Book review: Stealing Heaven by Marion Meade (FONTANA/Collins, 1989 )
HISTORY’S MOST DARING LOVERS…
Peter Abelard, the celebrated 12th century philosopher, and his prize pupil, beautiful, brilliant and fiercly independent young Heloise. Together they defied the rigid conventions of church and society to indulge in a forbidden love affair – and together they suffered the consequences.
Forced to seek refuge in religious orders following the vicious attack of sexual vengeance that stunned all of Europe, Heloise and Abelard were separated. But Heloise never lost hope that she would again be reunited with her lover – the one man she loved, even above God.
Look, it has a picture from the film and everything!
After seeing Stealing Heaven the film, I decided to get the book and see how it compared. You know how they say films tend to leave things out? In this case, about 75% of the plot.
The novel starts with 13- or 14-year-old Heloise who lives at a convent, where she has become very book-learned, but she doesn’t really like it there. Fortunately, her uncle Fulbert sends for her to join him in Paris, where he is a canon of Notre Dame, and deals with more or less dodgy Christian relics.
She’s supposed to be married off, but Heloise isn’t interested. She doesn’t seem to take a particular interest in boys until she meets Jourdain – but he’s more like a brother to her. Jourdain is a student and friend/assistant of renowned philosopher Peter Abelard, and Heloise is curious about his master. When the two are finally introduced, Heloise has her mind set on winning him.
Abelard has a similar reaction, and arranges matters so that he can lodge in Fulbert’s house and privately teach Heloise. You can guess where those lessons eventually lead … For a while, the two lovers are perfectly happy, and to cut a long story short, tragedy strikes and while the film deals with the rest of Heloise’s life as a nun in a very abbreviated form, here it probably takes up half of the book, if not a bit more.
The film begins with Heloise being fetched to Paris, and soon after, she encounters Abelard on the streets, other people make him move in to Fulbert’s house and he really tries hard to resist the temptation of intelligent, beautiful, flirty Heloise before finally succumbing. The rest of the plot is taken care of in a very quick way, and fine, I can see why they chose to do it that way, but the book is so much better, it really is.
The film makes Abelard out to be almost a saint: his students set him up with a prostitute and he kindly declines her advances and really isn’t interested at all, thank you very much – until he’s tempted by Heloise, who’s virtually throwing herself at him, shouting “F*** ME HARD, MASTER ABELARD!!” He’s more “OH NOES, I, the famous philosopher who must be chaste because that’s what the time dictates, really mustn’t be lead into temptation, because WOE IS ME … Although … Oh, what the heck, she’s totally hot, I’m-a get me some of that.”
In the book, he’s way more cunning and soooo not innocent: “So Jourdain, this Heloise you keep talking about. Tell me more about her. Tell me everything, in great detail. Linger on how beautiful she is. In fact, why don’t you bring her here so we can be introduced?” Followed by, “I’m moving to Fulbert’s house, because that seems like an EXCELLENT IDEA ALL OF A SUDDEN and has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with fancying the chemise off that luscious young niece of his, and it’s not like I aim to bed her as soon as frickin’ possible.” And then, “Oh, I get the room just across the hallway from her, on the top floor where NO ONE EVER COMES, except for her? How fortuitous! I mean, because we don’t want to disturb anyone when we stay up late, uh, STUDYING. I plan on teaching her a lot of things, I am, and we’re so not to be disturbed, ever. Especially not at night. Oh, you say I get to spank her if she’s disobedient? Wowza. I mean, I’ll … eh … be sure to keep that in mind … ooooh yeah.”
And then he turns into a miserable git for most of the rest of his life and you wish you could reach through the pages and punch him, on Heloise’s behalf. Heloise, on the other hand, is portrayed as surprisingly modern. She’s highly educated, not just in comparison to other women (who weren’t educated at all at the time), but she’s more learned than most of the men. No wonder they were attracted to each other’s minds – very few people were on their level! Sure, Heloise does come across as very egotistical at times (especially with regards to her free-spirited friend from the convent – who doesn’t even exist in the film, despite being a huge part of her life), but at the same time, I could sympathise with her. She’s stuck in a convent, despite having no calling to be a nun, nor does she even particularly believe in God, but she makes the best of it.
The bit where the two actually are having the love affair is surprisingly brief, if you compare the page count with the rest of the book, but it’s riveting and their chemistry electric. In fact, the whole book was difficult to put down and I gobbled it up.
Stealing Heaven is based on the letters between the two, and whatever other sources there are, to get a proper time line of events, even if individual scenes are made up. Still, this could well be how it happened, even if it’s a fictionalised account.
If you’re interested in the tragic love story of Abélard and Héloïse, but not too fussed about the historical accuracy, this is a good place to start. (I kept picturing Derek de Lint as Abelard, because awesome. Yes, that’s the guy who plays him in the film.) It’s rich in detail, in intrigue and there’s just so much more to the story than I could’ve imagined when seeing the film. This book is well-written and was really hard to put down, and once it was finished, it was like “but … aww shucks, I’m going to have to read something else now, and it won’t be the same.” So I guess that means I really rather liked it. But then again, it features both an age gap romance and a student/teacher relationship, so that didn’t exactly come as a surprise, let’s be honest.
4 out of 5 relics.