This is the second novel on this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist I’ve read (read my review of The Mirror and the Light here) – it is clearly an excellent year for women writers. As has been said elsewhere, I think this is O’Farrell’s best book so far – it’s certainly the first confirmed title in my Books of the Year list. I’m fascinated by novels that look for the gaps in well-known stories and events, and Hamnet does this so brilliantly.
We are told in the historical note at the beginning that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at the age of eleven. The link with this son’s name and early death, and the play Shakespeare puts on a few years later, is made by many scholars, most notably perhaps by Greenblatt, who is quoted by O’Farrell. But that’s where the focus on Shakespeare himself ends. As soon as the novel begins, we are in a more private territory, and this story really belongs to Shakespeare’s wife.
O’Farrell’s decision to use the name given in her father’s will, Agnes, works to separate the woman from the expectations we might have of ‘Anne Hathaway’, the older woman who stayed behind whilst her brilliant husband made his name in London. In Agnes we have a whole woman in her own right. She is not educated, but she is fiercely intelligent and intuitive. As her new husband says, ‘[she sees] the world as no one else does.’ Agnes has learned from the natural world and makes others uncomfortable with what she can see in their lives. She makes a home for her growing family and a reluctant ally of her stern mother-in-law.
In this story, her husband remains just that – often referred to dismissively by Agnes’ brother as ‘the lad’ or ‘Latin boy’. His power with language is of little use in a world where life is easily made vulnerable (the section where we trace the journey of the fleas that will bring the plague to Henley Street is deeply unsettling, particularly in the current context). I was very amused by the scene where Agnes, who has taken herself off to the forest to give birth to her first child, is found by her brother and helpless spouse, the latter being reduced to ‘trailing in [Bartholomew’s] wake … throwing words and words and more words into the greenery.’
This is primarily an incredibly moving account of parental grief. Hamnet’s short life is rendered so vividly that when his death does come, I wept. Harder to read still are the following scenes where Agnes prepares his body for burial. Taking a child’s name from the 400-year-old registers of Baptisms and Burials, and producing such scenes of intense grief is a powerful thing indeed. I will look at the opening scenes of Hamlet with new eyes. But what I take from this novel is Agnes’ indomitable love for her children, and the overwhelming sense of vulnerability such love brings with it.