The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd
15th Jan 2016
Little is known about Helena’s life, but there are lots of facts that make her an interesting subject: she could read and write (very unusual for a maid at the time) and, despite her social standing, was afforded a place and status in Descartes’ life. It’s not hard to imagine she was a strong and determined character.
Helena lives in a world of boundaries, invisible lines that separate her from: women who come from money (although she notes that comes at a price), women considered ‘purer’ and, most crucially, men. She longs to be afforded the automatic privilege men have and frequently encounters barriers to using her skills and education.
The story beautifully illustrates how, but for social convention, women could have been positively contributing to shaping our view of the world, just as philosophers like Descartes did. Despite her single-mindedness and willingness to question the status quo, Helena’s skills are frustratingly under-used.
Helena lives in a world of boundaries, invisible lines that separate her from: women who come from money (although she notes that comes at a price), women considered ‘purer’ and, most crucially, men. Descartes and Helena’s love story is beautifully drawn, particularly the early stages. It’s real and tender and when he is gone she notes that “the space still holds the shape of him”.
Helena seems like a modern woman, seeing possibilities instead of obstacles and never asking for commitment – just for her Monsieur to do what’s right. She lived as many other women in her circumstances couldn’t. We are given glimpses into their lives. The restrictions that limit their opportunities are more sharply drawn than Helena’s, and don’t yield for them as they do to her stubborn push.
On seeing how little of Helena’s life was documented, Glasfurd says “Helena Jans. It’s like skimming a stone, that touches the water once, twice, three times – then sinks without a trace.”
The Words in My Hand is a great debut novel which, as well as painting a wonderful picture of 17th-century Amsterdam, finally gives Helena her place in history.