Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
I finished this book on the date generally assigned to William Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday – 23rd April, sitting outside in beautiful sunshine, living in lockdown at a time of great crisis. The book deals with – among many other things – the effects of plague, the fears and horrors it brings with it, the grief it leaves behind.
It was a wonderful book to be reading right then.
I read the final 50 pages quite fast, because I was enjoying it so much and wanted to know what happened. After I’d finished it, I thought about it a lot, and realized that I didn’t really get the ending, found it a little unsatisfactory: so I went back and read the final 50 pages again, and realized it was entirely my own fault – I had read too fast and didn’t truly take in what O’Farrell and her heroine were thinking and saying. It all made sense the second time round. (I don’t believe in my long long history of reading a lot of books I have ever quite done that before.) (I should warn you crime readers - it's not a plot twist or revelation, just a question of paying attention!)
This is a historical novel about Shakespeare’s family: the wife and three children that he left behind in Stratford-upon-Avon, while he lived in London making his fortune as a player and playwright. Eventually he retired from the stage and went back to Stratford, and lived out his life as a respectable and very well-off businessman. But by that time he only had two children – this book is about (and this is not in any way a spoiler) the death of his son Hamnet at the age of 11.
Maggie O’Farrell says she had long been fascinated by the knowledge that Shakespeare had lost his only son in this way, and had then a few years later created a play and a character, Hamlet, with a name that was as good as identical – she says the two names were treated interchangeably at the time.
It's not known how Hamnet Shakespeare died, but O’Farrell has supposed plague, and so by chance her book has taken on an unexpected relevance, something she can’t have predicted.
Very little is known about Shakespeare’s family, so she was free to make it up: this isn’t a historical novel in the way Hilary Mantel wrote about Thomas Cromwell. The popular version of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is that she was an unfortunate early mistake – it was a ‘starter’ marriage, entered into only because a baby was on the way. She was eight years older than him.
O’Farrell has re-invented or reclaimed her: she is Agnes, for a start, not Anne, and the author has built a fascinating backstory for her, and given her an amazing and absolutely lovely character. She is very much a 16th century countrywoman, but the best thing about her is that she totally reminded me of people I knew – I could picture her as a 21st century friend, someone who was a bit weird, a bit hippyish, didn’t care how she looked, went her own way, had various counterculturish beliefs, and a kind heart. I loved her, and I think anyone reading the book will do the same.
Hamnet is an enchantment of a book, and ideal reading for right now.
It is also a beautifully produced book, and my particular copy is even better: it is signed by O’Farrell, and is a special independent bookshop edition. I often do use Amazon to buy books (when I lived in Seattle it was a small local startup after all) but like many people I recognize that Amazon don’t need me but small bookshops do. So I have been trying to use the indies, and have struck up a friendship with one nowhere near me, and it only occurred to me AFTER I had read the book how very appropriate this was: Warwick Books is in Warwickshire, the same county as Shakespeare’s Stratford, and less than 10 miles from there.
I have ordered a list of books from them (talk about virtue signalling) and they are sending them to me as they come in. I’m not in the business of telling anyone else what they should do, but supporting an indie bookshop is certainly is a way to get a good feeling as well as something lovely to read. Warwick Books is at http://www.warwickbooks.net/ and their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
I wrote about Hamlet as a source for crime book titles in the Guardian newspaper, and wrote about the play itself in another entry. There are a lot of other references to Hamlet on the blog, one way and another.
There are two pictures that actually claim to show Shakespeare – the one at the top is much the nicer, but has the lesser claim, it’s just that we all want him to look like this. And - of course - there are no pictures of his wife.
Second picture, from NYPL, shows actress Diane Venora as Hamlet in a scene from the 1982 New York Shakespeare Festival production.
I have seen many actors play Hamlet, and the best was Andrew Scott, third picture.
Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave is on the blog here.