Tag Archives: Hamnet

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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. 

Hamnet

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

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?’
‘Yes.’
‘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.

The playwright

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

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Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod

Eileen Carnell sent me an email. I asked her if I could use it on my blog. Eileen and I wrote several books together. (Here we are at a reading of Retiring with Attitude at Leatherhead Library in Autumn of 2014).

Dear Caroline, 

A response to your blog of the 10th January: Best Books for … the Long Haul

Hamnet

On Saturday morning there was no possibility of taking a walk. There were chores to do and indoor exercises to undertake but I thought that while I drank my decaff I’d read just for a few minutes. About two hours on, and 71 pages later, I put down my birthday copy of Hamnet*. I was captivated, transported back to 1596, my brain conveyed to a different landscape. I was immersed, time stopped, the outer world no longer existed. This is how I love to read – it feeds my spirit, provides sheer joy, escapism and a sense of well-being. As such Hamnet is a brilliant book to read during lockdown and the terrible connection between the plague of that time and Covid makes it even more timely.

Couch Fiction

I’m not a fan of cartoons. Comics were banned in our family when I was growing up so I never really learned how to read them, not knowing which bit of writing to read first or which part of the picture to look at**. But a second birthday gift this year changed my mind about such reading formats. This is Couch Fiction with its great sub-title A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy. This book is witty, droll and delightful. Phillipa Perry *** is the psychotherapist in question. Flo Perry, her daughter provided the illustrations. 

This book works on two levels. It tell the story of a psychotherapeutic encounter through pictures, speech and thought bubbles. Then beneath each page of the interactions between the two characters there are notes which demystify the encounter providing an easy read of the theory, for example, it highlights if the therapist is moving too fast, her use of hunches, any clumsy interventions and how the person being helped may react, and for students of the process there is some useful stuff on transference and attachment theories. So this is familiar territory for me but a great light but satisfying reminder – a perfect gift for me.

The Best of Me

And speaking of the joy of the familiar and ideal presents I will never tire of reading David Sedaris. In particular his short story about the mouse entitled Nuit of the Living Dead is fantastic. This book The Best of Mewas one of my Christmas presents. Reading what makes me laugh out loud is such a tonic and really does raise my spirits – a treat to come for anyone who hasn’t read it – so witty, so subversive. I was lucky to have heard him reading this story aloud at The British Library a couple of years ago.

Talking Books

I love being read to so Talking Books are a joy to me, especially to send me off to sleep during these troubled times. Instead of watching the news at ten I settle down to listen to stories. Re-reading is also something I enjoy and I’ll never tire of Sissy Spacek reading Scout’s account of her first day at school with that wonderful Southern accent of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve also listened this month to Elizabeth is Missing, How to be Both, The Accidental Tourist (again) and Jane Eyre – hence my opening sentence ****.

Beginnings

Some beginnings are embedded in my brain and while reading I’m looking out for beautiful descriptions and passages that I wish I’d written. I love examining openings, not just of books themselves, but of paragraphs and new chapters. It can often take me a while to read a book because I spend ages re-reading sentences to analyse their construction. I love names too and often make a note of them to steal later for my own novella – swopping first names of some with different surnames – Gregory Page-Turner and Saffron Milford are examples of ones I plan to introduce soon – he a church warden, she a novelist.

And …

I’ve also got waiting for me from Christmas and birthday:

Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence

Sarah Moss, Summerwater

Monica Connell, Gathering Carrageen

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Mark Billingham, Cry Baby

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing

Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

And with a book token given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas I am going to order the second and third in the series of Ian Rankin’s Rebus thrillers. 

I’m confident I have enough reading material to keep me going for ages. Who knows when I’ll get my second vaccination or when lockdown will end but I hope I’ll have one or two books left to take on board a train or ferry to Scotland or Ireland again. Roll on Summer.

Notes

* Hamnet and Hamlet were used in Shakespeare’s day interchangeably. This remarkable book is written by Maggie O’Farrell (2020).

** An exception to this rule was Posy Simmonds in The Guardian

*** Her husband is the more famous artist Grayson Perry.

**** Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

From Eileen Carnell

Related posts on Bookword

Best Books for … the Long Haul (January 2021)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (February 2015)

How to be both by Ali Smith (March 2015)

The Accidental Tourist (again) by Anne Tyler (October 2015)

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

And the winner is …

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Congratulations to the winner

After 25 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 25 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, argues that it is still important because it can still do 3 things:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2020 shortlist 

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

The 2020 longlist 

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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