Maggie O’Farrell is an author I’ve heard a lot about over the years from other bloggers without ever feeling tempted to read myself, but the subject of her latest novel (the death of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, at the age of eleven), appealed to me and I thought I would give it a try.
Despite the title, the focus of the novel is really Shakespeare’s wife, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes; she is more often known as Anne Hathaway, but Agnes is apparently the name by which her father referred to her in his will. Agnes, as she is depicted here, is an unconventional woman who flies a kestrel, has a knowledge of herbs and healing – and, some say, possesses the powers of second sight. Her husband, in contrast, is less well defined as a character. He is never even given a name; he is always ‘the husband’, ‘the father’ or, sometimes, ‘the Latin tutor’.
The novel begins with Hamnet alone in the empty workshop of his grandfather, a glovemaker, desperately searching for an adult who can help him; his sister Judith is unwell and he doesn’t know what to do. His father is in London and Agnes is away tending her beehives. It is some time later when Agnes returns home and hears the news of Judith’s illness and she will always wonder whether things might have played out differently if she had arrived earlier:
Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry…It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.
Judith has a disease which appears to be the bubonic plague but we know from the historical records that it is Hamnet who will die. Knowing this in advance doesn’t spoil the story at all because we don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen or under what circumstances or exactly what impact Hamnet’s death is going to have on the people around him; these are things to be decided by the author and explored over the course of the novel. And although many people will be drawn to this book by the Shakespeare connection, I would describe it more as a book about grief and loss. O’Farrell’s portrayals of a grieving mother, a grieving father and grieving siblings – and the differences in the way each of these people handles their grief – are beautifully and poignantly written.
We are also taken back to an earlier time, before Hamnet was even born, when a Latin tutor arrives at the home of a sheep farmer to teach his young sons and becomes captivated with the boys’ half-sister. The tutor, despite not being named, is clearly Shakespeare, and the young woman, of course, is his future wife Agnes. The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time throughout the novel, alternating between the early days of Agnes and Shakespeare’s relationship and the story of Hamnet’s death, which takes place in the summer of 1596.
Although, as I’ve said, the writing is beautiful, the book is written in the third person present tense and that’s something I often dislike. It doesn’t necessarily stop me from enjoying a book (I don’t seem to have a problem with it in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, for example) but in general I find it distancing and distracting and that was the case here. Another thing I found jarring was O’Farrell’s decision to avoid using Shakespeare’s name. I can understand that the reason for doing so must have been to keep the focus on Agnes and the children and to prevent it from becoming just another novel about Shakespeare, but she goes to such lengths to find alternative ways to describe him that I felt it actually drew attention to him rather than the other way around. This, and the decision to use the name Agnes instead of the more familiar Anne, makes me wonder whether the links to Shakespeare were really necessary at all; I think the story might have worked just as well with entirely fictional characters.
Finally, I want to mention one of the most memorable sections of the book: a detailed and imaginative description of how the plague which takes Hamnet’s life makes its journey from a glassmaker’s workshop in Venice to the faraway Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon. An aspect of the novel that turned out to be particularly timely and relevant, although O’Farrell couldn’t have known it while she was writing it!
If you enjoy reading historical fiction with a Shakespeare connection, here is a list of other books I’ve read either about or inspired by Shakespeare.