I’ve never read anything by Melvyn Bragg before, although he has been writing since the 1960s and most of his novels fall into my favourite genre, historical fiction. His new book, Love Without End, a retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise – often described as one of the greatest love stories of all time – sounded appealing to me, so I thought I would give it a try.
The novel opens in 12th century Paris, where Heloise is living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. She is intelligent, resourceful and exceptionally well educated for a woman of her time, particularly in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When the renowned philosopher and scholar Peter Abelard returns to Paris after an absence of a few years, Heloise longs to go and sit with the male students listening to his lectures, but she is aware that this is an opportunity open only to men. A solution is found when Canon Fulbert allows Abelard to join his household as private tutor to Heloise, but he quickly comes to regret this decision when he discovers that his niece and her tutor have fallen in love.
I’m not going to say any more about the legend of Heloise and Abelard – if you don’t already know the story you probably don’t want me to spoil it for you, and it’s so well documented the details can easily be looked up online anyway. All I will say is that, like Romeo and Juliet and other legendary lovers, their romance is dramatic and tragic. Melvyn Bragg’s account follows the usual, accepted outline of the story, using sources such as the Penguin Classics collection of the translated letters of Abelard and Heloise, although he also uses his imagination to fill in some of the gaps and mixes some fictional characters in with the real historical ones.
Despite all the drama and tragedy, however, I found this novel strangely flat and emotionless. There seemed to be no real chemistry between Heloise and Abelard; although Bragg tells us that they are passionately in love, I never really felt that for myself. Even the setting never came to life; I wanted to know what it felt like to live in 12th century Paris, what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like…but instead I came away with the feeling that the story might as well have been taking place in any city and at any time.
Even so, I might have still enjoyed this book if it had just concentrated solely on the story of Abelard and Heloise. Recently, though, I’m finding that authors rarely seem to write books set entirely in the past anymore. Instead we get two alternating storylines – one set in the past and one in the present. In this case, the present day story follows an author, Arthur, who is visiting Paris with his daughter, Julia, to finish researching and writing a novel about Abelard and Heloise. It is supposedly Arthur’s novel that we are reading in the historical chapters, while in the modern day chapters he and Julia talk about his work and how he has interpreted various parts of the Abelard and Heloise legend.
The Arthur and Julia storyline appears to exist purely as a way for Bragg to discuss and comment on various aspects of the relationship between Heloise and Abelard or to explain things for the benefit of the modern reader, rather than leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Most of the discussions involve Julia questioning Abelard’s behaviour and Arthur trying to defend him by pointing out that she needs to put things into historical context and judge Abelard by the standards of the 12th century instead of the 21st. I found both Arthur and Julia very irritating; their dialogue seemed unnatural and not the way two people would speak to each other in real life. They just didn’t feel like real human beings at all and were a distraction from the Heloise and Abelard story rather than an interesting addition to it.
This was disappointing, but if you’ve enjoyed any of Melvyn Bragg’s other books maybe you can convince me to give him another chance? Also, if anyone has read anything else about Abelard and Heloise – or even some of the original letters and writings – please let me know what you would recommend.
Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.