He adjusted the quill in my hand. “Centre it, like this. Oui, comme ça.”
He was determined.
“Like this, see.” He turned the quill again.
After a week, he said, “You have made progress.”
I looked up from what I was doing and pulled a face.
“You think you haven’t?” He slapped his hands on his legs. “Oh, what a look! Have you nothing to say? Talk to me, Helena! You do not need permission. I like it when you talk.”
I put down the quill and held my hands in my lap. I would have talked, but my words had fled. What am I doing here? I thought. Learning? Is that all? No, Monsieur, it was not all. If he wanted me to talk, I would say it.
“I want to learn, like my brother, like any man does.”
“I have met many foolish men! And worse than a foolish man is the man who believes himself wise, having learned only foolish things. Much of what is taught – much of what I was taught – is useless.”
“I do not want to be a foolish man!”
“You’ll never be that!”
My cheeks burned as I realised what I’d said. I felt as foolish as I ever had.
He took a breath and let it out slowly. “But maybe I am. I do not put myself above anyone. I’ve never supposed my mind was beyond the ordinary. We need to be more open to surprise – to wonder. I include myself in this. The learning is mine, but it’s yours too. Let’s see what can be done this next week and what I might learn from you.”
Him, learn from me? Only by turning everything upside down. Stand it the right way up again, and I was the maid who cooked his food and he the Monsieur, with time to think. And yet, when I looked at what lay between us, at the line on the ground that separated us, I saw it fast disappearing.
The Words in My Hand is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr Sergeant the English bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires that the Monsieur is René Descartes.
This is Helena’s story: the woman in front of Descartes, a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in secret on her skin – only to be held back by her position in society.
Weaving together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason with Helena’s struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen; yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes’ learning, it is Helena he seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him.
When reputation is everything and with so much to lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible at all.
* Please note that there are some things in this novel that Christians try to avoid in their reading. This tempered my enjoyment of the novel, and I would encourage Christian readers to consider my review in full before deciding whether to read it. However, given the literary quality and historical nature of the novel I have still chosen to give this novel four stars.
From the moment I began reading this novel I was drawn into Helena Jans’ world. At the risk of sounding like I am overstating the matter, there was some stunningly beautiful writing. I cannot think of any other way to say it. Guinevere Glasfurd has taken what little we know of Helena Jans and woven an evocative story of a passionate thinker and the young maid whose simple observations and desire to learn capture his mind.
The entire novel is written in the first person from Helena’s point of view. We begin, briefly, in the middle of Helena’s story as she is taken away from Mr Sergeant’s book store where she worked as a maid. From there, we travel backwards slightly, becoming acquainted with her and her situation, before we are introduced to Monsieur – Rene Descartes. And the story flows from there.
One of the things I found so utterly enchanting about this book was the way in which there was an almost childlike simplicity about Helena’s observations, and yet a striking depth at the same time. Everyday life in 1630s Holland doesn’t just come alive, it breathes character. Helena herself is a complex mix of strength and vulnerability, intelligence and innocence, and a product of a time when women were not taught letters and numbers. But she had a hunger to learn and improve, satisfied first by her brother when she was a young girl, and later by using beetroot juice and writing on the only thing she has to hand. Literally.
Rene Descartes is perhaps most well-known for his conclusion Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), and yet it would probably have been just as true for him to say ‘I am, therefore I think’, especially if his representation in this novel is anywhere close to the truth of his character. There was a kind of obsessiveness about his intellectual life that is probably true of all geniuses to varying extents, and it can’t help but impact those closest to them. Would Helena have made different choices if she could have looked into her future? I don’t know. I suspect not. Regardless of the outcome, the story was beautifully wrought.
From a Christian perspective, Helena’s relationship with Descartes is an immoral one, but the novel showed that this carried physical and emotional consequences for Helena that, in turn, underscored for me why God ordained marriage in the first place. This issue aside, there are a few reasons why I cannot recommend this otherwise outstanding novel without some reservations:
1. There are a few isolated incidents of swearing (including one f***, a few sh** or variations, and one instance that uses a*se a few times. I believe there may have also been one or two instances in French);
2. There are a few brief references to sexually suggestive gestures or sexually aggressive behaviour in relation to passing characters in the novel.
3. There are a few occasions when Helena and Descartes’ physical relations occur on page (on the lesser and shorter end of the descriptive threshold, but described nonetheless);
The first two items portray a grittier version of life than I generally expose myself to, but it was infrequent and brief enough that I could grimace and move on. I would have preferred that the more intimate details of Helena and Descartes’ relationship were left off the page, but I do not necessarily think their inclusion warrants a low overall rating that would otherwise misrepresent the quality of the novel. My rating of four stars is one that has been tempered by these inclusions, but it should not be construed as a blanket recommendation for all readers.
I received a copy of this book through Netgalley for the purposes of this review. I was not required to post a positive review.
Release date: 14 January 2016
Publisher: Two Roads
Author’s website: http://guinevereglasfurd.com/tag/the-words-in-my-hand/