Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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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Onward, old legs!

I’ve been searching for fictional examples of strong older women for a few months. The lack of obvious characters started me off, but the responses to my search has resulted in a decision to initiate three blog activities and I want to persuade you to come along with me.

My search began when I attended a day course at London’s adult education centre, City Lit. The course tutor drew on literature to consider Growing into Ageing, and for guidance about the purpose of the last phase of your life.

We looked at poems by Dylan Thomas (‘Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, which was used by Margaret Laurence as the epigraph for the Stone Angel), DH Lawrence (Uprooted) and Mary Oliver. I took the title for this post from her poem Self Portrait.

We looked at Shakespeare: King Lear, Jacques’s speech in As You Like it and Prospero in The Tempest. And we considered what we could learn from Homer’s Ulysses.

You will have noticed only one female writer (someone referred to Jenny Joseph’s poem Warning; you probably know the first line ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ to double the number of female writers). Also no novels. So I began my quest for strong older women in fiction.

Since I began my quest I’ve had to refine my terms:

Older – older than the person reading the blog? I use the term to mean 55+ (all kinds of problems of defining age with numbers, but I’ll leave that to our next book). For some that seemed young (A comment from twitter: ‘that made me laugh because 55+ seems very young to me’) and for others unimaginably old.

Strong – strongly written, ie not one of EM Forster’s flat characters, but a fully drawn character; with a bit of a determination about her like Hagar Shipley or Jenny Joseph.

Fiction – I was asked did I mean classics or contemporary. My response was – any, which led to a suggestion from theatre (Paulina in The Winter’s Tale).

25 Stone Angel

My original list is the most read page on my blog to date, closely followed by the review of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. I have added some suggestios to the list with contributions from Twitter, the blog, conversations with other readers, academic reading and a conference related to the wide-ranging New Dynamics of Ageing research project (its scope includes literature, other arts, science, sociology etc).

38 Strong W books

Now to my three actions. First: a new Readalong. I plan to read a novel that includes a strong older female character and post on the subject every two months. I will start with Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively in August. It will alternate with the other Readalong (see About the Book Group), which is intended to be more general.

Second, here is the revised, extended but not definitive list – additions are marked §. I hope that you will find lots of interesting reading here. Feel free to make more suggestions. Dickens anyone?

Margaret Atwood    The Blind Assasin (Iris)

Angela Carter           Wise Children (the twins) §

Agatha Christie        Miss Marple series

EM Forster                A Passage to India  (Mrs Moore) §

                                     Howard’s End (Mrs Wilcox) §

Margaret Forster     Isa and May

Patrick Gale               Notes from an Exhibition (GBH) §

Jane Gardam             Last Friends

Linda Gillard             Various

Siri Hustvedt             The Summer without Men

Tove Jansson             The Summer Book §

Doris Lessing            Various §

Penelope Lively        Heatwave

                                      Moon Tiger

Olivia Manning         School for Love (Miss Bohun)

Ian McEwan               Atonement (Bryony)

Jill J Marsh                Beatrice Stubbs series

David Mitchell          Ghostwritten (Chinese woman and Irish scientists)

Deborah Moggach   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Toni Morrison          Beloved

Barbara Pym            Various

Carol Shield             The Stone Diaries (Daisy Goodwill Flett)

May Sarton               The Reckoning §

Wm Shakespeare      The Winter’s Tale (Paulina) §

Joanna Trollope        Various

Elizabeth Taylor       Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Salley Vickers           Miss Garnett’s Angel

                                     Dancing Backwards

Alice Walker             The Colour Purple (Celie)

                                     Possessing the Secret of Joy (Tashi)

Dorothy Whipple     Greenbanks

Mary Wesley              Various

Virginia Woolf          Mrs Dalloway

                                     To the Lighthouse (Mrs Ramsey)

Third: I am adding a category to my blog, to help people find these reviews more easily: older women in fiction.

So please add to my list, and join me in the new Readalong, – make your comments and your suggestions.

 mrspalfrey green

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