Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard

Written by Melvyn Bragg
Review by Martha Hoffman

In 12th-century Paris, a learned young woman named Heloise is tutored by the famed philosopher Abelard. The teacher and student soon become lovers, and most readers who are interested in or have been students of European history know how it ends.

Chapters concerning the ill-fated couple are from a novel being written by Arthur, an historian. Other chapters take place in present-day Paris, where Arthur has invited his estranged daughter Julia to read drafts of his work. She is most interested in resolving their own relationship, but dutifully reads the chapters while she waits to ask her own questions. Even though she is the daughter of an historian, she doesn’t seem to know the story or much about the context in which it was written. Abelard irritates her in a modern kind of way, and she puts up straw arguments for her father to bat away sorrowfully.

Arthur’s novel makes a number of interesting suppositions, including that Fulbert was actually Heloise’s father, and that Heloise was the one demanding to be tutored by the most famous teacher in Paris. He makes much of Heloise’s opposition to marriage, and little of Heloise’s horror at learning what happened to her lover and husband.

Overall, there is more conversation than passion in this book, both in the past and present. Nonetheless, the meeting of minds that one hopes to find is sketchy. Perhaps it’s true when Abelard blames himself, describing his own handsome self and claiming that he took the job with plans to seduce her.

It would be interesting to think that Arthur’s reading of the Heloise and Abelard story is tinged by his own experience, but it’s not really clear if there’s a parallel other than the fact his own marriage fell apart – needless to say, for less dramatic reasons.