I met an agent recently and was somewhat wrong-footed by a question he asked me. He wanted to know if my novel The Words in my Hand – which tells the story of the hidden love between French philosopher, René Descartes, and Dutch maid, Helena Jans van der Strom, was fiction or fictionalised biography. I was, I admit, stumped. I had always seen the work as sitting firmly within the genre of historical and literary fiction.
The Words in my Hand is based on fragments in the historical record – but those fragments, in almost all cases, refer to Descartes. About Helena, my novel’s protagonist, and from whose point of view the story is written, almost nothing is known. The archive reveals her name on a baptismal record for Francine in 1635, the child she has with Descartes, and on a notary record from 1644, when Descartes puts up a dowry of 1000 guilders so Helena may marry. Otherwise, Helena’s life was not recorded. We know that Helena wrote to Descartes, but those elusive letters have never been found and are, most likely, lost.
The novel weaves together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason and Helena’s struggle towards literacy. Descartes writes letters; Helena writes on the palm of her hand. Her words stay ‘glued on her tongue’; his are carried out into the world by his valet, Limousin, connecting to a wider intellectual network through the French monk, Mersenne. You can still read many of these letters today. A new critical edition of Descartes’ correspondence is in the process of being compiled (forthcoming, OUP). Without setting out explicitly to do so, the novel became a means to examine Helena’s invisibility – then and now.
There is in most writers something of the secret agent and something of the subversive, too. It is invigorating being on the scent, a stalker of the past, stealing up on something from an oblique angle. Then there are the quiet hours of sitting and waiting, staring and feeling: of being imaginatively with your characters. Both approaches are essential. I try to let things unfold, to leave myself open to surprises. I try not to push.
…of being imaginatively with your characters – I couldn’t agree more; it is what makes fiction fiction and sets it apart from history and biography. I had to imagine Helena. I had to imagine Descartes.
In The Words in my Hand, the focus is not Descartes, but Helena; Descartes falls into the background. Telling the story from Helena’s point of view, meant I could approach Descartes from a completely different direction, from Smith’s oblique angle, and imagine him before he was published, before he was great. Seen through Helena’s eyes, we see an erratic, aloof, ambitious man, caught up in the struggle to win an audience for his ideas at a time of great uncertainty.
But to go back to the beginning. Am I nearer answering that agent’s question? Fiction? Fictionalised biography?
I did not set out to tell Descartes’ life story. The Words in my Hand is not a work of fictionalised biography. As for Helena? – so little is known about her, there is precious little biography to fictionalise.
The Words in my Hand is Helena’s story, a story in its own right – historical fiction. I hope the novel helps make her visible and gives us a new perspective on Descartes too.