The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

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The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: An unusual story touchingly told in an accomplished I-don't-believe-it's-a-debut debut novel taking the form of historical fiction examining the relationship of scientist/philosopher Descartes and Dutch servant Helena Jans.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: January 2016
Publisher: Two Roads
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473617858

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17th century life circumstances dictate that Helena Jans has to go into service and is employed by Mr Sergeant, an English bookseller living in Amsterdam. There's much excitement when Mr Sergeant welcomes his new lodger, philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes. However the thrill becomes somewhat muted when Helena's employer realises what the stay entails. Helena on the other hand, is totally enthralled by their guest: an enthrallment that will totally change her life.

British writer Guinevere Glasfurd has produced work for publications such as Mslexia and The Scotsman. However it took an Arts Council England grant to enable her to produce this, her debut novel. It stands as an endorsement for the work of the Arts Council as well as a demonstration of Guinevere's talent and, as such, is worth every penny.

Guinevere's subject is the affair between one of the most famous 17th century polymaths, Rene Descartes, and an unknown servant girl, Helena Jans. Although, like all historical fiction, the story (told from Helena's view point) is fictionalised to include undocumented moments and emotions that can only be imagined, the insight into the mores, customs and culture of 17th century Netherlands is riveting. In fact it's just as riveting as the picture of the emerging main historical characters. (Yes, plural – Helena existed too.)

Helena is a young woman of intelligence who learns to read and write; not such a proud achievement if you're a 17th century servant. In fact it's something that will put most prospective employers off for fear of their employees having original and dangerous thoughts. In their eyes maintenance of the status quo is paramount. It's therefore easy to see why Helena is lucky to have an employer who encourages her - within certain parameters. It's also easy to see why she would be attracted to Descartes, despite his forbidding and protective valet Limoges. (More of him later.)

Descartes himself comes over as a driven, self-centred man for whom work is everything and people are there to be studied, to serve him or for use as sounding boards. This makes the love story and the affair itself unusual. Needless to say Helena yearns for something more conventional but must accept the form it takes and doing everything she's told to. (Oooh it's tempting but no spoilers – I promise!)

It may be a love story but Guinevere has perfected a balance between all the elements, making this book a rare thing: romance with cross-gender appeal. There are moments of beautiful lyricism and yet it's not mushy or poetic to the detriment of the totally absorbing storyline. The added bonus is that we get an idea of some of Descartes' projects and experiments as they're spliced skilfully into the narrative. They're fascinating but not the sort of thing anyone should try today for fear of legal repercussions and health and safety! Descartes is definitely not someone I'd invite for dinner.

The sub-plots are equally compelling (especially those concerning a fellow servant and another including Helena's brother) which prove the author's ability to flesh out the secondary characters. My favourite is the aforementioned Limoges (named after his place of origin rather than his birth certificate). After years of being faithful and singularly depended on by Descartes, Limoges has to face some home truths; I really felt for the bloke.

Indeed, when an author can make us feel sorry for someone who makes life harder for our heroine, it's definitely difficult to think of this work as a debut. That says it all really: a book to own by a name to watch.

(Thank you Two Roads for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, we also heartily recommend Liberty Bazaar by David Chadwick, another book based on real people. This time during the slavery debate in 19th century England and America. If you'd rather revisit the 17th century and a touch of romance then we would also guide you towards The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts.

Booklists.jpg The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2016.

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Buy The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd at


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