Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

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