Reading List January 2017

  1. The Letters of Heloise and Abelard: A Translation of Their Collected Correspondence and Related Writings, Pierre Abélard, Héloïse d’Argenteuil, Bonnie Wheeler (Editor), Mary Martin McLaughlin (Editor) (Non-fiction, 2002)

  2. Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare (Theatre, 1589)
  3. Down Below, Leonora Carrington (Fiction, 1945)
  4. The Founders of the Western World: A History of Greece and Rome, Michael Grant (Non-fiction, 1991)


Reading the letters of Pierre Abélard, one gets a good sense of his character: he is pompous, entitled, and conceited.  His letters are close to unbearable.  Héloïse, by contrast, is much easier to read, and her letters rarely feel like manifestoes of self-importance, but the personal testaments to a woman under extreme circumstances.  Of course, they both went through horrific hardship.  Yet it is only Héloïse that I ended up having sympathy for, despite Abélard literally haing his genitals cut off, presumably unanesthetized.

Héloïse was between ten and twenty years younger than Abélard when they met, when he sought to seduce her for her class and intelligence.  He manipulated his way into her home and under the guise of lessons, began an affair with the much younger woman.  She then did what he wanted.  She entered a convent when he encouraged her too, though she resented being told to do so so soon before he entered a monastery (she was devoted to him and would have followed regardless, so why push her to do it so early?)  In their letters they discuss at length the place of marriage for women especially, yet she preferred to be Abélard’s mistress, bound by love, than wife, bound by institution. But is it romantic when the sacrifice was ultimately made for him alone, so that marriage would not mar his career? (by which I mean the initial act of denying marriage — he certainly suffered for this too).  She performed these acts of sacrifice out of love and devotion to an unlikeable, self-centered man (it’s really hard not to judge him), who was driven to begin their relationship out of his own pride and lust.  And she, in her letters, questions him on this: was it just lust?  Or did he actually love her?

Héloïse seems to be a woman trapped by many circumstances: she was a victim of her time, for certain.  But would her life have been better without Abélard?  What would her life have been like if a man hadn’t been so very determined to seduce her to satisfy his lust — would she have had any recognition today, or would she have had a traditional marriage, or would she have still ended up in a convent?  Both Abélard and Héloïse went through horrible things because of their relationship, but reading their letters it is difficult for me to see it as a relationship of true love and ill-fated romance, when the whole thing feels like the unfortunate consequences of male entitlement.