Who was Helena Jans?

Historians know of Helena. She appears, albeit briefly, in a number of histories and biographies of Descartes. We know that she 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, suggestive of a relationship of some importance. Although documentary evidence is scant, it is tantalising. Helena knew Descartes for at least a decade and at a critical time in his life.

Why is it then that so few academic studies on Descartes show any degree of curiosity towards Helena, towards this relationship, and pass so easily over her, dismissing her significance? Given such scant regard, it seemed to me that fiction is not just a way to ‘fill in the gaps’ but a way to interrogate the past; to question how history is written, and women such as Helena are written out of it.

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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 and draw close to her that way.

Maids were vulnerable, and my novel is clear on this. Whilst acknowledging the threats she faced, I wanted to show her agency. What was it about her – 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

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