Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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.

28 thoughts on “Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. whatmeread says:

    I’ve been waiting for this book but my copy doesn’t arrive for a few more weeks. This one sounds a lot different from her other books. If you want to get a really good flavor for her in an affecting story, try The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. All the books I’ve read by her are good, but this one is the best I’ve read so far. Most of her books are modern, but this has to do with family secrets from the past.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I read and loved O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing of Esme Lennox and always meant to read more. I think I would like this one. I would be interested to see how she does what she does here even though some of those things bothered you;-)

  3. setinthepast says:

    I’ve got this because it was on 99p Kindle offer one day. It’s really going to annoy me that Anne Hathaway is referred to as Agnes – I take the point about the will, but everyone knows her as Anne!

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it. I had a few problems with it, including the annoying name change, but I thought there were more positives than negatives overall.

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I really like Maggie O’Farrell’s writing so I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this one – whenever that might be.

  5. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I’ve read mixed reviews of this book, and I think I would possibly find the use of the name Agnes somewhat disorienting, but I will probably get round to reading it eventually. I’m glad you enjoyed it over all despite a couple of reservations.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I think the name change from Anne to Agnes would bother me too – it seems unnecessary and a bit gimmicky. It would make me feel as if Shakespeare had committed bigamy… 😉

    • Helen says:

      It did feel very gimmicky and so did the way she avoided calling Shakespeare by name. The whole Shakespeare connection was unnecessary in my opinion – it would have worked just as well with a fictional family.

  7. Rachel - What Rachel Did says:

    I’ve read a few articles by Maggie O’Farrell about this book – which I personally really enjoyed – and the name change to Agnes was because she is mentioned in her father’s will as Agnes, not Anne. Apparently the pronunciation was quite similar at the time, and she felt like if anyone knew Anne/Agnes’s name, it would be her father! I had no idea either ☺️

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Rachel. I think I just had trouble connecting with the writing style – probably just a case of me not being the right reader for this book. I’m sure Agnes is the correct name as that’s what her father called her.

  8. whatcathyreadnext says:

    Your feelings about the book match my own. I enjoyed it, admired the skilful writing and the imagination, especially in the particular section you pick out (I picked out the same section in my review) but I wasn’t as blown away by it as much as I’d expected or as others obviously have been. Lots of people naming it their book of the year, for example. Perhaps it was a case of too high expectations or I’ve simply read too much historical fiction and am now much much harder to please!

  9. Lark says:

    It’s certainly an interesting idea for a story. I don’t know much about Shakespeare’s family. (Didn’t even know he had children.) But I think the present tense thing would bug me, too. It’s not my favorite writing style. 🙂

  10. Sandra says:

    I took advantage of the 99p kindle offer so I have this ready to go when time allows. Having warning of the points you raise is helpful. I don’t think they will be a problem for me, especially now I know what to expect. Great review, Helen, thank you!

    • Helen says:

      I think you’ll enjoy this book, Sandra. Most people seem to have loved it, so hopefully the things I had problems with won’t bother you.

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