“Heloise”: Mandy’s Masterpiece?

An incredibly wonderful woman. Mandy Hager

Starting the journey

By Roger Childs

When the famous lovers of history and literature are mentioned – Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida – Heloise and Abelard have their place.

Mandy Hager is an award winning author best known for her young adult fiction. However, eight years ago while she was in France she became interested in the legendary story of the 12th century couple who engaged in forbidden love in a hostile world.

Based on what she saw and read, she became convinced that the world needed to hear more about Heloise. So in 2014 when she was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship to Menton in south-east France, Mandy had the specific objective of writing a novel for adults on Heloise.

Last Wednesday, Mandy spoke to a packed meeting room at Paraparaumu Library, about her research process and how the novel came together.

The politics of the time

12th century France was not a great place to defy the wishes and standards laid down by the church. Ultimately the politics of the time decided what happened to the lovers.

The church was increasing its power and wealth at the time; many religious institutions were robbed of their assets and any rights women had were being steadily eroded. It was also the time of the Second Crusade and a rise in fundamentalism in the church.

Corruption was rife, and this encouraged a French Cistercian monk named Bernard of Clairvaux to try and cleanse the church. He set up many monasteries in the name of the order, based of rigid standards, however he was a very austere and uncompromising leader. He certainly had no time for highly educated women in religious institutions.

Mandy commented that by the time Heloise died, women had been silenced.

Pulling the novel together

Mandy read all she could find on the couple and especially letters that Heloise had written which were discovered in the15th century. She toyed with the idea of using the language of medieval France in the novel, but soon realised that it wouldn’t work.

She received a lot of help from Constant Mews, Professor of Medieval Thought, at Monash University in Melbourne. He said that to understand Heloise, Mandy needed to read everything that she had read.

Mandy took up the challenge and found that, among other writers, Heloise was very taken with Ovid, the Roman scholar and poet.

Interestingly, there is material still coming to light on the couple, and new interpretations of events. For example, it is suggested that the affair may have started after Abelard had seduced and raped Heloise.

Trying to answer questions

Mandy has written, in her words the book I wanted to write. Like any historical novel, it is not history, however, she has done the detailed research and has tried to be as authentic as possible. Nevertheless, in the end it is, as she puts it, my take on the story.

In writing the novel, among other things, she was she keen to answer the fundamental question Why would she want to love him?

To her, Heloise was an incredibly brilliant woman and, in the end, she taught Peter Abelard how to become a decent person.

(KIN will have a review of the book in a few weeks time. It is available for $38.00 from all good book shops including Paper Plus in Coastlands.)