A story based in speculation about facts – what caused Descartes to have a friendship with Helena, a maid? And how did Helena manage to learn to read and write when it was extremely uncommon amongst women of the Quality, let alone a maid?
Well, the author has made some suggestions within this book that link the facts in a way that makes total sense – with perhaps a little embroidery here and there, just to flesh out the known characters and known occurrences.
This is a sensitive tale of a young girl, Helena, who is forced by family circumstances to become a maid in the household of a bookseller in 1635.
Helena narrates this story as it happens to her and she tells us of the way in which she manages the household and her work, and how she learnt the rudiments of reading and writing (on her hand for lack of knowledge or access to, paper, quills, and ink) from her brother who was schooled by tutors.
The bookseller, Mr Sergeant, ekes out his living by renting the attic rooms of his house to like minded gentlemen and thus Descartes comes to stay. And Helena encounters him and his servant, and learns to write properly. All this at a time when paper was extremely expensive and not for the ‘common sort’ to have access to.
Helena and her maid friend, who she teaches to read and write, wonder what life would be like if all women could read and write. Perhaps they could then manage their own businesses and not be dependent on men for their livelihood and income? A world that they do not get to see. As they live in a world where books are still extremely expensive and a man (never a woman) who has a library of 100 books is considered a scholar and wealthy.
Meeting Descartes changes Helena’s life forever, and not just because she learns to read and write properly.
I found this a fascinating and sensitive story and could not put it down. I wanted to know more of this strange relationship between the maid and the renowned scholar.