Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Bestselling author Kate Mosse on how she was inspired by NI's Helen Waddell, the daughter of a missionary who became a literary sensation and dined with royals before illness cut short her career

The writer of hugely successful novel Labyrinth talks to Linda Stewart about why she jumped at the opportunity to find out even more about one of her favourite writers for a fascinating documentary to be shown on BBC2 NI tomorrow

Author Kate Mosse at Writer's Square in Belfast where Helen Waddell is among the literary greats whose names are engraved on the ground
Author Kate Mosse at Writer's Square in Belfast where Helen Waddell is among the literary greats whose names are engraved on the ground
Helen Waddell
Kilmacrew House in Banbridge where Helen's sister Meg lived
Helen Waddell

She was a bestselling author feted by the likes of WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, who lunched with Queen Mary and Walter de la Mare and confided in Siegfried Sassoon.

Helen Waddell's name is inscribed in Writer's Square in her home city of Belfast, yet the 1930s literary star has virtually faded into oblivion today - and that's something that her small but passionate army of fans is hoping to reverse.

Leading the charge is author Kate Mosse (57), writer of the bestseller Labyrinth and founder director of the Women's Literary Prize for Fiction. With 10 historical novels, three non-fiction novels and three plays under her belt, much of Kate's work is set in medieval France, particularly Carcassonne, and she credits Helen Waddell with inspiring her passion for historical fiction.

Tomorrow on BBC2 Northern Ireland in a fascinating documentary Groundbreakers - Helen Waddell: Living the Past, she uncovers Waddell's glittering career and investigates why the popular writer is almost unknown today.

Kate tells the Belfast Telegraph she has been a huge fan of Helen Waddell ever since the age of 13 when she read Peter Abelard, the only novel Waddell ever wrote and which was based on a true story which had fascinated her for 20 years.

If the name Abelard sounds vaguely familiar, it's because he was one half of medieval history's most famous star crossed couple, Abelard and Heloise, the great philosopher and the brilliant young student who fell passionately in love, only to be violently and permanently separated.

Kate explains how she first crossed paths with Waddell and her subject Abelard: "I went to the local comprehensive in Chichester, where I grew up, and we had a brilliant Latin teacher who told us the story of this 12th century thinker and philosopher called Peter Abelard and his lover, a brilliant student called Heloise.

Sign In

"At that moment I fell in love with that story, like lots of teenagers do, and I wanted to read the novel itself.

"I read it for the first time when I was 13 and it's one of the great works of historical fiction and one of the reasons I'm a historical fiction writer writing about medieval France. I feel that I owe Helen Waddell a debt.

"The book is set in Paris in the 12th century and it's a tender and beautiful and ultimately tragic love story of this brilliant priest who falls in love with a student. Heloise is widely believed to be one of the most well-educated and brilliant women of her time and Abelard falls in love with her mind more than anything else."

Peter Abelard and Heloise d'Argenteuil embarked on a love affair but were forcibly separated by her family.

Abelard was castrated and sent to a monastery while Heloise was sent to a convent and the pair never met again, instead carrying on their relationship through a lifetime's worth of letters.

Kate says: "For the rest of their life they wrote to each other - letters about the nature of love, about the nature of faith, about how humans can love in the world and also live out of the world in a religious monastery.

"Finally, in the 19th century - hundreds of years later - their bones were reunited in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where they were buried in the same tomb."

Abelard and Heloise's letters - preserved for hundreds of years - eventually formed the cornerstone of the research carried out by Helen Waddell in the 1920s, research which birthed Peter Abelard, a novel that captured the public's hearts between the two world wars and is credited with pioneering the modern genre of historical fiction.

Kate describes the book as a "magnificent and exquisite novel".

"I was 13 when I first read it and it's stayed with me ever since," she says. "Now as a writer of historical fiction myself, I still marvel at Waddell's ability to combine historical veracity with character, at her skill in bringing medieval Paris to life and making it seem familiar, at the way her profound and complicated reflections on faith and sexuality and grace never obscure the tenderness, then tragedy, of the love story she is telling."

But she has always wondered why Helen Waddell went from one of the most successful, most honoured writers of the inter-war years, mixing with Prime Ministers, royalty, philosophers and thinkers, to being barely remembered now.

That's why she jumped at the chance to find out more about her literary heroine when she was approached by Erica Starling Productions to take part in the Groundbreakers series.

"Because I've talked about my admiration for the novel Peter Abelard and the fact that I came across Helen Waddell when I was a teenager, they approached me and asked if I would take part," she says. "I immediately put all my other commitments to one side and charged across to Belfast.

"Helen Waddell deserves to be better known and honoured - she deserves to be back in the spotlight. I found out what a brilliant woman she was, much more even than I knew."

Kate's documentary reveals that Helen Waddell had an unusual upbringing - born in Tokyo, the youngest daughter of Presbyterian minister and missionary Hugh Waddell, who translated the Bible into Chinese. She lost her mother at the age of three. Her father remarried but died when Helen was 11 and she and her sister Meg returned to live in Cedar Avenue in north Belfast with their stepmother.

"She was raised in a very unusual environment and never really went to school but was full of ideas from all over the world and inspired by cultures from all over the world," Kate says.

Once back in Belfast, Helen became one of the most distinguished scholars at Victoria College and then at Queen's University. Helen was reading English and was earmarked for a glittering academic career.

But her stepmother fell ill and Helen gave up her career to care for her for the next eight years, rarely going out in the evenings - she referred to this period as her "wilderness years".

She was 30 when her stepmother died and Helen once again picked up the reins of her academic career, enrolling at Somerville College in Oxford for her doctorate in 1919 just as the university granted women the right to take up their degrees for the first time.

At this point, Kate says, Helen realised she no longer wanted to be an academic but a writer, and secured an Oxford fellowship of £200 a year to go to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to research the medieval wandering scholars or goliards, of whom Abelard was the best known.

She was acclaimed for bringing to light the history of the goliards in her 1927 book The Wandering Scholars, and translating their Latin poetry in the companion volume Medieval Latin Lyrics.

That period in Paris was to change the course of her life. Helen had translated Abelard's' autobiographical Historia Calamitatum while still at Queen's but it was only during her time in France that her thoughts and researches began to coalesce into a novel.

She would go on to become a poet, a playwright, a lecturer and a broadcaster, but Peter Abelard would become her only novel, although it seems that she had planned to write more.

"From her notes, she was an amazingly prolific letter writer who wrote to all her mentors, to her sister Meg who lived in Banbridge in Co Down, and to her friends," Kate says.

"There's lots of evidence that Helen intended Peter Abelard to be the beginning of a series of probably three novels, but she never wrote them.

"The big question for me was why she never wrote another novel and that is what we look at in the programme."

One of the elements that was to cut Helen Waddell's writing career short was the development of a devastating neurological condition, something akin to Alzheimer's.

Kate says Helen Waddell was a giant of scholarship, fiction and poetry and it is a tragedy that such a brilliant mind, writer and playwright should have been lost to this illness.

"That is why we have made this documentary, not just to put her name back out there but also to bring a new generation of readers to her extraordinary body of work.

"We want a new generation of readers to discover her," she says.

The documentary has taken her to the Bibliotheque Nationale where Helen carried out her research, her alma mater at Somerville College in Oxford and finally to Northern Ireland, to Queen's University and to the house at Kilmacrew Road in Banbridge where Helen loved to visit her sister Meg.

"It was a great pleasure making the documentary and I would say how welcome everybody made us, in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Somerville College and particularly in Queen's University Belfast which hold some of Helen Waddell's papers," she says.

"We were made to feel so welcome and we learned a lot. It's always wonderful in terms of making the decision to come face-to-face with one of your heroes and to find that they were even greater than you thought."

Kate herself was already familiar with Northern Ireland, having often visited friends in Fermanagh, Ballymena and Belfast. The last time she visited was with her late mother, her mother-in-law and daughter on a trip taking in the Giant's Causeway, Bushmills and Titanic Belfast.

"It was the first time my daughter has been here and she couldn't believe how beautiful it was," she says.

Kate says all her novels start in France, but her latest, The Burning Chambers, explores the French Wars of religion between Huguenots and Catholics and is the start of a diaspora quartet which will branch off into other parts of the world, including South Africa and the Netherlands.

But she hasn't ruled out ever setting a novel in Northern Ireland.

"I am someone who is inspired by landscapes, so never say never. I love Northern Ireland and I think the landscape of Northern Ireland is absolutely incredible, so who knows?" she says.

"When I was in Co Down it was beautiful, these incredible hills and the incredible smell of the peat - it feels like a very old landscape and it moved me a great deal. So after this quartet, who knows?"

Groundbreakers - Helen Waddell: Living The Past will air on BBC2 Northern Ireland tomorrow, 10.10pm

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph