Review Blog

Jan 27 2016

The words in my hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

cover image

Two Roads, 2016. ISBN 9781473617865
(Age: 14+) Recommended. The Words in my Hand is an interesting historical fiction about Dutch maid, Helena Jans, and her time with the philosopher, Descartes. At the time however, Descartes lived a life of danger, continuing to write and publish against the wishes of the church. Because of this, their affair had to be suppressed, least the church seize the sin and campaign against him.
The story follows Helena and her journey to her first placement as a maid, in the house of Mr. Sergeant. The only one willing to have a literate maid, Mr. Sergeant decides to test Helena's literacy by offering her a quill and ink and instructing her to write. Finding her severely lacking after their first session, Mr. Sergeant dismisses her and leaves her to the usual duties of a maid. Determined to better her writing, Helena hoards old quills and boils beetroot to make ink, for paper, she used her body, scrawling words by night, and covering them by day. Despite the hard work, she lived a comfortable life . . . until Descartes arrived. Their affair began innocently enough with conversation, but quickly progressed. She first became his student, leaning to write and perform arithmetic in secret. She learned of science, of French, and of love. But for Descartes, she was all alone in the world and her life would never be the same again.
This is the story of a scandal and of the imagined life of Helena Jans, pieced together through a variety of records. Glasford works hard to make her Helena a real and believable character who most women could relate to. Unfortunately some of the French in this novel goes untranslated, and so might challenge readers, however I would still recommend this novel for girls aged fourteen and up with an interest in philosophy and history.
Kayla Gaskell (University student)

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