Thanks to Net Galley and to John Murray Press Two Roads for offering me a free ARC of this novel that I voluntarily review.
This novel, that could be classed as historical fiction, tells the (at least in part imagined) story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid who was serving at a house where René Descartes stayed in Amsterdam, and who bore him a daughter. In the author’s note, at the end of the book, Glasfurd explains in detail the true facts known about Helena (she existed and indeed bore Descartes a girl, Francine, and she got married later and had a boy), shares her sources and her intention when writing the book.
The story, narrated in the first person from Helena’s point of view, is beautifully written. We get a clear sense of the historical period, of Holland at the time, especially what it would be like for a young girl of a poor family, who is sent to the capital as she needs to make a living for herself. She is presented as a curious girl, who’s taken an interest in reading and writing, practically teaching herself to do it, and how she ends up as a maid at a bookseller’s home. She’s fascinated by paper (a very expensive and luxurious commodity at the time), ink, by books and maps. She’s only ever traced the outline of the letters on her own hand (therefore the title: The Words in My Hand) but eventually, after experimenting on making her own ink using beetroot, she does learn to write using a quill and proper ink. She also teaches another servant girl how to write, broadening her horizons and giving her a better chance in life.
Coming into contact with Descartes, the Monsieur (as she calls him all through the book, because there is always a certain distance between them), revolutionises her world, not only because of the relationship with him (she’s very young at the time, and he’s many years her senior, so one wonders what that would be considered nowadays) but because of the way he examines and sees the world. The author uses their conversations and Helena’s curiosity, as ways to expose some of Descartes ideas, exemplifying them in lyrical and at the same time understandable ways. Swallows, eels’ hearts, the refraction of light, a flame, snowflakes, anything and everything catches Descartes attention and he feels the need to study it and explain it.
Helena is a complex character. She’s presented as a young woman living through difficult circumstances who tries to live her own life and make her way, rather than just depend on the generosity of a man she doesn’t fully understand (and who perhaps didn’t understand himself that well, either). But she’s not a modern heroine, doing things that would have been impossible during that historical period. Whilst she is shown as curious, skilled, and determined, she is hindered by gender and class (publishing books, even something as simple as an illustrated alphabet for children is not possible for a woman), and also by her personal feelings. She suffers for her mistakes and she lives a limited existence at times, being subject to insult and abuse (as she would have likely been given her circumstances). Despite all that, Glasfurd presents Helen as an artist, a woman who can describe, draw and appreciate things around her, who wants to ensure her daughter gets an education, and who loves Descartes (however difficult that might be at times).
I’ve read a few books recently that try to recover female figures that might have been the great women behind great men but have been ignored or obscured by official history. In some cases, the authors seem to be at pains to paint a negative picture of the man in question. This is not the case here. We only see Descartes through Helena’s eyes (also through some overheard comments and conversations he has with others and through some of his letters) and at times his actions are difficult to understand, but within his constraints he is portrayed as a man of contradictions but with a good heart, who cared for those around him but was, perhaps, more interested in his studies and science than in everyday matters and the life of those closest to him. He is weary of the consequences and risks of publicly exposing his relationship with Helena and his daughter but does not abandon them either. He is a man who struggles and cannot easily fit in the society of his time.
A beautifully observed and written book, about the love of science, writing, nature, and the human side of a historical figure that remains fascinating to this day. This fictionalisation provides a good introduction to some of Descartes ideas and is a great way of remembering another woman whose place in history has only been a footnote until now. A great read especially recommended to those who love historical fiction and who are intrigued by Descartes and XVII century Holland.