The Words in my Hand- One woman’s fight to earn a place in history
By Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Good afternoon everyone,
I have a really interesting piece for you today concerning my recent trip to Amsterdam. In preparation for my trip I was researching books to read that about the city. I wanted to read something a little bit different when I stumbled upon a book that caught my eye.
The Words in my Hand (2016) by Guinevere Glasfurd is a work of historical fiction based on the real-life 17th Century Dutch maid, Helena Jans. It was written with the support of a grant from Arts Council England
“…Amsterdam, Amsterdam. There seemed no edge to it, to what waited to be found”
In Amsterdam stands a house, 6 Westermarkt. It sits right next door to the Anne Frank museum and across the road from a small café. This house fits in well with the architecture one expects in the capital of the Netherlands; a grand house sits in a small row next to a beautiful canal with a few trees surrounding it. An ordinary house you would expect to see in Amsterdam. But look closer. There is a plaque.
The plaque says that in 1634, the infamous French philosopher René Decartes lodged there. A great tourist spot on a tour of Amsterdam. But the most fascinating story is one that the plaque misses out. In fact, a story that history has chosen to leave out almost entirely.
The house belonged to Thomas Sergeant who was an English bookseller. He hired a maid, Helena Jans. Therefore, living in the house was Thomas, Helena, and for a while, Decartes. According to Glasfurd, historians knew of Helena as she was mentioned in Decartes’ writings. In his notes and surviving anecdotes, he briefly glosses over Helena. Therefore, in history, Helena exists solely in Decartes’ eyes. His words are the only acknowledgement that Helena was ever alive. And this is where Glasfurd comes in.
“A book: it can, it must, astonish”
The Words in my Hand is not just a novel of historical fiction. Glasfurd’s novel gives Helena a voice where she was previously silenced. The novel is written in first person, further encouraging Helena to tell her story in her own words. Glasfurd’s metafictional historiographical novel takes a previously forgotten woman in history and gives her a voice, hereby giving her a purpose.
Picture this. You are a maid in 17th Century Amsterdam, and you want more. You don’t even know what ‘more’ is, but you soon discover that you already have it. Helena is determined and smart but is humiliated by Sergeant. He discovers Helena can read and write, but when asked to complete a writing exercise she is agitated, nervous, and does not perform well. Although she wishes to practice, she is denied one of the simplest things we take for granted- paper. But as I said, she is determined. Helena goes to extreme lengths to preserve her skill and ends up boiling beetroot to use as ink. But what about the paper? She takes drastic measures and uses her own skin to write on.
This plight is not merely a character ploy- the concept of writing on her skin means she recognises her self-worth; by using her body, she is understanding her bodily integrity of being a woman and rebelling against the patriarchal connotations of that time. She chooses her own skin, therefore defining herself as something she was previously denied. She was not allowed paper so she uses something that cannot be taken away from her. Yet the fact she covers up the writing in the presence of others not only protects her from judgement of Sergeant, but reflects the limitations that she would have still faces during that era. Women, especially maids, were not supposed to read and write- there was no point. Why would you need to if all day you were cleaning, washing, cooking etc.? Maids were seen as disposable, highlighted by Glasfurd when Helena takes the job at 6 Westermarkt after the previous maid was fired. Yet Helena’s defiance subverts the idea of Sergeants power as although he has denied her paper, he cannot deny Helena her own body.
Helena’s relationship with Sergeant is completely different from that of Decartes. Historically, and in the novel, Decartes father’s Helena’s child. They had an affair and Helena gave birth to a girl, Francine. However, where Sergeant tries to take away Helena’s power, Decartes embraces it, encouraging her to write, and what’s more, think. This is where Glasfurd takes a drastic turn and turns Helena’s defiance into passion.
Helena used to write on her arms as an act of self-respect. However, what she wrote was important, but not passionate. She was so desperate to write, that she wrote anything, for example, names of places, streets etc. However, Decartes encourages her to think, more so in a philosophical way. After having Decartes’ child and moving away, Helena is given paper from Decartes as he knows she enjoys writing and now believes she has something to write about.
On one hand, Helena is empowered now because she now has the paper to write on, given to her, and she no longer needs to write on her skin. On the other hand, she throws most of the paper away as she has a form of writer’s block, and has lost her will to write. Arguably, this is because Decartes is mostly absent from her life, merely coming and going whenever he pleases. Why? Because he has a book to publish. He believes that his writing is more important than Helena and his child. Once Helena realises this, she re-affirms her self-respect and decides to write a book of her own, an alphabet book mainly for Francine, hereby combining her integrity with passion.
Throughout the novel, I felt both empowered and frustrated by Helena. At times when she should have handled a situation calmly, she acts out. At other times when she should have stood up for herself, she retreats back to silence. This is because Helena’s actions are reflecting the frustrations of women at that time, frustrations that women didn’t even know they were entitled to.
“But Amsterdam is a good place for a bookseller. We have our hopes and prayers. There is consolation in that. And in a good book, of course!”
Glasfurd’s novel acts as a reflection on what life was like, whilst at the same time gives a voice to a woman who history forgot. Glasfurd ensures Helena has a voice that attempts to rethink society’s role in history, and the people it denied.
I really enjoyed reading this book, not just for its valuable message, but because it’s a really easy read. I’d encourage anyone interested in history to read this novel. Furthermore, if you’re journeying to Amsterdam, I can think of nothing better than this book to be your travelling companion. I adored strolling through Amsterdam to find 6 Westermarkt, and its not even a very long walk, only 15 minutes from our hotel. We stopped at the café whilst I took in excess of 100 photos (avoiding the pedestrians) of the book in front of the house, and again on one of the canals. It’s a beautiful spot and it felt kind of surreal to look at this building and imagine Glasfurd’s story unfolding. Walking up the streets, literally in Helena’s footsteps felt like travelling back through time. I learned so much about 17th Century Amsterdam in between Helena’s story and it was wonderful to live it out in person.
Helena’s life was disguised by Decartes, but it did mean that she lived a life more fitting than any other maid. But it was Glasfurd that gave her a place in history’s long story.
As Decartes said himself,
“To live well you must live unseen”
-a fitting quote on the slip cover of the novel.
Also, here is a close up photo of the Decartes plaque on 6 Westermarkt. Take a look at the window and the eerie shadow, maybe of Decartes himself?
And you can follow her on twitter @GuinGlasfurd
You can purchase the book from Amazon and other places online and in store.
You can also head to the Historical Novel Society’s WEBSITE to read about his novel.
I hope you enjoyed my short essay! If you’ve read the book or plan to, please let me know what you think! Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes I did match my nail polish to the cover of this book!
I absolutely fell in love with this novel. As a history buff, I could not have asked for a better story to read in Amsterdam!
The Gothic Bookworm
Plaque image: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Open page book photo: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Feature image: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Canal image: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Plaque close up image: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm
Decartes painting image: The Guardian (Alamy)