who was Helena Jans?

We know Helena worked as a maid in Amsterdam for English bookseller, Thomas Sergeant. We know of her relationship with Descartes, because he leaves a note to this effect.

We know that Helena and Descartes exchanged letters, years after they first met, which suggests a relationship of some importance. Although the evidence is scant, it is tantalising. Helena knew Descartes for at least a decade and at a critical time in his life.

I hardly describe Helena’s appearance, what she looks like, in the novel. This is intentional. I want the reader to ‘see’ her, each in their own way, through her character, and to draw close to her that way.

Maids were vulnerable, and my novel is clear on this. Yet Helena was not a ‘pretty maid, seduced’. This interpretation is shallow and reductive and places Helena in a secondary, essentially passive role. What was it about Helena – her intelligence, her character, her verve for life – that attracted Descartes? What did she offer him? Why did the relationship endure? These are interesting questions to answer. In focusing the attention on Helena, on her story, I hope my novel reveals her possible significance and helps us to re-imagine Descartes too.

Helena married twice in later years, and had three sons. She died in c 1683 and is buried in a small chapel, the Slotkapel, in Egmond aan den Hoef.

Woman Reading a Letter

Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, mid-166os. The truth is, we do not know what Helena looked like.

Earlier posts on Helena:

skimming stones in the archive

if Helena were music

all is not equal

Helena Jans

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