The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Two years ago I read Guinevere Glasfurd’s first novel, The Words in My Hand, about a young Dutch woman and her relationship with the philosopher René Descartes. I loved that book so was hoping for a similar experience with her new one, The Year Without Summer. However, although I loved parts of this book too, I found it entirely different from The Words in My Hand and less enjoyable as a whole.

The title refers to the year 1816, which was the year following the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano. It was known as ‘the year without a summer’ due to the effects of the volcanic activity on the weather. These effects were felt all over the world, far away from Asia: in Europe, low temperatures and heavy rain caused flooding, failed harvests and famine, while crops were also destroyed in North America by droughts and by frost and snow in June. In The Year Without Summer, Glasfurd explores, in fictional form, the stories of six different people whose lives were affected by the extreme weather.

The first character we meet is Henry Hogg, ship’s surgeon aboard the Benares, who sets sail in April 1815 for the island of Sumbawa to investigate reports of explosions and is shocked by what he finds: ash falling from the sky, the sea turning to stone and what had once been a green island now ‘a hellish scene’. Henry’s story is the only one in the book that takes us directly to the scene of the eruption – the others only mention the volcano briefly, if at all – yet, surprisingly, his is the one given the least time and attention.

The following spring, the English landscape painter, John Constable, is returning home to Suffolk from an unsuccessful visit to London in an attempt to gain recognition for his art and be admitted to the Royal Academy. Without that recognition and the money it would bring, John’s future looks bleak: how can he expect his beloved Maria to marry a struggling artist with no prospects?

The future of our third protagonist, Sarah Hobbs, looks even more uncertain. She and her friend Tessie are walking across the Fens from farm to farm looking for work, only to be told that there is no work to be had – and even if there was, the wages would only be half of what they were the year before. Meanwhile, Hope Peter, a soldier back from Waterloo, is having problems of his own. In his absence, his mother has died and his family home has been demolished; the life to which he’d thought he was returning no longer exists.

In the May of that year, Mary Godwin travels to Switzerland with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their baby son Willmouse, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont. They are planning to spend the summer at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, but the gloomy weather keeps them indoors where they entertain themselves by writing horror stories. Finally, we meet Charles Whitlock, a preacher from Vermont, who gives us an American perspective on the summer of 1816. Charles is trying to gain the trust of his flock who are growing increasingly worried about the lack of rain and planning to abandon their farms to head west to Ohio.

These six very different storylines alternate throughout the book, never meeting or intersecting in any way, the only link between them being the unusual weather of 1816. They cover a range of issues including the social unrest which led to the Littleport Riots, the enclosure of land in the English countryside, the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the influence of the weather on John Constable’s paintings, and I found something to interest me in all of the stories – although most of them are very bleak and it would have been nice to have had a few more happy endings!

My problem with the book was that the way it was structured, with a chapter from one story, then a chapter from another, made it feel disjointed and made it difficult to stay engaged with each set of characters. As the six threads never came together at all, I think I would have preferred just a straightforward collection of six complete short stories – or maybe even just four, as the ones following the ship’s surgeon and the Vermont preacher felt very slight and undeveloped in comparison to the others.

As a whole, I don’t think this book was entirely successful, but still with more positives than negatives. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the weather of 1816 and some of the extreme weather the world has been experiencing recently, which we can only expect to see more of in the future due to climate change, so this was a relevant read as well as an interesting one.

Thanks to Two Roads for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes is well known, but how many people have heard of Helena Jans van der Strom? Helena was in a relationship with Descartes for over a decade and played an important role in his life, yet she has been given little attention by historians and the information we have about her is very limited. In The Words in My Hand, Guinevere Glasfurd attempts to redress the balance and gives Helena a voice, building a fictional story around the known facts.

At the beginning of the novel, Helena, a young Dutch woman, is working as a maid in the Amsterdam home of Mr Sergeant, an English bookseller. There are not many options open to girls of Helena’s class in the 17th century, which is why she has entered service, but, possessing a natural intelligence and curiosity, she is teaching herself to read and write, spelling out the words on the palm of her hand in the absence of paper:

Mr Sergeant had paper, but if I was caught with any of that I would be dismissed. I could not take it without asking. And if I asked, he’d want to know why, what I wanted it for. What would I say?

“I want to write, Mr Sergeant – I know you decided I couldn’t, but I’ve decided I can.”

Some excitement comes into Helena’s life one day in 1634 when Mr Sergeant takes in a new lodger – René Descartes, whom Helena thinks of only as the Monsieur. Getting to know the Monsieur is not easy as he is fiercely guarded by his valet, the Limousin (who takes his name from his place of birth), but eventually he and Helena become friends – and then something more than friends.

The Words in My Hand explores the relationship between Helena and Descartes, suggesting possible answers to the many questions that arise. What qualities did Helena have that made her attractive to Descartes? What did they teach other and learn from each other? What was the significance of the role she played in his life and he in hers? It is often a difficult relationship and not a very equal one either – it can’t be, because of their very different positions in society. It’s obvious that Descartes cares about Helena, but he is reluctant to give her the sort of conventional family life she would like, so she accepts what he is prepared to offer instead. She refers to him throughout the entire novel as the Monsieur and never as René, which says a lot about the barriers between them which are never quite broken down. It’s not a particularly romantic love affair and Helena deserves something better, but it feels realistic for the time period.

Other characters are pulled into Helena’s story too including Betje, a fellow maid whom she befriends and tries to introduce to the joys of reading and writing. I was particularly intrigued by the uneasy interactions between Helena and the Limousin, Descartes’ valet. And of course, I should mention the setting – I often seem to be drawn to historical fiction set in the Netherlands and I thought Guinevere Glasfurd captured the atmosphere of the time and place very well. I really enjoyed this book (despite feeling annoyed with Descartes at times); it was published in 2016 and is Guinevere Glasfurd’s only novel so far, but I hope she is going to write more.