Guinevere Glasfurd is a British writer. Originally from the north of England, Guinevere now lives and works in Cambridgeshire. She has a background in historical research and has worked for BBC History Online. Her short fiction has been published by Mslexia and The Scotsman and she has won awards from Arts Council England and the British Council for her work.
The Words in My Hand, her first novel, is based on the little-known story of Helena Jans, who worked as a Dutch maid and was Descartes’ lover. Although many books have been written about Descartes, about Helena almost nothing is known. What survives is tantalising. Descartes is often thought of as a terrible loner, alone with his thoughts. Helena’s story will make you question that. The Words in my Hand was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016.
1. Who were your literary influences as you were growing up?
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I began to read and read and read; to read as if the world was about to run out of books. I remember reading all of H G Wells, then George Orwell. I read a lot of literature in translation: Camus, Gide, Knut Hamsun and loved the large format paperbacks that Picador used to publish. I didn’t have much money so spent a lot of time in secondhand bookshops, buying books for pennies.
I never questioned it at the time, but literature for me was predominantly male. It is something I’ve come to question since as a writer.
2. Where did the idea of The Words in my Hand? come from?
I knew I wanted to write about Descartes but did not want to write from his point of view; so much had been written about him already. As I started my research, I came across a one-line reference to Helena Jans, the Dutch maid with whom he had an affair. It intrigued me. I had studied Descartes at university and yet knew nothing about this relationship.
As I read more widely, it became apparent that although historians knew about Helena Jans, few showed any degree of curiosity about her, about the relationship, and its possible impact on Descartes and his work. It said something to me about the invisibility of women in history, both then and now.
It is likely that Helena knew Descartes at a critical time in his life; before he had published and perhaps for a decade or more. He is now known as “the father of modern philosophy” but he wasn’t that then, when Helena knew him. It was a time of crisis for Descartes. Galileo was under house arrest under the Roman Inquisition for his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which proposed a heliocentric model - that the sun was at the centre - of the universe. After reading Galileo, Descartes came close to destroying his own work.
It’s known that Helena and Descartes wrote to each other, but these letters have been lost. This raised all kinds of questions for me, because the written word at this time belonged predominantly to men and to a few wealthy women. It was highly unusual for a woman of Helena’s background to be able to write. Explaining how this might have happened became a central theme in the novel, and a way to reveal Helena’s backstory and strength of character. The novel became a way to weave Descartes’ and Helena’s stories together through their developing relationship.
3. I would imagine that there was very little written about Helena Jans. Did that make it easier or more difficult to fill in the gaps?
Every book presents its own challenges. Very little survives in the archive that references Helena. We should not be surprised by that. Most women’s (and indeed men’s) lives were not documented in the way they are now. But what is known about Helena is tantalising, and I used these facts as stepping stones across the story. I had to join the dots, to imagine what might have happened in between.
I place Helena’s story on a level with Descartes’: her struggle for learning runs alongside his quest for reason. She is not the woman behind the great man: she is the woman in front of him. A woman with her own view of the world; her own experiences, thoughts and beliefs. The ‘great man of history’ narrative is not only tiresome, it perpetuates clichés about Descartes. It seemed much more interesting to turn this on its head, to see Descartes from a completely different direction, through Helena’s eyes.
There were times when I felt I couldn’t write the book. Who was I to put words in Descartes’ mouth? The way I dealt with this was to remind myself that I was telling Helena’s story. I was able then to draw Descartes’ character close when I needed to and to push him away again, when he was not.
4. Is there anything you can share with us about any of your works in progress?
I’m editing my second novel, which is a contemporary story about the recurring power of first love. It moves between 1984 and 2014 and tells one woman’s story, when she is 18 and when she is 48. The novel is partly set in South Wales, against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, and moves between the radical politics of the 80s to the years leading towards Brexit.
It’s a story of first love, of lost love, and the search for truth after thirty years, a truth that has devastating and far-reaching consequences.
5. Do you have a message for your readers in Suffolk Libraries?
I really hope you enjoy the book and thank you for reading it at the library. Libraries play an important role in bringing new books to the attention of readers. I’m a huge supporter of libraries; local communities rely on them and together they form an important part of our cultural life.
I absolutely deplore the cuts to library funding. Every library closure, every book budget cut, every loss of a trained librarian is an insult to us all.
6. What is the best piece of writing advice you were ever given?
The novelist Louise Doughty helped me think about the structure of a novel, its function. There are so many ways to tell a story, but the writer has to settle on one. Louise helped me to think clearly about that. The structure a writer settles on determines the story that is told.
7. Given a time machine and the ability to go backwards or forwards what date would you set the clock for and why?
What an interesting question, but tricky to answer. I wouldn’t want to go into the future; the present feels uncertain enough as it is. I thought I might like to go back to the 17th century, but am not sure I could cope with the stink.
So, to England then, at the turn of 19th century. It was a time of great change, when people began moving to cities in large numbers and old ways of working were being lost. My third novel will be set at this time. I am already impatient to start writing it!