I adored The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd and reviewed the book here. As I’m certain The Words In My hand is going to be one of my books of the year 2017, I’m thrilled to be helping to celebrate today’s paperback release with an interview with Guinevere Glasfurd.
The Words In My Hand
The Words In My Hand is the re-imagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr Sergeant, the English bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires that the Monsieur is René Descartes.
Helena’s life, like that of so many women in history in history, is scarcely recorded. In The Words In My Hand she is a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in secret on her skin – only to be held back by her position in society as a servant, and as a woman.
Weaving together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason with Helena’s struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen; yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes’ learning, Helena has much to teach him about emotion and love.
When reputation is everything and with so much to lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible at all.
An Interview with Guinevere Glasfurd
Photographs kindly provided by the author
Hi Guinevere. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Words In My Hand in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Thanks, Linda. It always throws me a little when I’m asked to say something about myself because I’m the least interesting, most ordinary, part of this — I’m a writer; I keep pretty antisocial hours, get inordinately grumpy when the pressure is on, and forget to cook dinner for my loved ones when nearing the end of an edit. I’m from the north of England, but work pitched me south some years ago, and here I’ve stayed. I love the Fens but it does mean I’m not much good at high hills anymore.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Gosh, that’s tricky. I think finding and revealing the true heart of a book is the most difficult part of writing. Books I’ve given up reading, often fail to do that. They can be well written, but have no real emotional heart, or depth, to them.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
Part of Guinevere’s Writing Space
There’s a lot of not writing in writing. That sounds like a terrible admission! But it’s true. I’m not sure I have a routine. Each book, I realise, has its own demands. I don’t keep notebooks: the work has to be in my head, even if it is not yet straight in my head. I forget what I forget and remember what needs to be remembered. I lose stuff. It drives me mad. But the book is the book that gets written, which is the right book, the only book I am capable of, in the end.
I know The Words In My Hand has been written with the aid of a grant from Arts Council England. Could you please explain this process and how it has affected your writing career?
I was one of ten new writers taken on to a mentoring programme called Escalator at Writers’ Centre Norwich in 2012; WCN helped me through the process of applying for Arts Council funding. I was awarded a grant from their Grants for the Arts which helped fund two research trips to the Netherlands as well as some buy-out time for writing. I promised them a first draft by October 2013. Looking back, that was a tough deadline to meet, but I managed it, just. It is true to say that I have never worked so hard at anything in my life. Being funded enabled me to take my writing seriously for the first time. It’s been such a learning experience. I very nearly didn’t apply for Escalator, because I didn’t think I was good enough. I think early-career writers, women especially, can find it hard to believe in themselves, to put themselves, their work, forward competitively. If you’re in that position, don’t hesitate, be brave, do it.
Why choose Descartes and Helena as the inspiration for your first novel as opposed to any other historical characters?
I knew at the outset I wanted to write about Descartes in some way. To begin with, I had in mind a novel in three parts which would function like an equation, x + y = z, but really all I had was a structure and not much else. As I read around Descartes, not really knowing what I was looking for or where I was going, I came across a reference, just a sentence, that mentioned his affair with Dutch maid, Helena Jans. That was the initial hook, and I wondered why I’d never heard of this before. That single sentence troubled me. It seemed to me that Helena had been reduced to little more than a footnote in history.
As I researched further, it became clear that the story I wanted to tell was the story that was missing: not Descartes’ but Helena’s. I hadn’t intended it at the outset, but my novel became a way to examine the invisibility of women in history, both then and now.
The House Where Helena and Descartes Lived
Although The Words In My Hand is ostensibly Helena’s story, as I read I felt I found out more about Descartes than any of my university studies of him. How far was it your intention to show both characters so fully and how far did that effect arise naturally as you wrote?
Actually, the trick was not to make it feel too Descartes-heavy. There’s lots about Descartes in the book; I had in part to be able to tell his story if I was to tell Helena’s, but the book is not about him as a central character. So much has already been written about him and I did not feel I had anything important to add. It went further than that. I was tired, really deeply tired, of histories that focused on great men and which could reduce a woman to a footnote. I wanted to turn the ‘great man of history’ narrative on its head. That said, the novel was an opportunity to reimagine Descartes, to see him through Helena’s eyes, before he had published, before his ideas had gained acceptance. He is now known as the ‘father of modern philosophy’ but he wasn’t that then, in the 1630s, when he met Helena. I hope the book gives the reader a more nuanced view of Descartes. I hope it also shows how the relationship with Helena might have changed him.
To some extent I felt The Words In My Hand to be a feminist text. Did you begin with that concept from the start?
Yes, I do see this as a feminist work, in as much as it challenges the way in which history has been written about Descartes and how Helena’s significance has been downplayed or overlooked.
Helena is not written as a feminist, that would ahistorical, but I do show her agency: her struggle to become literate and to survive the affair with Descartes and its consequences.
Given that history is so heavily male oriented, how did you research Helena’s story?
In large part, I had to imagine her. Some facts are known about her relationship with Descartes. Although the evidence is scant, it is tantalising. The Leiden section was tricky to write, and covers a period of a couple of years in between two known events that place Helena with Descartes. I hadn’t a clue what Helena might have done at this time. I avoided that section for as long as I could, perhaps in the hope it would go away. (It didn’t). What solved the impasse was simply to ask questions of her character, to think my way round the difficulties she must have faced and to imagine how she might have resolved them.
Dutch genre paintings were a key source material. Women became visible in all kinds of ways in these paintings for the first time. Look at Vermeer’s paintings: often they show wealthy women reading and writing letters. He shows maids too, though usually in the background. Vermeer’s maids don’t write, they pour milk. The written word at this time still predominantly belonged to men, and to some wealthy women. It is known that Helena wrote to Descartes, although these letters have been lost. It intrigued me. How did Helena learn to write? Answering this question became key to revealing Helena’s character and creating her backstory.
Literacy, and the opportunities it affords, is a central theme. How far do you think the world has moved on in educating females since Helena’s time?
My Grandmother lived until the age of ninety-nine. She was brought up in Merthyr in the years after the First World War. She was bright, able, and her school recommended her for a scholarship. Her adoptive parents were working class and couldn’t afford this. So my dear Gran left school at twelve and worked in their small shop. Later in life, she went to night school, gained a secretarial qualification and ended up as the main earner in her family.
I had my Grandmother’s story in the back of mind as I wrote the novel. Yes, things have changed in leaps and bounds since, but it all feels horribly close too.
Women continue to face all manner of discrimination, some it very subtle, but deeply entrenched nonetheless. The annual VIDA count analyses how this affects women writers, and has shown, year after year, that publishing favours and rewards the white male voice. Things are changing, but goodness, it is taking time. Find out more about VIDA’s work here.
The Words In My Hand was shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Award. How did that make you feel?
I was astounded. I had no idea my book had been submitted and no idea that it was Costa shortlisting time, so I was completely stunned when my publisher told me. Everyone has been so lovely about it; I think by that time in the year we were all so desperate for some good news. Being shortlisted has been prize enough. It means the book will be more widely read. It’s a huge challenge for new books to find readers, and the Costa prize plays an important part in helping readers to discover books that might otherwise have fallen off their radar.
(You see, it’s not just me who loves this book!)
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I am a potter of sorts, but that’s been something I’ve picked up recently. I build hand-coiled, stoneware pots – mostly jugs and vases – and absolutely love making them. The earliest pots were made this way, and I love the sense of being connected to a skill that goes back thousands of years. I’m addicted to the BBC’s Throw Down series, and can’t wait for the new series to begin.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I tend to binge read, especially on holiday. I’m reading a lot of shorter novels at the moment. My second novel is shorter. I love the discipline of creating a work which is as much about what is not told as about what is.
I read a lot of non-fiction: art history especially and history too.
I loved the hardback cover of The Words In My Hand. We can’t say too much about it for fear of revealing aspects of plot, but how did that image come about?
The hardback cover was created by a very talented American artist called Jill de Haan. I feel very fortunate to have a publisher who was willing to commission a cover for my book.
The paperback cover presents the book in a different way. I love the blue, and think the cover has direct emotional appeal when you pick it up.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions Guinevere. I loved finding out more about The Words in My Hand.
Thanks for asking me; sorry it took so long to get the answers to you.
About Guinevere Glasfurd
Author Photo – Stefano Masse
Guinevere Glasfurd’s lives on the edge of the Fens near Cambridge. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, the Scotsman and in a collection from The National Galleries of Scotland. The Words In My Hand, her first novel, was written with the support of a grant from Arts Council England. Guinevere Glasfurd manages the Words and Women Twitter feed, a voluntary organisation representing women writers in the East of England. You can found out more on her website. You can follow Guinevere on Twitter.
If you would like to know more about how Guinevere became a writer, click here.
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