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.
Ask yourself this: what would your life be like without love stories? No romance novels. No romantic TV series or movies. No daydreaming, even. How would you feel?
I know that I would be! Since I read my first romantic fairy-tale as a young child, I’ve been in love with love stories. Romances make me feel wonderful: uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired, hopeful.
According to recent research by the University of Oxford, a romantic like me may be addicted to love, and so if I were to be cut off from romance, I would experience the feelings of withdrawal.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for the word ‘addicted’:
- Physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance
- (informal) Enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity
Of course, those of us who adore romance stories consider ourselves in the latter category. Certainly I am ‘enthusiastically devoted’ to dreaming, writing and reading romance.
But could one cross the line into being ‘dependent’ on romance stories?
The University of Oxford study is entitled: ‘Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?’ The researchers set out to consider how love may be viewed as an addition:
‘These phenomena—including cycles of alternating ecstasy and despair, desperate longing, and the extreme and sometimes damaging thoughts and behaviors that can follow from love’s loss—bear a resemblance to analogous phenomena associated with more “conventional” addictions like those for drugs, alcohol, or gambling.’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378292/)
The New York Post entitled its article on this study ‘There’s a dark side to being a hopeless romantic’ (http://nypost.com/2017/05/10/theres-a-dark-side-to-being-a-hopeless-romantic/). The point is that addictive love can disrupt daily life and have a significant impact on mood and personal growth.
Can an ‘addiction’ to romance stories have the same damaging effect?
I am reminded of Mrs Stuart in Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience. Upon discovering a room ablaze and a servant just standing there and laughing, she exclaims:
‘She must go, Horatio, she must go! I cannot have my nerves shattered by such dreadful scenes. She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.’
Can romance books turn your brain? Perhaps, if you were to let them. Remember the two definitions of addicted: while there is nothing at all wrong with being ‘addicted’ to romance stories in the sense that you are enthusiastically devoted to them, it is not ideal to be dependent on them, to become so devoted to the romance genre that you confuse fiction for reality.
Any ‘hopeless romantic’ knows, deep down, that while they can completely surrender as they read, giving themselves up to romance, at some point they must close the book. They re-enter a world in which romance is not always quite as readily available and sublimely magical as on the pages of a book (or on the big screen). However, they re-enter that world uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired and hopeful.
The aim, then, with romance: be enthusiastically devoted. Always.
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.
Regular readers of my blog and my books will know this fundamental truth about me: I’m an ardent romantic. I very much wish that was something everyone could say about themselves. Don’t you think the world would be a warmer, sweeter, kinder, more beautiful place if we were all romantics?
With that wish in mind, what a wonderful initiative it is to reward those who foster a sense of romanticism. That’s what world-renowned romance book publisher Mills & Boon has set out to do, with its new award scheme, Mills & Boon Romantics.
According to the publisher, the awards aim to ‘celebrate the UK’s most romantic things’ and to ‘recognise and honour the businesses, services, people and moments that make us all go weak at the knees’. There are 12 categories for the awards:
- Most romantic restaurant or bar
- Most romantic UK destination
- Most romantic wedding venue
- Most romantic UK venue
- Most romantic hero/heroine
- Most romantic UK experience/activity
- Most romantic gift
- Most romantic view
- Blogger’s award
- Romantic entrepreneur award
- Most romantic classics
- Mills & Boon author’s award
The most romantic hero/heroine award is particularly exciting – anyone can nominate a loved one to receive the award. What better way to say ‘I love you’? I also love the romantic view category, so much so that I just nominated my favourite view – from the white cliffs of Dover near my home.
Mills & Boon marketing manager Joanna Kite said: ‘Gone are the days of the single red rose, being romantic is big business, from starlit roof top cinemas to magical creative proposal agencies, romantic gestures are getting a lot more imaginative. We wanted to use our knowledge and expertise in this sector to establish The Romantics Awards to celebrate just that.’
Anyone can nominate their ‘most romantics’. To enter, you simply go tohttp://romanceawards.millsandboon.co.uk/. A panel of will choose the winner for each category,to be announced on April 29th. The winners in each category receive a winner’s logo and promotion in the winners’ directory for a year, and the overall winner will feature in a Mills & Boon book in 2016.
I love the idea of these awards. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a greater movement toward rewarding romanticism in our culture? I do think that there’s too much cynicism in the modern era. Take the phrases ‘incurable romantic’ and ‘hopeless romantic’, for example. They are commonly used labels to describe oneself, or another. But why should one want to be ‘cured’ of romance? Why should one be ‘hopelessly’ incapable of curbing romanticism? What would life be without romance?
If you’re interested in an answer to that question, I recommend Lauren Oliver’s Delirium series, which explores a dystopia in which love is viewed as deliria, a disease to be ‘cured’ by a horrendous surgical procedure on the brain in the teenage years. I found Lauren’s descriptions of adults incapable of romantic attachment deeply thought-provoking, but also disturbing!
What do you think? Should we be looking for ways to ‘spread the love’ in our societies? Should organisations and government better support the romance genre? Did the Beatles have it right when they sang, ‘All you need is love?’ I would love to hear your thoughts.
Follow my blog with Bloglovin This week the media has been reporting on the results of a survey to uncover the best love letters of all time, set up by life insurance company Beagle Street. These are the top ten letters, with excerpts:
1. Johnny Cash writing to his wife (1994)
We get old and get use [sic] to each other. We think alike.
We read each other’s minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.
But once in awhile, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me.
You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, the #1 Earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much.
2. Winston Churchill to his wife (1935)
In your letter from Madras you wrote some words very dear to me, about my having enriched your life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in your debt, if there can be accounts in love…. What it has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey.
3. John Keats to his neighbour Fanny Brawne (1819)
I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you.
4. Ernest Hemingway to actress Marlene Dietrich (1951)
I can’t say how every time I ever put my arms around you I felt that I was home. Nor too many things. But we were always cheerful and jokers together.
5. Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine (1796)
My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Josephine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart.
6. Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor (1964)
My blind eyes are desperately waiting for the sight of you. You don’t realize of course, EB, how fascinatingly beautiful you have always been, and how strangely you have acquired an added and special and dangerous loveliness.
7. King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn (1527)
I beg to know expressly your intention touching the love between us. Necessity compels me to obtain this answer, having been more than a year wounded by the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail or find a place in your affection.
8. Beethoven to his anonymous Immortal Beloved (1812)
Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, Be calm-love me-today-yesterday-what tearful longings for you-you-you-my life-my all-farewell. Oh continue to love me-never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved. Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.
9. President Gerald Ford to his wife (1974)
No written words can adequately express our deep, deep love. We know how great you are and we, the children and Dad, will try to be as strong as you. Our Faith in you and God will sustain us. Our total love for you is everlasting.
10. Musician Jimi Hendrix to an unknown girlfriend (date unknown)
happiness is within you….so unlock the chains from your heart and let yourself grow—
like the sweet flower you are…..
I know the answer–
Just spread your wings and set yourself
Love to you forever
The one that stands out to me is Beethoven’s, which is so beautifully written. I can imagine his beloved re-reading his words over and over until they were embedded in her soul.
The Guardian newspaper offered five other letters that are sublimely romantic (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/feb/11/straight-from-the-heart-the-best-love-letters-valentines-day). I love Zelda Fitzgerald’s letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1930:
Darling – I love these velvet nights. I’ve never been able to decide … whether I love you most in the eternal classic half-lights where it blends with day or in the full religious fan-fare of mid-night or perhaps in the lux of noon. Anyway, I love you most and you ’phoned me just because you phoned me tonight – I walked on those telephone wires for two hours after holding your love like a parasol to balance me.
So what makes a love letter powerful, emotive, romantic? Looking at the excerpts of the letters voted upon here – what is inherent and what is lacking – I have these thoughts:
- A love letter must from the heart. It should be pure, unfiltered emotion on the page. The soul laid bare. The writer must be courageous in sharing his or her truths, because these words simply must be written.
- A love letter must be poetic. The best letters are examples of exquisite writing, with evocative imagery, well-chosen words and phrasing that’s lyrical. They are songs on paper that celebrate love.
- A love letter must be treasured. The letter is designed to be kept, to stand as a record of love in a moment in time. There is a permanence to the love letter – like a beautiful bird captured and displayed in a gilded cage; the love may not last in the real world, but in that letter it is eternal.
I think that the art of the love letter is, tragically, dying. Yes, you could construe a text message or an email or a Facebook wall post as a mini letter, but does it really have the same impact and longevity? A love letter is handwriting on paper – an object that the giver toiled over and the receiver keeps always. Who takes the time to undertake such writing these days?
But it is not only the fast-paced, digital world that renders love letters antiquated for so many; we, as people, have changed. It is notable that the older love letters are the most romantic – people, I wholeheartedly believe, were more romantic in the past. To write love letters was once commonplace, accepted, expected, respected. Today, it’s somewhat unusual.
Here’s an idea: This Valentine’s Day, don’t buy into the consumerism that the retailers push onto you. Your loved one doesn’t need chocolates or a teddy bear, just a good, old-fashioned love letter from the heart. Why not really take care over it? Craft the writing carefully. Choose some beautiful note paper and a flowing fountain pen. Spritz the page with your perfume. Tie the letter up in a ribbon or seal it with wax. Simple, but really rather beautiful. And who knows, perhaps in one hundred or two hundred years’ time, it will be your letter topping the ‘most romantic love letters ever written’ list!
If you’d like some inspiration, I recommend this book: