Today we travel to 16th century Warwickshire as we continue our journey through the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Hamnet is a much anticipated book that I know a lot of people were very excited to read.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: March 2020
‘Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.
Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.’ – Goodreads
This novel definitely lives up to the hype. As both a history graduate and historical fiction nerd, I was interested and excited to see which direction O’Farrell would take with this book, and I couldn’t have been more delighted upon reading it.
Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.
This novel is essentially an incredibly insightful look into grief. The former half of the novel alternates between the events leading to Agnes (Anne Hathaway) and Shakespeare’s marriage and the events leading up to Hamnet’s death. The latter half focuses solely on Agnes’ grief.
She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married.
I thought it was an interesting choice of O’Farrell to focus on Agnes rather than Hamnet himself, but it is one that definitely pays off. Through Hamlet we understand the father’s grief, but through Hamnet do we understand the mother’s. Agnes makes for an engaging and emotionally driven character. She is a herbalist with a ‘gift’ of insight into the future. I found her to be familiar to the protagonist from Tidelands by Philipa Gregory, but with even more depth and scope. It was a real treat to see life breathed in to a character so often forgotten.
The father bears him, unaided, along Henley Street, tears and sweat streaming down his face.
I found O’Farrell’s prose to be beautiful and evocative. She has a way of using words to convey meaning in a way that is unlike any other novel I have ever read – fitting for a novel so closely tied to Shakespeare. It was an interesting choice of O’Farrell to never mention the playwrite by name during the novel. This truly is a tale a mother who loses a child, not a novel detailing the death of Shakespeare’s son. It is unlike any other novel that I have read.