The words in my hand by Guinevere Glasfurd
Two Roads, 2016. ISBN 9781473617865
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended for mature readers. Themes: Philosophy; Education of women; Rene Descartes; Relationships. Weaving together the story of Rene Descartes with the young maid with whom he has a relationship, the reader gets an insight into the way the world has changed on so many fronts. Descartes was a French philosopher, scientist and writer whose thinking and words were germinal in beginning a transformation in the way the world was understood. This was a dangerous occupation as it upset the status quo. This very well crafted first novel by Glasfurd, enables us to see Descartes life through the eyes of the young maid, Helena Jans Von Strom, that he meets while lodging in the Dutch house where she works for an English Bookseller. She is portrayed as an intelligent woman trapped in her role because of her gender and the intransigence of her circumstances as a maid. From the perspective of the 21st Century reader, this level of discrimination seems so unfair and we mourn with her as she attempts to self-educate herself and to be respected and to be acknowledged as a woman of worth in the highly patriarchal and socially discriminative era of the 1600's world. She becomes Descartes' love interest and the mother of his child and yet her position needs to remain hidden to protect reputations and to enable her to fit into the society of the day. Helena's love of learning and her exploration of ideas live in parallel to the philosophical world of Descartes. We see how the power of paper and the words that it can carry enters the world of the young woman, and yet the words in her hands remain constrained by her status. Her sorrows and powerlessness are potent for the reader.
This book is not unlike The Girl with the Pearl Earring in portraying a piece of Dutch history in a fictional way albeit a century earlier. It will be enjoyed by Book Club readers who will enjoy the insight into the world of the philosopher who challenges the world in which he lives as well as comparing the role of women from the past. (It does also portray the illicit relationship in detail and there is a violent incident that is quite distressing, so readers need to have some maturity.)