felt scorned and humiliated. As Isabel puts it in Legacy: ‘It was truly scandalous and, I can tell you, for months our family was the subject of humiliating stories in aristocratic Spanish circles.’
Fast-forward a generation, and history repeats itself when Felipe’s daughter Adalia and son Lorenzo do their best to thwart the blossoming relationship between Salvador and Alexandra’s daughter, Luz, and Andrés. Adalia wants Andrés for herself, Lorenzo wants Luz, neither gets what they want and both are left furious, which fuels the Herrerra–de Falla feud.
Enter Luna Ward, the heroine of Legacy, which is set in the modern era and follows the third generation of Andalucían families. Luz and Andrés’s son Ruy is drawn at once to Luna when she comes to work at his clinic. But then he discovers that while she seems American – she has been brought up in the States by her American father – she has Andalucían heritage. Herrera heritage, to be precise: Luna is Adalia’s daughter. Here is Ruy’s initial reaction:
Was he ‘fortune’s fool’? Fate had brought them together and now it was throwing more obstacles in their path. Playing the Montague to her Capulet was not how he had envisaged their love affair unravelling…
Just like Romeo, Ruy is shocked to learn that of all the women he could have met, Luna is from the Herrera family. Lorenzo Herrera has been deliberately causing trouble for Ruy and his family, being loudly critical of the Institute that Ruy runs. Luna, then, is a woman to avoid.
And yet, just like Romeo, Ruy knows at once that he cannot avoid Luna:
He wanted Luna more than any woman he had ever known, and he’d be damned if he lost her now. How ironic that the discovery she was a Herrera, rather than discourage his feelings for her, instead served to clarify them entirely.
And what of Luna? How is it for her to be ‘Juliet’ in this situation? Extremely difficult, is the answer. For her own reasons (which don’t relate to a feud she has no knowledge of because she barely knew her mother), Luna is far more guarded and wary than Juliet. She would make an excellent study for Friar Lawrence, who advises Romeo: ‘Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.’ And when she does learn of her family’s past – the manipulation and jealousy and cruelty – she is dismayed to think that she may be defined by the actions and attitudes of her ancestors.
Ultimately, as it is for Romeo and Juliet, so shall it be for Ruy and Luna: they must choose whether the legacy of their families will shape their own futures. Can Ruy and Luna break free from decades of distrust and bad blood, and if so, can they choose for themselves an ending that is altogether happier than in Shakespeare’s ‘tale of woe’?
This month marks 160 years since the publication in book format of a masterpiece of literature: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
In my early twenties, I read French literature at the University of Alexandria, and I was inspired by so many French writers, from the celebrated, like Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust, to those less well known beyond France, like the poet Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle (see http://hannahfielding.net/the-poetry-of-leconte-de-lisle/). But of all the French writers, Gustave Flaubert stood out, because his debut novel, Madame Bovary, became the book on my shelf that was so well-read it required rebinding.
The story centres on the beautiful and charming Emma Bovary, who dreams of being like the heroine in the novels she ardently reads. Instead, though, she is stuck (so she sees it) living the life of a doctor’s wife in a dull provincial setting. In search of a better life – one characterised by passion and luxury and beauty – she treads a path that leads to debt, adultery and eventually, tragically, her own ruin.
Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s first work, and it might have been his last, for after the story was first serialised in La Revue de Paris in 1856, his romantic and realist writing, particularly with relation to adultery, whipped up a public scandal, and he was put on trial for immorality. He was acquitted, thankfully, and was able to publish the novel in one volume, as a book – and of course, after all the controversy, it became a bestseller. But it was not controversy that kept the book in print year after year after year; quite simply, for its new realist style and its tragic and complex heroine, the book became recognised as one of the greatest literary works in history.
As a writer, I owe much to Flaubert. From him, I learned the importance of finding le mot juste (the right word), no matter how long that may take. Flaubert did not write prolifically; he sometimes spent an entire week working on a single page of prose. He believed in taking his time, working hard and caring deeply about each and every word – he believed in style above all else, writing that Madame Bovary would be ‘a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style’.
And what style! Here is just one of so many quotations from Madame Bovary that inspire me:
At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.
Have you read Madame Bovary? It is widely available in various formats – the Penguin Clothbound edition is particularly beautiful if, like me, you are a bibliophile (see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Madame-Bovary-Penguin-Clothbound-Classics/dp/0141394676/).
But if nineteenth-century literature isn’t quite to your taste, there are other ways to be immersed in Madame Bovary.
I found the 2014 film adaption starring Mia Wasikowska very moving:
However, I prefer the classic 1949 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie with Jennifer Jones, for its glamour and melodrama:
You may even finding watching this one scene gives you the sense of Madame Bovary. For as Gustave Flaubert writes in the book: ‘an infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space’.
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights; Anna Sewell – Black Beauty; Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind; Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago; JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye; Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man; Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar…
What do these authors have in common? They published only one novel. One book whose style and substance has resonated for readers ever since.
Was one book enough for these authors? In some cases, it seems that is the case – to write only one novel was a choice. In other cases, it may be that life intervened; might Margaret Mitchell have published a second novel, after the Pulitzer success of Gone with the Wind, had she not been hit by a car and killed? If we can take anything from the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it is that authors can surprise you with a new work, and it is never too late to publish again.
Of course, plenty of authors write more than a single book (some, indeed, become known for being prolific). They write for either or both of the following reasons:
1) A desire to be read (the more books you write, the more you are read)
2) A need to write
The first reason may ebb and flow through a writer’s lifetime, or indeed dissipate entirely if the experience of publishing novels does not marry with expectations. But the latter reason is something entirely different …
It was an article about the author AS Byatt, entitled ‘I Have Not Yet Written Enough’, that made me ponder the question of when enough is enough. The interview asks:
‘Do you feel you’ve written enough?’
To which Byatt, who has been suffering ill health, replies: ‘No… I’ve got this great big book… I shall go on writing it as though I shall live long enough to write it well enough for me to finish it. And if I don’t, I won’t know. There is that.’
She talks also about times in her life when she did not write – for several years after losing her son, for example. But her answer to ‘Have you written enough?’ is a resounding ‘No’.
My feeling is that once you have opened the door to writing, to publishing novels, then that is not a door that is easily closed again. For periods of time, when life intervenes or you need time to reflect and rest and read, the door is ajar. But for most authors, closing the door entirely, and then locking it and throwing away the key – that is like sucking all the oxygen from the room and expecting still to breathe.
I am reminded here of Anaïs Nin’s words: ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ We writers do breathe out in writing. When writing is part of who you are, there is no ‘enough’, there is only the desire to keep breathing, keep writing.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most world’s most prolific writers; he wrote or edited more than 500 books. When asked in an interview, ‘What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?’ he replied, ‘Type faster.’
My own answer to that question would be different, I know – time with family matters more to me than words. But still, I would try to finish my work in progress, to infuse it with the very last of my mortal spirit so that it stands, along with my other books, as a legacy to my family.
As AS Byatt puts it so beautifully in her novel Possession:
‘I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.’
There are so many different ways to express that you love someone; often, though, it can be hard to find the words to encapsulate all the emotion within.
When it comes to declarations of love, however, the words you write in your Valentine’s card need not be entirely your own; over the centuries so many writers and poets have made art of sentiment.
I am a ‘quodophile’: I collect quotes that strike a chord with me, noting them down in a book. For this Valentine’s Day, I am sharing with you my favourite ten love quotations from my collection. I hope these put you in the mood for romance today, and inspire you to tell that special someone how you feel.
If, like me, you love quotations, do follow me on Twitter, where I share my favourite quotes on love, life and the arts each day.