The Words in My Hand

Written by Guinevere Glasfurd
Review by Lisa Redmond

The Words in My Hand, the debut novel from Guinevere Glasfurd, tells the story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in the 17th century who became the lover of philosopher René Descartes. Helena is a powerful character who is determined to read, write, and learn about the world. Initially hired by Mr. Sergeant, a bookseller, because she could write, she is intrigued by the world of books. However, she is soon relegated to the kitchen and, without access to writing materials, she experiments with making her own ink using charcoal, soot, and even blood before finally settling on beetroot. Without paper, she writes on her own skin.

When Descartes comes to lodge with the bookseller, Helena finds his work and experiments fascinating but, divided by social class and religion, their affair must remain a secret. Over the next few years, as Descartes struggles to write and to have his ideas accepted, Helena raises his child in secret as neither a maid nor a wife.

This is a fascinating book fleshing out the life of a real woman and her story; it brings to vivid life the frustrations of women who were denied access to education and art. In an age when reputation meant everything and to be different often meant to be beaten down, Helena stands as an icon facing challenges as desperate as those faced by Descartes. Despite this, Glasfurd is honest about the reality of their unequal relationship as Helena must regularly take second place. Fans of The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist will love this tale.