I first came across Guinevere Glasfurd via the TLC (The Literacy Consultancy) website. She won their Pen Factor competition in 2014 and I heard her read from her debut novel as part of the TLC’s Writers’ Day on June 11th. I loved the section that she read aloud, enough to buy the book on the day, and so here is my review.
The Words in My Hand is based on the true story of Helena Jans, a maid in 17th-century Amsterdam. Her English employer, Mr Sergeant, is a bookseller who takes in a mysterious lodger. Said lodger turns out to be Rene Descartes. The novel tells the story of the relationship between Helena and Descartes, known to her as Monsieur. Their real life relationship, and the daughter that they had, is documented, but the details are imagined based on the author’s research into a woman of whom little was known about.
The story is told in first person from Helena’s point of view, and she is a compelling protagonist. She is a young woman who is constantly frustrated by being held back for reasons of her gender and class. While her brother, Thomas, was allowed an education (which he then wastes), she was forbidden. She learns to write in secret, making her own ink and writing on whatever she can find, including her own skin, as paper is too valuable. She even goes on to teach her friend, the neighbour’s maid, how to read and write.
I hadn’t noticed that the button had come off my cuff and the sleeve was loose at my wrist. Betje stared open-mouthed. Although the words had faded and weren’t the neatest I’d written, they were, without doubt, words.
It is Helena’s yearning for knowledge that attracts Descartes. He encourages her learning, buying her paper and spending time with her that soon moves from teaching into a clandestine relationship. It is almost inevitable that Helena will fall pregnant, and even more so that he will be unable to marry her, a maid so far beneath him that over the years they spend together they must keep their real connection secret.
Helena’s voice drew me into this novel. She is a woman of her time but not a victim of it. Despite the limitations of a poor woman in the 17th-century, she is strong-minded and relentless in her attempts to educate herself and her daughter. Although she loves Rene she does attempt to hold him to account for his mistakes, and to his credit he does eventually realise that he must admit to the existence of his daughter. The knowledge that all must surely go wrong (although it never is completely plain sailing) is what keeps this a page-turner.
Despite the tragic events towards the end of the novel, I felt hope for Helena, that she ended up having a good life. While we don’t know what happened to the real Helena Jans, we do know that she was close to Descartes for a decade. It would be nice to imagine that theirs was a happy relationship.