Sherry Jones, whose books such as Four Sisters, All Queens and Jewel of Medina have been international bestsellers, has come out with a new work of historical fiction this month: The Sharp Hook of Love. Making use of the lost love letters between Heloise d’Argenteuil and Pierre Abelard, Jones retells the story of one of the most famous couples of the Middle Ages. We had a chance to interview Sherry and ask her about her latest novel:
In The Sharp Hook of Love you take on the story of Abelard and Heloise. It is certainly is a tale that many writers have taken on before, but you are able to make use of a relatively new source – the so-called Lost Letters. How did this source change the way you wrote the story?
The “lost love letters” totally changed my perspective on these two lovers. Imagine my delight to discover them in Australian scholar Constant J. Mews’s excellent book, THE LOST LOVE LETTERS OF HELOISE AND ABELARD: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France.
As a journalist, I always want to do something new (never mind on why I write about the past, ha!). To find 113 beautiful, elegant fragments and complete letters as well as poems between an anonymous man and woman — and Professor Mews’s convincing argument that they are letters Heloise and Abelard wrote during their love affair — thrilled me to no end.
When I’d compared them to the eight letters between them that we have possessed for centuries — later letters, written some 15 years after they had parted — I became a firm believer in their authenticity. I have no doubt that Abelard and Heloise wrote these letters. The language they used, the pet words and phrases, the references to the man as a philosopher and poet and to the woman as his scholar; the writers they quoted; the allusions to events: all converge with what we already knew of them. The “lost love letters” were copied by Johannes de Vepria, a 15th-century monk who would have had access to the library at the Oratory of the Paraclete, where Heloise had been the abbess. It all fits together so, so neatly.
What new did I learn from these letters? In them I found a much different Abelard than the rogue he’d portrayed himself to be in his Historia Calamitatum, the autobiography that fell into Heloise’s hands somehow (I think he must have written it for her, and arranged for her to receive it). In it, he tells of his deliberate seduction of Heloise, his brilliant young scholar, even likening her to a lamb consigned to the wolves, although, in her replies, she insists on bearing equal responsibility for their affair.
It’s funny how, over the years, so many have taken Abelard’s account literally. Many scholars now agree, however, that he probably exaggerated his sins to heighten the effect of his redemption, which he trumpets in his tale. Adding insult to injury, of course, is his admission in a later letter that he had been driven not by love for Heloise, but by lust. Again, all the world has been quick to condemn him, forgetting that castration — her uncle’s mad revenge — had certainly altered his hormones and dulled the once-sharp edge of his desire for her, or for any woman. From such a perspective, as well as from the fifteen or more years that had passed since their love had blossomed, almost anyone might forget those old feelings.
But: read his early letters. “While I sleep you never leave me, and after I wake I see you, even before the light of day itself.” “If I were there, I would wipe sweetest tears from your starry eyes, I would surround your troubled breast with my embrace, I would restore your happiness completely.” “Nothing has changed in me concerning my ardor for you, except that every day the flame of love for you rises even more.”
Are these the words of a man governed solely by lust? I think not.
As for Heloise, although in those later letters she emphasizes the sacrificial nature of her love for Abelard, she clearly is no shrinking violet in the “lost love letters.” Indeed, more than once she threatens to end the relationship, but he pulls her back in.
You spent about two and a half years researching this novel. Writers of historical fiction will vary on how much of the story and its details they want to historically accurate. What are your thoughts on this?
I try to tell whatever story I’m telling with strict adherence to the known facts and as faithfully to the era — its culture, mores, values, etc. — as I can be without having been there. However, I also recognize that history is its own form of fiction. What we once thought to be the case, such as that Abelard seduced and abandoned Heloise and never really loved her, historians often discover, with time, to be only partially factual, or not factual at all. My main interest is in getting inside the skins of my characters, and in portraying them in all their glorious complexity and ambivalence. The facts of their lives serve, therefore, as markers or even as props. For instance, in my first novel, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, I gave Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha — the protagonist — a sword. Some balked at this, saying there was no evidence that she’d ever used one. Of course, women did use swords in the early Muslim community. A woman with a sword saved Muhammad’s life on the battlefield! But for me, the sword served as a symbol of A’isha’s own power.
Many historical novelists take this question very seriously, it’s true. At one Historical Novel Society conference, I attended two discrete panels discussing how historically accurate historical fiction should be. I understand that many of my readers are very knowledgable about history, and would be distracted by anachronisms or blatant alterations in history, so I adhere very closely to what we know — my primary goal is to immerse the reader, so I don’t want to pull him or her out of the dream-state that is reading great fiction. But whatever other authors choose to do is up to them. Someone wrote to me, “You could have put A’isha on the moon!” That’s true — it’s my book, after all. I don’t care much for rules, however, so wouldn’t castigate anyone else for his or her storytelling choices.
Some of your previous novels are have focused on strong female characters. In this novel you are writing about both a strong male and a strong female character and their romance. Did this change challenge the way you write?
Writing authentically about love is, I think, the most challenging feat of all. Capturing love in a net of words is like trying to grasp a rainbow with our hands. Writing about the love of a brilliant woman for an arrogant, complicated man so that the reader not only understands why Heloise loved Abelard but also experiences her feelings was certainly the most difficult task I’ve set for myself as an author thus far. I hope I’ve done it well.