“God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.” – Heloise
Lately I have developed a growing interest in love stories…not passionate ones, it’s the dysfunctional, star-crossed loves stories that intrigue me; the centuries old tales that have been immortalized in sculptures and paintings, operas; yes, I am thinking of Heloise and Abelard, Francesca and Paolo, Tristan and Isolde. Over time these love stories have been reshaped for modern audiences, several years ago I saw Howard Breton’s In Extremis and was struck by the couple’s faith; their faith in philosophy, God and each other. Beneath the tragic love story, I saw the contradictions and character flaws. Each interpretation of their love is retold through someone else’s eyes.
The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise reveal two intellectual thinkers whose writings were rejected by a controlling church. His castration is further proof of the church’s punishment. There isn’t a way to unite this couple, at least not in person, but they remain together through letters. It’s considered one of history’s most romantic love stories, although it reads as a tale of woe. The couple endured significant suffering because they dared to love. On one hand it serves as a cautionary tale, they were reckless and punished, but the pain is obscure or even forgotten because we imagine their love grew despite their separation. Even now we leave letters at their tomb in tribute of the couple believing their love was true and we know their story has inspired poets such as Alexander Pope, but at the end of Abelard’s life, Heloise wanted him absolved of his sins, which would include their illicit affair. Maybe the love they shared for the church was stronger than the love they had for each other, or perhaps it’s difficult to see Heloise’s last request as anything other than a final act of love.
Dante’s The Divine Comedy tells the story of Francesca and Paolo. A married Francesca was exchanging her first kiss with her brother-in-law, Paolo when Gianciotto witnessed it and killed them both. The couple remain trapped in the second circle of hell. It’s a story that Rodin captures in his piece, The Kiss. This story suggests love is out of one’s control rather the couple’s lust for one another drove them to adultery. Later versions of the story paint Francesca as the victim, forced to marry a disfigured man for political reasons, how could she not fall for his handsome brother? With his sword, Gianciotto lunges for his brother and Francesca steps in front of Paolo. The sword kills them both. Now Francesca has sacrificed herself for love. Rossetti depicted the couple with their arms wrapped around each other as though they were each other’s anchor — in the flames of hell. Blake’s engraving shows Francesca and Paolo united in the after life. Who was Francesca da Rimini? Nothing is ever as simple as it seems and while her fate has been immortalized in operas and artwork, could she have known the danger and chose a dangerous affair over a loveless marriage? Is it possible Francesca was more than a victim? Can we see her as a woman who seized autonomy over her own body, as someone who sought a physical relationship that would satisfy her? Although her life came to a tragic end, she rebelled by entering into a relationship outside her marriage. If she’s written as a victim alone then all of the choices that Francesca made are overlooked. Embedded in this story are the subtle ripples of feminism, even though Dante’s male voice attempts to silence them.
Finally we reach the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde, their passion was the result of a love potion. Versions of this story have varied over time, in some the couple dies with Tristan believing Isolde had betrayed him and her death is a result of grief. Their deaths could not separate them. Every version of this story has gone through great lengths to show love conquers and as they ascend to heaven, the couple is united on earth by intertwining the two trees at their graves sites. Each retelling of this legend focuses on the unearthly connection between the couple. Their love is accidental, making them victims of a love potion essentially creates three victims: Tristan, Isolde, and her husband, King Mark.
I have always been partial to myths, which explains why my own manuscript is a retelling of a Greek myth. It is an inescapable love story, one that I thought needed a different ending. While I was writing and rewriting, I knew the ending before I wrote it. In Paris I discovered the couple was meant to suffer in love, in fact love disappeared and what replaced it was a strange mourning. There was no hope in the original story, all that existed was death and a pain that could never heal. I realised the interpretations were endless, so I went back to Devon and wrote a new ending for this doomed couple.
There is one fragmented love story that I want to know, but can’t seem to reach. The details are scarce. With letters and journals, I’m piecing together a story that doesn’t belong to me.