Finding Helena, fictionalising Descartes

There were times when I was writing my first novel, The Words in My Hand, when I was struck by an incapacitating fear. It was this: who was I to put words in Descartes’ mouth?

More than once, this fear of speaking for Descartes, of fictionalising him, brought me to an abrupt halt. I backed away from the work, intimidated by it and by him. I also had to think about how I would write Helena, the Dutch maid at the heart of the novel, about whom very little is known.

The evidence linking Helena and Descartes, although scant, is tantalising. Although historians know of their relationship, they often dismiss it, and her. Worse, most display an utter lack of curiosity towards Helena. This casual disregard — the prefacing of his story before/over hers — seemed to point to something deeper and to say something about how history is written and women written out of it.

At the start of working on the novel, in early 2012, I met with my writing mentor. I was one of ten new writers taken onto the Escalator mentoring programme from Writers’ Centre Norwich, now the National Centre for Writing. We talked about the difficulty of fictionalising known historical figures and why a number of novelists avoid it. Helen Dunmore has said that writers stray into ‘dangerous territory’ when they fictionalise real people. I had no desire to tell a biographical tale; nor to create an ahistorical feminist character in Helena, that some recent historical fiction has tended towards. To be true to her, I had to be true to the historical record: to the very real constraints that limited her — by dint of her sex and social status. She was not a woman ahead of her time. She was absolutely of her time. This did not mean she did not have agency.

But I knew if I wanted to tell Helena’s story then I had no choice but to face down my fear and find a way to fictionalise Descartes. I could not tell one story without the other. I faced the page with new resolve.  I used his Correspondence as a way to find his voice and to challenge a number of clichés that have grown up around him. His letters reveal a witty, acerbic, impatient, ambitious man; a man who did not tolerate fools. I also found something gentle in his letters: advice to friends, his grief.

By October 2013, I had a first draft. Relief soon gave way to a niggling anxiety as I realised I hadn’t quite told the story I had set out to tell. I realised that part of the problem — ironically — seemed to be the pull of Descartes’ character on the narrative, as though I’d set a magnet to one side of the page, and my words, like iron filings, were flying towards it, and him. I had to elbow Descartes away. I rewrote a whole chunk of the book, not just holding him at arm’s length, but pretty much shutting the door to him too.

Helena knew Descartes at a critical time in his life, in the mid-1630s, before he published — indeed, came close to not publishing at all. At that time, he was a considerably less certain man than the man we suppose him to be and certainly not the towering figure of modern philosophy he is today.

The novel became a way to recover Helena’s story and in doing so — by placing her first — to examine Descartes anew and question how historians and biographers had written him.

I realised that history can only go so far and that fiction can play a key critical function: it is a means to interrogate the past. Realising this set me free to write Descartes and to assert Helena’s place in history too.


Most historians display a distinct lack of curiosity towards Helena Jans and her relationship with Descartes, yet she knew him at a critical time in his life.

August 26th, 2016.

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