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.

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

Midnight Blue is a novel set in the Netherlands in the 17th century and written by Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt. Originally published in Dutch, this edition from HarperCollins features an English translation by Jenny Watson.

As the novel opens in 1654, we meet Catrin, a young woman who lives in the village of De Rijp and who has recently been widowed. Hoping to make a new start, Catrin says goodbye to her family and sets out on the long journey to Amsterdam, where she has been offered work. Arriving in the city, she takes up her new position as housekeeper to the merchant Adriaan van Nulandt.

As she settles into her job and gets to know the family, an attraction forms between Catrin and Adriaan’s younger brother, the charismatic and adventurous Matthias. She also watches with envy and fascination as Adriaan’s wife, Brigitta, is encouraged to pursue her passion for painting, something for which Catrin also has a talent. It’s not long, however, before a face Catrin thought she had left behind reappears, threatening to tear apart the new life she has built for herself – and so she decides it’s time to move on again, this time to Delft and the home of another Van Nulandt brother, Evert. Evert owns a pottery workshop and it is here that Catrin finds an opportunity to put her artistic abilities to good use at last…

Although Catrin’s personal story is fictional, the world in which Simone van der Vlugt places her is grounded in historical fact. My knowledge of Dutch history is very limited, picked up mainly from the few other novels I’ve read set in the country, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to learn something new! The period covered by the novel includes such notable events as the Delft Explosion of 1654 and an outbreak of the plague. Life in Catrin’s home village of De Rijp and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft is vividly described, and as Catrin spends so much time travelling from one place to another, we are also given descriptions of the scenery seen from the canals and rivers which link her various destinations.

The time during which the novel is set – known as the Dutch Golden Age – saw art, science, trade and industry flourishing in the Netherlands, including the pottery industry which forms such an important part of the story. You can expect to learn a lot about mixing chemicals, painting designs, glazing pots and firing them in kilns…and you’ll come away from the novel with an admiration for Delft Blue, the blue and white pottery produced at Evert’s workshop. Several historical figures from the art world are incorporated into the story too, although I found it difficult to believe that Catrin would have come into contact with so many famous artists of the period – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and Carel Fabritius all make an appearance and all have words of advice or encouragement for Catrin.

Catrin herself is an interesting character. The novel is written in first person present tense, which is not my favourite for historical fiction, but it does mean that we get to know our narrator quite well. Even so, we don’t know everything about her immediately; Catrin keeps some parts of her past hidden to be revealed later on – and when the past does begin to catch up with her, this introduces a thriller element to the novel which adds another layer of interest. I was occasionally pulled out of the 17th century by the use of a word or phrase which felt too modern, but it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the translation and how much to the original text.

Midnight Blue is a light and entertaining novel which I would recommend to readers who have enjoyed other books with Dutch settings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist. I read this as part of a blog tour, so if you would like to see more reviews, you can find the rest of the schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review!

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist In October 1686, eighteen-year-old Petronella (Nella) Oortman travels from Assendelft to Amsterdam to join the household of her new husband, Johannes Brandt. Johannes is a merchant with the VOC – the Dutch East India Company – and spends a lot of time away from home, leaving his young wife in the company of his sister, Marin, and their two servants, Cornelia and Otto. Disappointed with the lack of affection from her husband and confused by Marin’s cold, unwelcoming reception, Nella quickly finds that married life is certainly not what she had hoped and expected it would be.

Unable, for various reasons, to give Nella the attention she deserves, Johannes presents her with a special wedding gift to help her pass the time: a cabinet containing a dolls’ house that resembles the Brandts’ own home. The little rooms are empty and it is up to Nella to decide how to furnish them. Responding to an advertisement by a ‘miniaturist’, she sends a letter with her requests, but when the tiny items and figures begin to arrive, Nella is amazed by how accurately they reflect life within the real Brandt household. How can the miniaturist possibly know so much about Nella and her family?

I was drawn to The Miniaturist by its striking cover and although the book itself didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was certainly an unusual and intriguing story. I have seen comparisons with Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and it’s easy to see why, as both books tell the story of a young woman living in 17th century Holland, but apart from this I don’t think the two novels really have a lot in common. While I found that Girl with a Pearl Earring felt realistic and true to life, The Miniaturist has an element of magical realism that makes it very different – and this supernatural aspect was possibly the reason why I didn’t love the book as much as I wanted to. I thought the mystery of the miniaturist’s creations was a great idea, but I felt that it was never sufficiently explained or resolved, which left me wondering if I’d missed the point.

I found a lot to like about The Miniaturist, though, particularly the setting – not a common one in historical fiction, but very interesting to read about. I learned a lot about Amsterdam in the 1600s and the world of trade and commerce in which Johannes Brandt and his fellow merchants operate. It’s quite an atmospheric novel too, and a bit darker than I’d expected; bad things happen to some of the characters in the story and not everyone gets a happy ending. Nella herself is a character who grows and changes, from an innocent, nervous young girl at the beginning of the book to a strong, mature woman at the end. And I must mention Marin, secretive and hostile, but with much more depth than is obvious at first.

I had assumed this was a purely fictional story, so I was surprised to find that Petronella Oortman was a real person and her miniature house can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As for the true story behind the house and its contents, who knows?

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring Set in the 1660s, Girl with a Pearl Earring is narrated by Griet, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tile painter who lives in Delft in the Netherlands. When her father is left unable to work after being blinded in an accident, he arranges for Griet to become a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. Settling into her new job, Griet soon finds that coping with the cleaning, washing and dusting are the least of her worries; she also has to learn to deal with the hostility of Vermeer’s wife, the cruelty of one of their young daughters and the jealousy of the family’s other servant, Tanneke. And why is Tanneke jealous? Because Griet has been given the job of dusting Vermeer’s studio – a room rarely entered by the rest of the household. As the months go by, Griet watches painting after painting slowly take shape on Vermeer’s easel, but when she discovers that she herself is going to be the subject of his next portrait she senses that the fewer people who know about it the better…

Having read two of Tracy Chevalier’s other books, Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, it seemed silly that I still hadn’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s her most famous novel. The thing I found most striking about the book is that the writing style actually feels like one of Vermeer’s paintings: clear and detailed and true to life. I am not an expert on Vermeer (or any other artist, to be honest) but this was something that I noticed almost immediately and was very impressed by. If you’re not familiar with Vermeer’s work I highly recommend searching for an image of each painting as it is referred to in the book – I can promise that it will add to your appreciation of the story and of Chevalier’s writing.

This book is set in a time and place that I know very little about and I loved the descriptions of 17th century Delft. Most of Griet’s time is devoted to carrying out her duties within the Vermeer home, but she also has plenty of opportunities to visit other areas of the town – buying meat for the family at the meat market, going to church, visiting her brother at the tile factory where he is an apprentice, or spending time with her parents and the young butcher they hope she will marry. I have never been to Delft but by the time I finished this book I felt I could almost picture what it would have been like to live and work there in the 1660s. The religious aspect of the book – the tensions between the town’s Catholic and Protestant people – was also handled well, showing us the distrust and suspicion that existed between the two communities.

Although there is a romantic element to the story it is quite understated. We are in no doubt as to how Griet feels about Vermeer – it’s noticeable that while she thinks of other people by name, Vermeer is always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and this instantly sets him apart from all the other characters in the story. However, Griet is very slow to admit to herself the significance he has in her life. The romantic aspect of the book is quiet and subtle and lacks drama and passion, as does the rest of the story, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I enjoyed following Griet’s everyday life – shopping at the market, chopping vegetables, dusting the studio – and I enjoyed learning about Vermeer’s work and painting techniques. I didn’t need drama.

But despite finding so much to like about this book, there were also some things that I didn’t like. With the exception of Griet, I thought most of the other characters felt more like stereotypes than fully developed characters. And while I did find the writing style very effective, there seemed to be a distance between the narrator and the reader; the books that I really love are the ones where I can share in the characters’ hopes and fears, where I can laugh with them and cry with them – but I didn’t feel any of that with this book. Still, of the three Chevalier novels I’ve now read, this is my favourite so far and I’m looking forward to trying some of her others.

Review: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Who would have thought that a book about growing tulips could be so exciting? And yet Alexandre Dumas managed to write a compelling page turner based on that very subject. Dumas became one of my favourite authors a few years ago when I read The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers but I had not read any of his lesser-known works until now. I regret not reading The Black Tulip sooner because I enjoyed it almost as much as the two books I’ve just mentioned.

The book is set in seventeenth century Holland and begins with the violent murders of John and Cornelius De Witt, suspected of conspiring against the young Stadtholder, William of Orange. Our hero is the fictional godson of Cornelius De Witt, who is also called Cornelius. Cornelius Van Baerle is a keen tulip-fancier whose biggest goal in life is to produce the world’s first black tulip. However, Van Baerle is not the only tulip-grower in the race for the Grand Black Tulip – and his rival Isaac Boxtel will stop at nothing to get there first!

The first few chapters put the novel in historical context and will be slightly challenging to anyone like myself, who doesn’t have much knowledge of Dutch history, but if you read carefully and refer to the notes it’s easy enough to follow. As soon as Dumas finishes setting the scene, the story explodes into action and never stops until the final page, taking us on a journey through the full range of human emotions – love, hatred, greed, loyalty, jealousy and obsession.

Rosa, the only female character in the book, is a jailer’s daughter who falls in love with Cornelius and finds herself having to compete with the tulip for his affections. Despite making a few remarks of the “I am but a woman” variety she is otherwise a strong and quick-thinking character who does what she knows is right, even if it means going against the wishes of Cornelius or her father. The starring role in the story, though, goes to the elusive black tulip itself.

As you might have guessed, I really loved this book. If you enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo there’s a good chance that you’ll like this one too, as it’s very similar in writing style, pace and even several plot elements. It could almost be described as a shorter, less epic, less complex version of The Count.

Highly recommended

Publisher: OUP (Oxford World’s Classics)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1850)/Pages: 258/Source: Library book