Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 19, 2016

The Words in My Hand (2016), by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words in My HandThe Words in My Hand piqued my interest because it’s a reimagining of a relationship between a Dutch maid and René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician who is on my radar because The Spouse is studying him this year at Monash.   If you’ve read Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (or seen the film) then you know the script: domestic servant to Somebody Eminent forms special relationship and in some way contributes to The Work of the Great Man but slips back into obscurity because women are always unrecognised for their contribution.

Well, in this case there really was a Helena Jans, and she really was employed by a bookseller called Thomas Sergeant in Amsterdam, and Descartes was a lodger there in 1634.  Like any number of domestic servants all over the world, yes, she did bear the gentleman a child, but here the historical record varies from the script for unwed mothers.  The child was born in 1635, acknowledged by Descartes, and he was named, albeit obliquely, on her baptismal certificate.  Scraps of information  hint at cohabitation at least for a time, and there is a record of Descartes paying a substantial dowry to an eventual husband for Helena.

Rene Descartes

René Descartes, portrait by Frans Hals (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Out of this scanty record, British author Guinevere Glasfurd has woven a satisfying debut novel which celebrates the thirst for knowledge in a world where women were denied it and men were constrained by church ideology.   Helen is not attracted by Descartes the man – he was a good deal older than her and evidently not an attractive fellow – but she is intrigued by his ideas and his way of looking at the world.   And he recognises something in her too: unlike most women of her class and upbringing she can read. Well, one thing leads to another, as it tends to do…

Unlike the passive young woman in Girl with a Pearl Earring the Helena of this novel is a strong young woman, and perhaps the real one was too and that’s how she came to escape the usual fate of a servant who gets pregnant.  Nevertheless the constraints of the period remain in place: there is shame and rejection for this fictional Helena, and Descartes is never going to marry her for all the usual reasons.  More painful for Helena, perhaps, is that Descartes in this novel did love her, in his way, but his work came first. And through no fault of her own but only her lack of education and experience of the world, she never really understood the peril faced by thinkers who ventured beyond church orthodoxy.

Will you learn anything much about Descartes from this novel?  Not much: this relationship is merely a scaffold for a well-worn theme, i.e. love across class barriers in a bygone era, coupled with the frustrations of women denied education and agency.  But the novel is well-executed, it’s enjoyable to read, it succeeds in sustaining narrative tension, and from what I saw of the architecture and interiors of historic buildings Holland last year, the author evokes the authentic detail of the period without overdoing it.  It’s satisfying light reading.

Author: Guinevere Glasfurd
Title: The Words in My Hand
Publisher: Two Hands, an imprint of Hachette, 2016
ISBN: 9781473617865
Review copy courtesy of Hachette Australia

Available from Fishpond: The Words in My Hand


  1. Faint praise! Sounds like the sort of book my library will get on cd eventually – I had Girl with a Pearl Earring a while ago. Do you think it is useful re-imagining real people in this way? Or just a hook for a romance.


    • Hmm, useful? I don’t know, I’ve never thought about that… or even about whether I think reading ought to be useful…
      Perhaps because I read a lot of books that *aren’t* “light” reading, sometimes I need a book that’s easy reading without being inane. A book like this fits the bill nicely.
      It’s the same with film: I mostly can’t stand Hollywood film because it’s mostly inane, but every now and again I like a good disaster movie or an old B&W musical with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire:)


  2. […] The Year without Summer, by Guinevere Glasfurd (Two Roads) — I’ve previously read her The Words in My Hand […]


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