t. 91, Mandy Hager, Heloise

Heloise by Mandy Hager.
Auckland: Imprint Penguin NZ, Random House (2017).
RRP: $38.
Pb, 382pp.
ISBN: 9780143770992.
Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac).
Reviewed by Cassandra Fusco.


Publishers’ media releases and catalogues (apart from providing vital ISBN and RRP info) can trend more towards the promotional than the informative. Penguin Random House NZ, with their May 2017 media release on Heloise by Mandy Hager is an exception.

In Hager’s own words (refreshingly), the release reveals the raison d’être for the author’s mammoth effort – addressing questions of legitimacy and relevance – this is, after all, a Kiwi re-writing a medieval  story which is already famous and much written about.[1]

Abélard-Héloïse novels abound, but Hager – to redress an imbalance – focuses upon and creatively revitalises the mind and the being of the highly intelligent Héloïse d’Argenteuil (1090/1100?–1164) and her relationship with Pierre Abélard (1079-1142).

Their tale has been written and read as a scandal, a tragic romance, an edifying conversion story, a clever forgery and an exemplum of either patriarchy or feminism in action.[2]  In their medieval world, Héloïse became a celebrated scholar and abbess, Abélard a pioneer of scholastic philosophy.[3] (Witness their correspondence.[4]) Read the novel and see how Hager interrogates and humanises this epistolary tale and intelligently imagines many of the inevitable gaps.

It is no exemplum, concerning the struggle to subordinate human love to that of the divine.  It is a deeply psychological re-reading and plausible interpretation of a body of correspondence and its times.

As the title states, this novel concerns Héloïse – her love of and hunger for learning and understanding; her life and loyalties tested by, amongst other things, the ambitions and instabilities of both her guardian and her lover alike[5]; a secret ‘appeasement’ marriage and her forced separation from her child and the taking of religious orders.

These conflicts (which exercise the narrative from start to finish) are brought into focus through the letters and the changing mind sets and tenor they reveal. But, whether ‘real’ or imaginary, Hager’s use of the correspondence is not biased, painting Abélard as arrogant and self-destructive and Héloïse as devoted, all-compassionate and stoic. The author makes convincingly psychological use of the Problemata Heloissae (Héloïse’s Problems[6]), a letter from Héloïse to Abélard containing 42 questions about difficult passages in Scripture, interspersed with Abelard’s answers to the questions.[7]

Hager demonstrates that Héloïse’s letters contribute to one of the earliest, most radical feminist philosophies of the 12th century (illuming the price involved), one which is still relevant today. In an era awash with text messages and twitterings about what we had for breakfast, Heloise is invigorating and invites us to consider the fabric of communication.

[1] Hager has garnered numerous awards. See: www.mandyhager.com.

[2] The letters of Héloïse and Abélard were written in Latin c. 1128 and were first published in Paris in 1616, and in England in 1728 in Latin. Thereafter translations were numerous and often more paraphrase than translation.

[3] Scholasticism, as a method of critical thought articulating and defending dogma, dominated teaching by the ‘scholastics’ or ‘schoolmen’ in medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700 within an increasingly pluralistic context, and dominated the Gregorian Reforms of Pope Gregory VII and the circle he formed in the papal Curia (c.1050-80) to deal with the moral integrity and independence of the clergy.

[4] Their correspondence, the authenticity of which has been and continues to be disputed, include seven letters (numbered Epistolae 2–8): four of which (Epistolae 2–5) are known as the ‘Personal Letters’, and contain personal correspondence, and three (Epistolae 6–8), known as the ‘Letters of Direction’, and Abelard’s 1132 Historia Calamitatum (which precedes Epistola 1) in which he writes of his seduction of Héloïse (whom he met in 1115). This extensive letter (possibly influenced by Augustine of Hippo’s theological and spiritual meditations, Confessions AD 397 and 400) provides insights into Abelard’s views of women, learning, monastic life, Church and State, his intense feelings of Christ-like persecution, and much about the socio-political and religious milieu of the time.

[5] She was the ward of an uncle, a canon in Paris.

[6] Possibly written at the time when she was abbess at the Paraclete.

[7] Hager is exceptional in her provision of Appendices, notation of specific quoted excerpts, Endnotes and Main References consulted.


Cassandra Fusco is the Reviews Editor of takahē.