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Torments Of Love by Helisenne De Crenne
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Torments Of Love

by Helisenne De Crenne

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If I had not known better I might have thought that [The Torments of Love] by Helisenne de Crenne had been written by a modern day historical novelist; one who was trying to imitate a renaissance style of writing and by using a first person perspective attempting to depict the mind-set of a sixteenth century woman, but who had somehow got a little confused along the way and included medieval courtly love and chivalry, paganism and Catholicism, some modern concepts on ideas around 'love conquers all', and all the while attempting to take a high moral viewpoint on the dangers of extra marital affairs, but straying too far along the road of expressing the joys and pains of being in love.

This is in fact a sentimental novel (perhaps the first) written by Margaret de Briet; a French woman; published in 1538 and in its way is an extraordinary novel. Its first person perspective makes some of it feel autobiographical, but then the perspective changes from Helisenne's POV as the lovelorn woman to her lover Guenelic's knightly adventures and then to his friend Quezinstra's journey to purgatory as he tries to complete the story of the love affair. This is first and foremost a love story and the mixture of autobiography with the conventions of chivalry and courtly love which belong to another era from that of Marguerite de Briet throw up some interesting juxtapositions, which made this reader feel like either there was more than one author involved or de Briet's own readings of classical literature and popular legends had impinged on her story to such an extent that the finished article became a different animal to the one that was started. It could be argued that de Briet was a woman at a crossroads in the history of literature but that does not feel quite right, because it many ways her novel stands alone and I think looks backwards rather than forwards, but at the same time expressing the feelings; perhaps for the first time, of a woman caught in a hopeless love affair.

The novel is in three parts and the first and longest section tells of Helisenne's infatuation with a young man who she sees staring at her from a window on the opposite side of the street. Helisenne was married at eleven years old and although she tells us that her husband was kind and affectionate it is obvious she was married at too young an age. She admits that her health in the first couple of years was not good and it was only when her older husband had gone away on business for a period of time that her health improved and she developed into an attractive woman. The gaze from the admiring young man is reciprocated by Helisenne and she falls in love. In the best tradition of courtly love the affair is carried on only by looks and glances, but they are enough to send Helisenne into a paroxysm of lustful longing and painful guilt. Her distraction and her hyper sensitive moods cause her husband to suspect that she is being courted and at first he tries to reason with her, but then looses patience and resorts to physical violence. The story develops around Helisenne's attempts to meet and talk to her lover, while coping with the pain of a love affair that cannot be consummated and is subject to rumours and increasing danger from her husband. The lovers manage to exchange letters, but now the husband has found out the identity of the lover and has threatened to kill him. Helisenne and her husband frequent the temple (which is probably a church) where she hopes to see her lover and she writes:

"Then we entered the temple. I began to look around me. I saw a great multitude of people, men as well as women, and among them I saw my beloved. Then, although it was forbidden and prohibited that I should look at him, I could not dissimulate or temper my desire, for without hesitating to break and infringe on my promise, I looked at him very affectionately without recalling the pains and torments my husband made me suffer on his account. But just as a pregnant women tormented by strong and excessive pains before the birth of her child finds upon seeing the fruit of her labour that her perfect joy and delight make her forget all the preceding pains, in the same way the intrinsic pleasure and sweetness I received from the delectable sight of my beloved made me forget all my previous travails and sufferings"

The extraordinary thing about this novel is that it is a woman's voice, a woman's voice speaking to us from the sixteenth century and telling us about her feelings, her desires, her hopes and her dreads and while the restrictions under which she must carry out her life are foreign to many of us today we can still appreciate the pain of a love affair that has little chance of coming to fruition. The dichotomy within the novel is that Helisenne (or de Briet) has supposedly set out to write a warning; a moral tale on the dangers of the snares of love and exhorting ladies to avoid these at all costs and yet it frequently comes across as a lovers story. Helisenne suffers greatly for her love, which puts her in physical danger, which destroys her health, causing many days of weeping and sorrow, but she never really regrets the fact that she has fallen in love. The first part of the book ends with her husband forcibly taking her away and locking her up in a tower well away from the eyes of Guenelec her lover.

The second part of the novel is the story of Guenelec and his search for Helisenne and again it is told in the first person. At the end of the first part the reader was in some doubt about the constancy of the young man, but he proves himself in part two, which is an adventure story in the best chivalric tradition. He is aided in his search by his powerful friend Quezinstra who not only acts as his protector but also his comforter as Guenelec's grief and longing are continually in danger of getting the better of him. The novel looses a little of its power in this section because it no longer speaks from a female point of view and the authenticity of the first part in no longer there, however it is a fast paced, rattling good yarn, with moments of extreme sensitivity. Guenelec and Quezinstra finally discover the whereabouts of Helisenne and part three wraps up the story. An attempt is made to release her from the tower and the POV switches to the noble Quezinstra as he journeys through purgatory itself with the aid of the winged messenger Mercury as he searches for the lovers. This final part takes the novel into pure fantasy, but it adds another dimension to the story and provides a satisfying conclusion.

While parts two and three are fast paced and fun to read it is part one that really holds the interest, because of what is revealed to us from a woman's point of view. For example we learn the value of the confessional, because as Helisenne explains she cannot talk about her love to anybody, but because of the secrecy of the confessional she can pour out her feelings, can relieve herself of some of the burden. She can choose not to take notice of the priests demands for penitence and use the situation for her own ends. We are also aware of how difficult it would be for a lady of high birth surrounded by maids and servants to carry on any sort of assignation in secret and to what lengths she has to go to just to catch sight of her lover. We are also aware that there are no other distractions for her and can understand how feelings can become overwrought to our way of thinking.

I found this a delightful reading experience, one that is full of surprises and one which effortlessly transported me into another world and although at times I was not too sure which world that was it did not detract from the uniqueness of the storytelling. It would appeal to anyone familiar with tales of chivalry such as King Arthur and the knights of the round table, but with the added dimension of its singular points of view. The translation by Lisa Neal and Steven Rendell is a very good one, it does not modernise the style or feel of the book to make the reader think that it could not have been written in the sixteenth century. References to classical literature within the text are frequent and are explained concisely in footnotes. A four star read.

Postscript My second hand copy of the book has a handwritten inscription in the front which says:

To Michael -
A wonderful team teacher
a great translator and
a dear friend
Thank you for your many acts of
kindness and generosity


The signature is not absolutely clear but it could be Lisa, which is interesting because one of the translators was Lisa Neal, however her co translator was Steven Rendall. ( )
10 vote baswood | Jun 29, 2014 |
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