Peter Abelard

by Helen Waddell
[Henry Holt, $2.50]
ONCE more the melancholy history of Abelard and Heloise has inspired an author to retell their woes to a generation eight centuries removed. Again it comes to us in the form of a novel, set, though not ostentatiously, in the Middle Ages and enriched by choice gleanings from the thought and poetry of that remote day. Miss Waddell, a sensitive scholar, has given just enough of the period to place her characters in their proper background. Their story, but by the grace of a moral advancement without which our progress were a mockery, might have happened to-day.
After George Moore’s masterly work, the literary might find Miss Waddell’s Peter Abelard a twice-told tale; yet through her greater conciseness she succeeds where Moore, at least in dramatic intensity, failed. However, Moore shows us Paris as it was long ago with its famines and its wolves; he paints the lovers and even their hapless child full length against a lovingly accurate canvas. Fulbert’s terrible revenge on the seducer of his niece is treated in the light of the times — grim, unenlightened, cruel times. In the same light, too, is examined its effect upon two passionate, noble, yet mediæval lives. Miss Waddell makes the outrage itself the climax of her novel and the turning point in the moral development of Abelard and Heloise. Oversensationally, perhaps, she paves the way for its accomplishment by a sordid intrigue. And, too, she has it engineered by a madman: Fulbert crazed by the loss of his niece. But his accomplices, the actual doers, were not insane. It were understandable if Miss Waddell had given motivation to Fulbert’s blind love for Heloise. Mere pride in her accomplishments or the loss of her as a member of his household could not have made even a man of the twelfth century perpetrate one of the vilest crimes known to inhumanity. Mediæval ideas of honor entered in; intrigues of the cloth; barbarous, and in those days accepted, codes of justice. The problem is much more complex than Miss Waddell would make it.
Within its limitations, however, Peter Abelard is a noteworthy novel, chiefly by virtue of a graceful style. We see Abelard, poet and dialectician, yielding in his mature years to passion he should have known in youth; we see Heloise, a pure, studious child, wakened to womanhood in her love for the man she is later to hold above God. We glimpse but briefly the Heloise of the soul-revealing letters. Mighty stumblingblock in the novelist’s path! Who can surmount that monument, itself both corner stone and spire of those two dedicated lives?