Six Degrees of Separation: From Hamnet to Macbeth

It’s the first Saturday of the month (and of the new year) which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we are beginning with Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I read this book last year and although I thought the writing was beautiful, I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done. It’s a great book to start this month’s chain with, though, because there are so many possible options for the first link!

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

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.

Shakespeare is not named in Hamnet; he is always referred to as ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’, which puts the focus on Agnes and their children. The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan (1) does use Shakespeare’s name, as well as the more commonly used Anne Hathaway in place of Agnes, but it also focuses on Shakespeare as a husband and father and is written largely from his wife’s perspective.

Another book I’ve read with a title beginning ‘The Secret Life of’ is The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (2), a biography of one of my favourite Victorian authors. The writer of the biography, William M. Clarke, was married to Collins’ great-granddaughter, which gave him access to personal information about Collins’ private life, family relationships and romantic entanglements, and these things form the basis of the book. However, I found the writing style quite dry and I would also have preferred more discussion and analysis of Collins’ work as well as his life.

Next, I’m linking to a book by Wilkie Collins himself: The Frozen Deep (3), not one of his better known books but still one that I enjoyed reading. It’s a short one – a novella, really – but still an entertaining and compelling story, inspired by reports of Sir John Franklin’s famously doomed 1845 voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage during which the ships became icebound and the members of the expedition disappeared.

Clare Carson’s historical novel The Canary Keeper (4) is set just a few years after the Franklin Expedition. The novel follows Birdie Quinn, a young woman who finds herself a suspect in a murder case, as she travels to the Orkney Islands to try to identify the real killer and clear her name. As she investigates, she discovers some fascinating links between the murder and the expedition.

I can only think of one other novel I’ve read set in Orkney and that is King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett (5), a very different kind of story from The Canary Keeper and taking place many centuries earlier! This beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel is based around the theory that Macbeth, the historical King of Alba, and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were the same person.

This, of course, leads me to Macbeth by William Shakespeare (6) and so brings the chain full circle! It’s not often that I manage to do that, so I’m pleased to have achieved it with my first chain of the year.


And that’s this month’s Six Degrees of Separation. My links included Shakespeare, secret lives, Wilkie Collins, the Franklin Expedition, Orkney and Thorfinn/Macbeth.

In February we will be starting with Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.

30 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From Hamnet to Macbeth

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    You’ve managed to include two of my favourite authors in the six – Jude Morgan (have you read Passion, which is about Byron, Shelley and Keats through the eyes of their women?) and the incredible Dorothy Dunnett. I was going to visit Orkney this year in company with other Dunnetteers, but the trip has had to be cancelled, alas. Still, I’m determined to go one day!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I really enjoyed Passion, although I think my favourite of the three Jude Morgan books I’ve read is the one about the Brontë sisters, The Taste of Sorrow. I’m sorry the Orkney trip got cancelled! I hope it can go ahead at a later date.

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I haven’t felt up to reading Hamnet at the moment – stories about dead children aren’t good at the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times. But friends and colleagues have recommended it, so I might try when I feel more ready for it.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t very keen on Hamnet, to be honest, but most people seem to have loved it so I hope you do too. I can understand not wanting to read about depressing subjects at the moment!

  3. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I enjoyed the cyclicle nature of your chain, and am tempted by King Hereafter, I’ve never read Dunnett before, but know a few bloggers including yourself who speak very highly of her work.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Alyson. King Hereafter is fascinating, but my favourite Dunnett books are her six-volume series, the Lymond Chronicles. Her books aren’t for everyone, but I highly recommend trying them to see what you think!

      • Pam Thomas says:

        I would second that. Dunnett is my favourite author, and has been since I discovered her work at the tender age of 13 – when I couldn’t understand the half of it, but was completely hooked. The Lymond chronicles are my favourites, but King Hereafter is hugely impressive and she always writes absolutely beautifully, with a painter’s eye, and a wonderful turn of phrase. She does demand that you pay attention, though, and her books are the kind that repay much re-reading, because you notice new details every time. They’re rich, fascinating, crammed full of utterly memorable characters, scenes that can be sumptuously detailed or desperately traumatic, and leavened with a dry wit and humour. They are an acquired taste, but as one devotee pointed out, once you’ve acquired it, you have it for life. My mother, bless her, never managed it – she once said to me, ‘Isn’t that the book about the Scotsman who had trouble with his family?’ Well, yes, but so very much more than that! Try The Game of Kings, and persevere.

    • Helen says:

      The Orkney Islands is not a setting I’ve come across very often in books, so I was pleased that I’d read two books I could link in the chain.

  4. Lexlingua says:

    Ooh, I love Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of King series (House of Niccolo, not so much) … But I didn’t know she’d also explored Macbeth’s origins. And as for Wilkie Collins, I only knew about Moonstone and Woman in White, not his other works/ biographies. Learnt something new today! Happy #6Degrees.
    ~Six Degrees Post @Lexlingua

    • Helen says:

      I also preferred the Lymond books to Niccolo, but if you haven’t read King Hereafter yet I would highly recommend it. It’s not so much a retelling of Macbeth as a historical novel about the people and politics of that period, and it’s fascinating. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are Wilkie Collins’ most popular books, but it’s definitely worth exploring his lesser known work too. Armadale is my personal favourite.

  5. Davida Chazan says:

    Nicely done with the chain connecting back. By the way, if you’re still interested in that Franklin Expedition and its aftermath, you should read The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister – I reviewed it on my blog and it was one of my favorites of 2020. The premise is that Lady Franklin sends a group of women to find out what really happened to her husband’s expedition. Just amazing.

  6. margaret21 says:

    Years ago, our book group was sent the then latest Dorothy Dunnett to read. All I can remember is that not one of us succeeded in finishing it. Maybe it’s time to give her another chance. An interesting chain – and I still haven’t read any Wilkie Collins. I’ll TBR him!

    • Helen says:

      I love all of Dunnett’s books, but some of them can be difficult to get into and need some perseverance until things start to fall into place. I hope you have better luck this time if you do decide to give her another chance. Wilkie Collins is another of my favourite authors, so I’m glad you’re putting him on the TBR!

  7. Karen K. says:

    Too bad about the Wilkie Collins bio, he’s one of my favorite Victorian authors and I’d like to learn more about him. I was thinking about Peter Ackroyd’s bio of him, he’s a pretty good biographer. I haven’t read The Frozen Deep but it sounds intriguing! I just finished The New Magdalen this week and I quite enjoyed it – not my favorite of his books so far but it definitely kept my interest. It seemed very like a play in parts and was apparently adapted into a silent film about 100 years ago!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the Peter Ackroyd bio would be better than the one I read. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed The New Magdalen. I haven’t read that one yet but I’m hoping to get to it soon.

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