What is Hamnet, or a hamnet? Is it a small cigar, a misspelling of the title of a famous play, a Persian cloak, the winner of the of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? The latter of course. It won from a strong field that included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.
I am not interested in whether this book is better than those others on the shortlist, (which you can find here). I am concerned to look at the merits of this novel and to explore its craft. It is the story of a family, how they are tied together and how those ties are stretched when the son dies aged eleven.
The family lives in Stratford-on-Avon in the late sixteenth century, the father is away in London where he has success as a playwright. There are three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. The novel starts on a summer’s afternoon.
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor. (3)
This is Hamnet, desperate to find assistance because Judith is very sick.
The story does not unfold in a straightforward chronological way. Not much about the construction of this novel is straightforward. Here are four aspects of the novel worth noting.
First, the family is inspired by Shakespeare’s. But the name is never mentioned. Not even the playwright’s first name. He is always ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’. This emphasises the family relationships and it allows the author some freedom in imagining how this family lived. So few documentary records survive of his life that we have enormous gaps in our knowledge. We know about land purchases, education at the Grammar School and his will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife. (The mystery of this bequest is explained in passing.)
Second, Hamnet died of the plague, or pestilence in this novel. There is, of course, a resonance with our own experience of a pestilence. I found myself comparing symptoms, transmissibility, precautions and so on. It’s like noting that people in films are not wearing masks or observing social distance guidelines.
Third, in telling the story Maggie O’Farrell leaps from one time zone to another, we go forwards and backwards within the family’s life. This results in the reader knowing more than the characters: about the death of Hamnet, or the father’s success in London, for example. We are not being asked to wonder whether a child will die. Instead, we are asked to focus on the relationships, the strength of the ties and how individuals will deal with the grief. She also tells the story in the present tense, which brings us close to the action and to the characters.
Fourth, Maggie O’Farrell’s writes exceptionally well about place, and her descriptive powers recreate the Warwickshire countryside, the town and houses in which the family live, even the bustle of London’s Southbank. In my copy (perhaps all copies?) there is an afterword about how a visit to Stratford allowed her to recreate the first scene, Hamnet jumping down the stairs, and the geography of the house informs much of the novel.
Grief and Loss
Hamnet is about grief and loss within a family. For Judith losing a twin is a special kind of loss. She cannot believe that he will disappear completely from her life, and searches at night, following a suggestion from one of her mother’s customers. Agnes and her husband are both distraught, finding it hard to go on with their lives in Stratford and in London. They have been a strong unit, despite separation, up to this point, but Hamnet’s death nearly breaks their partnership. The novel challenges the idea that when infant and child mortality were high and part of everyday life, death was not as difficult for parents as it is today.
Agnes, the wife and mother, is the spine of the novel. One friend suggested she is a bit too hippy-dippy bare-foot new-age herbalist for her taste. I found her ability to read people and to experience the dead and see the future rather irritating. This kind of mystical otherworld capacity always challenges my belief in a character’s authenticity.
On the other hand, she is perceptive, strong, individual and rebellious. She is not too bothered by how the people of Stratford see her, nor by her stepmother’s disapproval. She is more discerning than his family about her husband and his talents. He has not distinguished himself when Agnes disappears when she is about to give birth to their first child. He seeks out her brother, Bartholomew who tells the young husband what Agnes had said about her choice of husband.
‘… you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
The husband stares, as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. His face is anguished, pained, astonished. ‘She said that?’
Bartholomew nods. ‘Now I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending upon who you ask. So if she thinks that about you, there’s a possibility that it’s true.’ (162-3)
Bullied by his father, no trade to follow, a family to support, the young man has not demonstrated much potential. We understand that Agnes’s support was crucial.
Agnes’s husband is never named and Maggie O’Farrell has had to create his early life from the scant documentary evidence. We know little of how he got on when he first went to London, or how he maintained his relations with his family, nor what he did when the plague closed the theatres in London.
But there is the play that bears the name of his dead son (Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable in the 1590s, it seems). Her marriage appears to be at breaking point when Agnes finds that her husband has used their son’s name as the title of a play. She travels to London with Bartholomew to confront him about this heartlessness and finds that he has channelled his grief into a recreation of his son.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published in 2020 by Tinder Press 386pp