Guinevere Glasfurd lives in Fens, near Cambridge. Author of noticed short stories, her obtained a grant of Arts Council England for the writing of "The Words In My Hand, her first novel.
Could you explain the preliminary work of documentation you made before writing this novel?
I was lucky to receive a grant from Arts Council England to write the novel, and this enabled me to travel the Netherlands and research the settings in depth. The novel begins in Amsterdam, but travels across the Dutch Republic, to Deventer, Leiden, Santpoort, Amersfoort and Egmond aan den Hoef. I visited each of these towns; I was interested in details, in the feel of each of the locations. I began to imagine Helena and Descartes there. I wondered how it was possible to hide their relationship when everything was so open – who might have helped? Who they would have needed to hide the truth from?
I read a great deal – Descartes’ work and his published Correspondence, both of which were key to developing his voice and character, and to understanding his work at this time. Many people have this idea of Descartes as a cold and distant man, someone who was incredibly remote, but his Correspondence reveals a very different man indeed. On the one hand, he comes across as incredibly ambitious, at times scathing, a man who clearly did not tolerate fools, but on the other hand, his letters are full of life and show a different side to him: his wit, his warmth and compassion, his grief.
The internet, of course, was also incredibly useful. Wikipedia, for example, has digitised versions of Dutch cartographer Blaue’s maps for Amsterdam, Leiden and Amersfoort. Do search for them and zoom in on all the tiny details. These were hugely helpful when it came to imagining Helena’s journey.
Could you tell us in a few words how you built this story?
It was a very interesting process. Such a lot has been written about Descartes: histories, biographies, scholarly articles and more popular works. However, almost nothing is known about Helena Jans, the Dutch maid with whom he had an affair. Like most women of her social class at this time, her life was not documented. But some things are known, because either Descartes left a note about it, or it was observed and documented in some other way. So we know that Descartes and Helena meet in 1634 at 6 Westermarkt in Amsterdam. This is the house of English bookseller, Thomas Sergeant, and Helena works as his maid. We know that a child is conceived in October that year, and a Baptism record, which is still held by the Deventer Archive, includes the Dutch variant of Descartes’ family name, as well as that of Helena and their daughter, Francine. Two years later, in 1637, and a letter from Descartes reveals that he is still in contact with Helena and that he anticipates her reply – these letters, unfortunately, have never been found and are thought lost.
More recent research points to Helena being in Descartes’ life as late as 1645 – ten years after the birth of Francine.
So, these ‘knowns’ became the stepping stones across which I built the story. Although the evidence is scant, it is tantalising. It is suggestive of a long-term relationship, and not the temporary inconvenience of a pregnant maid who needed to be got out of the way as quickly as possible.
Do you have a different approach in the treatment between a totally fictitious character and another one being inspired by a historical figure?
That’s an interesting question. My novel is a work of fiction. When I write, I want to create credible, complex characters. What is interesting about this, especially when it came to Descartes, is that a great number of cliches exist around him, and I think the idea of him as cold and remote is wrong. I hope my fictional account is a way to see him again, from a completely different perspective, at a time when he wasn’t the towering figure of modern philosophy that we now understand him to be.
What is more important in the writing of an historical book: the accuracy or the credibility?
The novel is rooted very firmly in historical research – it scaffolds the story. Accuracy is hugely important to me. I have a background in historical research, and worked for BBC History for a short time. However, when it comes to telling women’s stories, the archive is often silent; the evidence is not there because women’s lives were not recorded in the same way as men’s. I still am somewhat staggered by how little curiosity some historians have shown towards Helena.
I have written a work of fiction. I had to imagine Descartes. I had to imagine Helena. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide how well they think I have done!
Coming back to the present, which books of the rentrée could you recommend?
It has been a real delight to be published as part of the rentrée. I have got to know fellow writer, Michael Uras, who is also being published by Preludes at the same time, and his novel Aux petits mots les grands remèdes sounds charming. Both Karine Tuil’s L’insouciance and Voici venir les reveurs, by Imbolo Mbue are books I want to read. I’m currently re-reading English novelist Jean Rhys’ work – I love the brevity of her work and am working on a much shorter second novel.