She had mentally traced her morning stroll the night before, as she lay alone, her eyes following the bumps and wiggles of the patterned ceiling above. How long had she lain there, smiling softly for no reason, for a hundred reasons? Then sleep, though she seemed scarcely to need it.
The staff of the tiny but posh hotel in the Marais must have sensed her muffled joy. They had radiated back at her, as she checked in the night before – or so it seemed. There, in the old part of the city, away from the monumental Paris, from the blatant luxe of the gaping boulevards, people maybe had a better sense of these things. Since the Marais had been reclaimed from the marshes as a suburb for nobility, privileged young women like Elizabeth had come here in this way, and with similar thoughts. Yes, these people must sense…
That she was just too bloody smug!
And what did it matter, if she was a bit smug? And was she so smug and privileged? Her appearance – a blonde Maud Gonne, did somebody once say of her? – drew eyes, then fearful hearts. Her gliding capability had been there from the start of life. But what did people know of the persistence, the discipline, the toils? There was an element of humility in all that, surely. And if she lacked humility, she did not lack grace. It was the easy, earthy grace of rural Australia, which the whole world seemed not just to acknowledge, but to crave.
She was Elizabeth, and, for this one day, she would not resile from being all she was, from having all she had. Not for herself alone, but also for one other.
From her times as student in Oxford, and as avid over-the-channel traveller, she had come to prefer this end of the city. Each morning, she would jog through the Place de la Bastille to the Promenade Plantée, along which she would run all the way to the Bois de Vincennes. Then she would run back. Only once a week did she allow herself a pastry from Gérard Mulot. Clad in light tracksuit, still pearled in sweat and flushed from her run, she would sit, unembarrassed, in the Place des Vosges and devour that one pastry. With iron discipline, she never exceeded the ration.
Today there would be no discipline, no rationing. At her hotel, she had freely gobbled a continental breakfast, giving special attention to the house confiture, a quince jam that was like an edible fragrance.
And the hotel staff continued to radiate back everything Elizabeth was radiating.
Leaving the hotel, she wandered along the narrow cobbled streets of the Marais, not so crowded, because it was a damp Thursday in late autumn. Yet the crowds were there, of course. She bought a heavy bomb of a caramel éclair at the Gérard Mulot shop, and, drizzle or no drizzle, sat herself down on a favourite bench in the Place des Vosges to devour it with extreme relish and deliberation. Today was her day to do as she pleased. A life of discipline lay behind her; a longer one of still greater rigour stretched before. Today, a pivot point, belonged to her, and to just one other. No-one else.
People, men especially, noticed Elizabeth as she sat eating. She smiled back radiantly, yet with that sovereign air of distance that could keep her untouchable in the midst of a brawl at an outback dance. She marvelled a while at the warm geometries of the Place des Vosges, watched beautifully groomed infants tumble, tussle and explore in the unstructured, unsporty way of little Parisians. Truly, if Elizabeth were ever to choose a home away from Australia…
Next she wandered along Pas-de-Mule, then turned right to find – of course, it was Thursday! – the Bastille markets, which were at their peak at that time of morning. As always, it was the fishmonger who had the longest queue. Further up the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, the stalls were bustling, vendors cried out, the gypsies offered their bouquets of fat, yellow daisies like a reprimand…How suddenly at home she felt. Only here could one be at home in Paris. The rest, one merely visited and admired.
After browsing a while, she made her way to the Rue de La Roquette and began to walk a little more briskly. The many bars and restaurants at Rue de Lappe end were closed at that hour, so there was less to see, less to engage. Elizabeth had to command the athlete in her to slow down. This was not a day to exercise, not a day to achieve.
At last she arrived at the long wall with its odd Egypto-Modernist entrance.
The Cemetery of Père-Lachaise was today’s destination. It was, perhaps, the only reason for her presence in Paris on this hurried break from her research work in London, on this cold and damp Thursday.
A man who looked North African was selling umbrellas just outside the entrance. Though she hated owning any cheap item, she thought it best to keep dry if she would be sitting motionless for some time. She spent a moment picking out a sombre navy-blue one, remembering, as always, to thank the vendor with her easy, sportsgirl charm, measured, but sincere. It was charm just for him, to lighten his leaden morning, his obviously cramped existence, just a little. Along with everything else, Elizabeth was good.
She made her way promptly toward the grave she was intending to visit. In past years, she had come to know Père-Lachaise well, could navigate easily to Balzac or Oscar Wilde or Jim Morrison through the vast web of roads and alleys.
The skeletal trees in late November, the drifts of dead leaves, the drab sky: all made a good backdrop for a day in Père-Lachaise, though they would make today’s set task a touch harder.
Elizabeth was here to write a letter, to write it in one particular spot. Like everything she did, she intended to do it well, to a plan, and in a composed state of mind.
The joint grave of Héloïse and Abelard was confected in the early nineteenth century. The bones of the two lovers were gathered together from elsewhere and a small, open chapel erected for them in Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Within the chapel, a sarcophagus bears their sculpted likenesses, in stiff, prayerful pose.
Inside the low iron fence, a very elderly woman was seated on the stepped base of the chapel. For all her age, the woman, simply yet artfully groomed, was statuesque, even in her informal crouch. She appeared to be doing nothing, and ignored the slight drizzle on her vacant, upturned face. It was a face that had structure, one that had never ceased to be beautiful.
As Elizabeth approached, the stranger turned her head and smiled. Was there was a tinge of conspiracy in her look? Did there occur an instant connection of two similars and equals? (Balzac, buried nearby, would have believed in such a quasi-telepathy.)
“Je vous dérange?” Elizabeth stayed at the gate, and asked an unnecessary permission to enter.
“Oh, non, non, mademoiselle. Je vous en prie. Entrez.”
Elizabeth sat down at a polite distance from the older lady and began to ready her writing materials. Perhaps, if she were alone, she would have spent some time contemplating the chapel and its sculpted occupants. Yet the presence of the other was a good prompt to start the task she had set herself. She drew out a thin, rigid hardcover book, as backing, and some pretty hand made letter paper to fit the surface of the book. Lastly, she produced a fine Mont Blanc fountain pen. All of this inevitably caught the eye of the older lady, who now seemed discreetly to relish Elizabeth’s company.
Elizabeth decided to converse, out of respect for the other’s age and quiet benevolence. She could not, after all, simply ignore the lady.
“J’ai une lettre à écrire...”
“Ah, but you are English? Or American? I enjoy speaking English again, when I can.”
“Ah, and do they still use such fine writing implements in your country?”
“Oh, no. It’s just a thing we do in my family. My grandfather gave me this pen.”
“I can tell you have such a family. These things show in a person. But don’t let me interrupt. I know what you are here to do, what sort of letter it is to be.”
“You do? Is it such a strong tradition?”
“Oh, not strong. But a certain type of young woman still comes here at a certain moment in her life. I know. I came here over sixty years ago, and wrote such a letter. With such a pen! C’est marrant, non?”
“You sat here, sixty years ago? And wrote your own letter?”
“It was sixty-four years ago. And an older lady, a stranger, was seated here, just as I am seated now. But I must let you write. Please do not feel foolish. What is more natural than to write your feelings for this person, this man, and to write them in the presence of our two lovers? No doubt you will place your letter here between them, between Héloïse and Abelard, as I thought to do all those years ago. Please, you must write and not mind me. Otherwise, how will you ever finish?”
Encouraged, but not distracted – she had the gift of iron concentration – Elizabeth began to write what was already in her head, while allowing a small margin for novel thoughts. In an exact but fluent hand, referring to herself as Héloïse – with the “H” and accents, just as planned – and to the other as Abelard, she began to pour out to a certain absent man all her memories and hopes and intentions concerning that man, the one she expected to marry. She confessed that every man she had ever met before had been inadequate, not by his fault, but by her own relentless need for an Abelard, a man who did not earn love but who compelled it. A man whom women wanted on every possible level, but who would be sought after by the learned and powerful, even if, penniless, he went to live in a shelter of reeds by the Seine – as did Peter Abelard. Should she apologise for wanting this? Probably. But she would not apologise.
And beauty! Should she look for it everywhere, in everything, except in the face of the man who shared her life? No. She would have beauty, though of a heedless, male sort. A man absorbed or corrupted by his beauty would soon have none. No, she would have no effeminacy, no self-dwelling. But beauty she would have in her Abelard! And she would make no apology for that.
Nor would she settle for the distracted, scrappy manners of the academic. A man’s learning should form part of a true urbanity, that urbanity needed to be reflected in his dress, his carriage and, above all, in his laugh. As to his mental pursuits, if there was poetry in him – and there must be poetry! – it must be counterbalanced by an unrelenting logic.
Further – did it need saying? – innate individualism, not rebellion, was the mark of an Abelard. A merely rebellious nature was reactive and slavish. Her man would have his own responses and tastes, as naturally as he had his own breath. He may be framed by his occupation and duties, but never confined. Elizabeth was a daughter of Australia’s interior, of Kidman country. Her man would be like the Diamantina, now dry and still, now flooding to the end of sight, all of its own vast will. He would surprise.
And maturity! Only a considerably older man, without the grating burrs of youth, could appreciate the thousand efficiencies she brought to each day’s course of action. She would have no boys, with their awkward hesitations and more awkward advances. Maturity, both of years and spirit, was a must in the man she sought.
In her Abelard, she would have that, and the rest, without compromise or apology!
And she had found all that.
She had insisted on a near impossible combination of qualities and attributes. Now she had that combination, in the one man, her Peter Abelard. There had been no forcing, no self-deception. When she was not looking, he had entered her life. The love came like a sluice-gate’s opening. There had been nothing, then there was a great swamping gush.
Now, true to a promise made to herself, as a girl visiting Paris for the first time, she was writing her letter to him, her Abelard, at the tomb of Héloïse and the first Abelard. Having written it, she would leave it here, as others had done. It did not matter that this romantic notion first appealed to her as an impressionable young tourist, long before she met any man of interest. What mattered was that she she had made a promise to herself, enforceable like every promise she had ever made. What did her grandfather say of her, as ultimate praise? “Elizabeth is a finisher.”
Also, it was rather fun.
With method, Elizabeth folded and sealed the letter, put away her writing materials. She turned to the old lady and they exchanged half-knowing smiles. Yet was there just the tiniest hint of mockery in the way the stranger raised her brows?
A uniformed man approached the enclosure and tipped his cap.
“Ah, Henri. Mademoiselle, I must go. My driver has come to escort me.”
As the woman rose, she drew an envelope from her handbag.
Elizabeth asked meanwhile:
“You’re a doctor?”
“Oh, no longer. But for many years I was in ophthalmology. Here and in America. Still, on rare occasions, I give brief classes at the Sorbonne, and at our institute in the Rue de Charenton. But I can tell you are no stranger to study, to very great efforts.”
“No. I’m no stranger to…all that.”
“Tenez, mademoiselle. This is a letter I have copied from another, as exactly as possible. I have made a number of copies, in different languages. Very occasionally, I give one away, as I am doing now. My first copy was given to me by the old lady who sat beside me here sixty-four years ago. I never saw her before or since, as I doubt you will see me again. She herself was given the letter, and made her own copies over the years, which she passed on. Please take it and read it here, right now. I only ask that you never publish its contents. By all means, copy it, show it, to any woman you feel it may interest.
“For it is of interest to women only. As to its original author, you must draw your own conclusions. It seems to have been passed on many times, over many years. But who can tell? There are many cunning frauds in Paris.
“Regarding the quality of the advice given, and whether I have taken the advice, or should have taken the advice…that is meaningless now. As to what you do with its advice: remember, it is only a letter. I have copied honestly. Because Père-Lachaise is my favourite promenade, I come here regularly, and end my walks here, so my driver can find me. It amuses me to keep copies of the letter ready, should I meet someone like yourself. Please remember, it is only a letter, and of doubtful provenance. Let it amuse you. If it doesn’t, discard it.
“Goodbye, my child. Henri! Je suis prête!”
As she walked off on the arm of her driver, the doctor turned once and gave Elizabeth a slight head bow and an aristocratic wave. Did she also wink? The French do not wink, but there was something in the way the old lady sharpened one eye as she smiled.
Soon, she was gone, along the long alleys of stone. The bare trees swayed against a darker sky. A slight gust rattled a pile of dead leaves against the iron enclosure. Perhaps the faint drizzle would turn to rain soon.
For a moment, Elizabeth thought of depositing her letter between the stone figures of the lovers, then reading the other letter later, in a cafe. But no. If she left now, she might overtake the doctor and there would be slight embarrassment. Besides, though Elizabeth had made no commitment to read the letter now, she had given an impression of consent. For her, that was enough. She would read the letter immediately, place her own in the chapel, and only then would she leave.
Elizabeth opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It had been written, only recently, in good English with a clear, elegant hand. No doubt it was the doctor’s hand and translation.
As Elizabeth began to read, however, she let out a pant of surprise.
EPISTLE FROM A KNOWN FOOL TO A FOOL NOT YET KNOWN
If the words of a sot can be worth reading, at least by another sot, these words of mine are such.
Let me speak first of letters, of correspondence.
A fellow in misery once wrote to a friend, seeking comfort. That friend, renowned through the world as philosopher, could think only of writing back a lengthy catalogue of his own misfortunes. Indeed, the needs of his correspondent were so quickly forgotten, that nothing but a brief exhortation to “bear up” was given him, and so neglectfully that one might wonder if the whole purpose of this letter was to make public, once again, the triumphs of Peter Abelard, and the injustices done to Peter Abelard.
Was not the whole world a mirror in which Peter Abelard might gaze and see himself reflected as Christ Victorious and Christ Crucified? Was there ever an act of Abelard which led to the downfall of Abelard? Was all not due to the envy, to the inferior motives and low understanding of all others? Abelard would have it so, and he would phrase his absurd argument so sweetly that men would cease to listen to the birds in the trees and attend, instead, to the self-adulation and self-pity of Abelard.
And do not doubt that his letter to his friend was meant to be made public. I know this because, as his lover and wife, it was I of whom he said, in that very letter:
“My reputation had spread itself everywhere, and could a virtuous lady resist a man who had confounded all the learned of the age?…My songs were spread abroad and gained me frequent applause. Those who were in love as I was took a pride in learning them, and by luckily applying my thoughts and verses they obtained favours which perhaps they would not otherwise have gained. This gave our amours such an éclat that the lives of Héloïse and Abelard were the subject of all conversations.”
All was to be made public, since all things worked toward the glory of Peter Abelard!
Many say that I was the cleverest and prettiest of all Frankish women. But I was also nineteen! Nineteen, and thus glad to be the envy of every woman in Paris, only capable of existing through a much older lover who trod across other men’s intellects as Charlemagne had trod across the sod of Europe. Nineteen!
Oh, I must not be like Abelard and blame Abelard. For there are many young women with scant advantages who forge the life they desire, and which God desires for them. No, for all my charms, and an education that exceeded that of any other woman, I was a sot. That was my whole undoing.
My problems stem from being a sot. No, reader of this epistle, do not think to blame Abelard. Rather, learn to be a little less of a fool. Sot of a reader! Learn to be a wiser woman. Learn to blame your utter stupidity, not the peg on which you hang it.
What did I do when I fell pregnant? I had his child and, at first, refused to marry him. My grounds were that such a scholar, teacher and poet must needs be free of all encumbrance. Those were my grounds. My reasons, however, were other. I knew that I was already an encumbrance. I knew that, like Queen Dido, like Calypso, some form of abandonment was inevitable. To be married and abandoned was the worst outcome. Perhaps I had matured just slightly in that brief space between seduction and giving birth, and I began to understand the lessons of great books. The Abelards, the men whom women want, rather than accept, are evaders. By nature, they are evaders. Evasion is their instinct, their religion, their alpha and omega.
On the subject of Queen Dido, who would be Queen of Fools, but for me, an even greater fool: It is related how, in the Underworld, encountering her former lover and her downfall, Aeneas, she fled decently toward the shades of Hades. Yet what a grand fool she was! For this Aeneas was a truly grand and blatant evader. He must be off and found Rome, must he? No! He was weary of Dido – or felt it was time to evade, just for evasion’s sake. Rome, Mistress of Mortals, Rome itself was secondary to his real craving – his craving for evasion!
There are some women who will speak of an ultimate feminine destiny – to love without measure and pay an immeasurable price. Fools! How could such a love, which excludes the love of child, be truly female? Is not the ultimate female a mother, above all; is she not our universal mother, as well as our Most Gracious Advocate? But what was motherhood to me? A means or stumbling block, a way to or from the heart of Peter Abelard. When I had my child, I consented he be called Astrolabe, after a scientific device. What sorry pretension, to the cost of my only son. Even in that, I was less of a woman and more of a cold, reflective mirror for Peter Abelard. I thought the snobbery, the arid intellectualism of such a name might somehow hold him, even draw him a little. Feminine indeed!
Still others propose a world where women hold power equal to that of men. They attribute my idiocy to external system, to patriarchy. They dream of a time or place wherein women direct society’s mechanisms, in a state of equality or even superiority to men.
Mind you, I should very much enjoy that.
After all, how much of Abelard’s grief was caused by having not merely to teach and to influence, but to minister to others in a practical way. He was expected to govern and administer and he could not do it. Oh, he could write a pretty, heresy-free order for others, but when it came to administering such an order, who could do it perfectly, year after year? Me! Abelard could not perform for a single day. Perhaps some of his impatience, his uneven temperament – and his attractiveness – was due to his Breton heritage. I have noticed that those of the ancient Celtic race are less fitted to hierarchy and routine. For me, orderly government is natural and easy.
Who could toil and care and control as well as me? Few men. Yet I say that this resolves nothing. For womanhood is not in a task, a function or even in the organs of a human body. It is a principle. It exceeds the bounds of this world. It is written deep into the universe. Make a woman pope – why not? – you will change nothing. Let me administer an empire – I shall do it well. Yet you will not erase my folly, my duncery.
Have you read my letters to Abelard? They are now, no doubt, very public. Not hard to guess why. Well, don’t I grovel? How artfully I plead for his presence, though he was long before castrated by my infuriated family and was an aging monk. Having let him persuade me to take the veil – a misery to me – to abandon all so he might have an absent companion in monastic gloom, I dreamed that, incapable as he was of managing anything practical, he might come to me here, to be managed by me, under the guise of assuming our spiritual directorship. Aged, his manhood and beauty taken from him, I hoped he might seek less to evade. (In truth, I hoped that some remnant of his beauty might abide. Remember, I am the greatest sot who lived.)
But no. The poet and logician was now also pious. He had never loved me, just “wanted” me. It had been mere “concupiscence” on his part. He commended me to Our Lord, and would permit a continued correspondence only on the subjects of religion and scholarship. And I accepted! It is not as if I lack scholarship, after all!
Which is worse: logic or poetry? To me, they are the same. A man-child saying something must be so…and it is so. Man-child’s logic operates by “ergo” and “sic”, man-child’s poetry wings its way…and the thing is so, because he will have it so. Reality is nothing, truth is abased…because “ergo” and “sic”, or pretty sounds and images, dictate that a thing is so. And this nonsense I adored!
My son, he who was burdened with the regretful name of Astrolabe, is mentioned in our letters to one another – once! And the father of this son I adored!
And hear me, sottish reader, I adore Peter Abelard dead. When I hear his great hymn, O Quanta Qualia, I forget the Mass and the Body and Blood, I forget the sane exhortations of that hymn…and my mind and heart are full of Peter Abelard. Yet I am old, and he is long castrated, and long dead.
If we were to meet in the shades of Purgatory, I would run to him.
And he would no doubt evade.
If all is false, and there is no life beyond this, then my dust will be dust in love – with the dust of Peter Abelard. And if even dust can be evasive, his dust will evade mine.
But no! We have a Father in Heaven. And most certainly, we have a Mother. I will not let the jugglings of philosophy distance me from Our Blessed Mother, who will alone be able to explain and right my extreme folly, my utter sottishness.
I have written this for all future Héloïses, in the hope that they will know one another and conspire to pass this on to one another. We are sots, but we are also the most alluring, capable and resourceful of creatures, after all. Ways will be found.
Now hear what drab but sound counsel the first Héloïse can give.
THE COUNSELS OF ELOISE
You who have beauty beyond that of most women and a mind to match any man’s: you are a sot, though not yet so great a sot as I. You have never developed those psychic muscles of plainer, duller women – mental sinews which make them shrewd and ready them for the endless politics of existence. You are hopelessly exposed, and cannot know it. Let this thought bring you humility.
Look to the ground, never to the stars. You have those spangles and gew-gaws already. You must find the ground.
Meditate upon the exquisite word “eligible”. It is the word of old women only, a word which the young never use and scarcely hear. It belies all that youth is – yet the word is many layered, a key. Marry who is eligible. Marry acceptably. Marry with humour. Marry with tolerance.
There is no patriarchy, except in the absence of matriarchs. Govern your family as benevolent monarch, let your husband be but a chancellor or first minister. You must govern!
Marry a man of better than middling virtue, whose opinion of himself never exceeds his efforts, however great or however commonplace. Marry a man of much industry and few frustrations. Only such a man is eligible.
Remember that an Abelard is capable of relations with the lowest. If he is insolent and in his cups – for he always feels exempted, entitled – he may act in so degraded a manner that the lowest sort of woman may reject him. Yes! Your treasure is the unwanted trash of the lowest! Marry a man who is chaste, even if you must keep him so with stratagems, with much religion or amorous teasing, or all that. Only a chaste man is eligible.
Marry a man who wants a son, but who truly craves children. Such a man, having natural paternal urges, will be unlikely to approach a much younger woman – you, for example! – with amorous intentions. Beware the much older man. He is not eligible.
Surrender nothing easily in courtship, graduate all things; in marriage, reclaim what was given, to give again under slightly confusing conditions. Do this continually. Men may be allowed to predict the behaviour of other men or of livestock, but never our behaviour – or we soon find ourselves to be livestock.
I am tired, my young and foolish reader. What else can I say, to stem the plague of idiocy among the cleverest and prettiest of women?
Call your child John or Jeanne. Never name a child after a scientific instrument – or any object!
Never marry a logician, he is merely an inverted poet.
Never marry a poet, he is merely an inverted logician.
Conspire never to meet, let alone marry, a man who is both logician and poet.
Your Peter Abelard, if he is a much older man, is the monster of your conceit. His seniority flatters you monstrously, your youth flatters him monstrously. Ask Our Blessed Mother, a wily Christian Penelope as well as God’s mother, to send you a man after her heart. If this seems irrational, and too pious a solution for this twelfth century, this new age of science and reason, consult an old pagan demigod called Commonsense. The result will be the same.
Recall, at all times, that you are a great sot, and that you must begin the progress toward sense and judgement before you meet your Abelard.
I offer this to my sisters in folly, in the hope that some, at least, do not die in monastic loneliness as a result of their conceit and oafishness, as I soon must.
I am, my little unknown sister, yours most faithfully,
Abbess of the Order of the Paraclete
Sub tuum praesidium
Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Elizabeth stared a moment longer at the piece of paper. She was never a mouth-breather, but her mouth was open, the bottom lip dangling. Realising this, she corrected her expression and rose almost too abruptly.
The faint drizzle was turning to rain. She opened the new umbrella, being careful not to crush the letter she had written.
She stared at it, and decided to keep it a while longer. Perhaps she would re-read it over coffee, then return later to deposit it in the chapel.
She looked for a bin in which to throw the other letter. It was almost certainly part of a chain prank, though of quite a novel and elaborate sort.
The rain became heavy. There was a large cafe outside the cemetery and across the road. She would keep both letters with her for the time being.
As she sipped her coffee, she re-read them by turns. Then she looked through the sheet glass at the cemetery across the way. The rain was tumbling now.
On a unique impulse, she signalled to the waiter and ordered a glass of cassis. When it was placed before her, she gulped it, something she had never done with alcohol in her life. She stared hard at the two letters.
Then she placed them both in her handbag, before leaving the cafe and returning to her hotel.
That day, Elizabeth did not return to the cemetery of Père-Lachaise.
In fact, she has not been back there at all, since that damp Thursday in late autumn.