Gleaning new insights from historical letters between 12th-century lovers Heloise d ‘Argenteuil and Pierre Abelard, Jones incorporates facts with the potential intimacies of the affair. Heloise is intended for a position as abbess, the object of her passion a renowned teacher/poet and philosopher, headmaster at the Notre Dame Cloister School. Heloise, who “was born in silence, my wails quieted by the only friend my mother could trust,” is brought from the Royal Abbey at Argenteuil to the home of her ambitious uncle, Cannon Fulbert.
Unfortunately for the young woman, Cannon Fulbert has just recently dismissed his beloved mistress from the household in the spirit of Church reform as preached by the ubiquitous Bernard of Clairvaux. The cannon’s domestic tranquility has been replaced by the oblivion of alcoholic spirits, his once happy nature turned sour. It is no wonder, then, that Heloise is under the spell of Pierre Abelard once she makes his acquaintance, overwhelmed by the charm and intelligence of the handsome, erudite man.
Verbally sparring with Abelard and confident that she is a match for his superb mental acuity, Heloise has no armor with which to dispel the thrill of physical attraction. Of course, such a connection is forbidden: “To forbid the fruit only sweetens its flavor.” Abelard is smitten as well, a worldly man accustomed to the fawning of women but enchanted by the perfect melding of beauty and intelligence he finds in Heloise. It is a romance that is damned from the start, albeit inevitable and destined to become the stuff of myth. When Cannon Fulbert permits Heloise’s tutelage by the esteemed philosopher, the die is cast. The two star-crossed lovers move into one another’s orbit in a fated relationship that, regardless of the tragedy that ultimately befalls them, has been immortalized by time.
In the 12th century, a mind as brilliant as that of Heloise d ‘Argenteuil can find no place, forced to either a life in a convent or as a married woman. Even the besotted Abelard is governed by the patriarchal restrictions of a society that offers women only limited notions of marriage or commitment to a life of prayer. Despite their bonds and the depth of their devotion, Abelard’s character is the product of a society steeped in religious beliefs. The Church is the dictator of men’s souls, even frequently in conflict with the king as the reform movement gains momentum with a “mission to denounce the spread of decadence in the Church.”
Jones captures the turbulent history of a Church in flux, contrasting the yearning of two individuals against a world that would not only deny but separate them, in essence punish them for their love. Heloise’s journey propels the novel, her strength, her ability to forgive Abelard and her faith in the rightness of their love transcending the boundaries of manmade restrictions. She clings to the one truth she can never deny: the love she shares with Abelard, even unto their deaths.