• Friday, November 26th, 2021

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has worked as a chambermaid, cycle courier, teacher, arts administrator, journalist in Hong Kong and Deputy Literary Editor of “The Independent On Sunday” newspaper. Presently O’Farrell works as a full-time novelist and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her fellow novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their three children.

O’Farrell has written several acclaimed books, has won various awards and prizes, and her work has been translated into many languages. Her latest novel, Hamnet, published in 2020, received the Women’s Prize for fiction the same year it was published, and in 2021, it won the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize. It is also to be adapted into a film. In 2021 O’Farrell was elected a Fellow Of The Royal Society Of Literature.

Hamnet is a historical fiction about William Shakespeare and his family. Moreover, despite the novel’s title, it is about his wife, Agnes, that O’Farrell wanted to rehabilitate because Agnes “has too often been inexplicably maligned, criticised, vilified and misrepresented”, said the author. She wanted readers to know Shakespeare’s wife from a different aspect than the negative historically known ones.

The Australian feminist writer, Dr Germaine Greer, prior to O’Farrell, brought Ann Hathaway (Agnes) into the front line in her book published in 2008 called “Shakespeare’s Wife”, portraying Ann Hathaway as an extraordinary, intelligent, impressive woman.

Shakespeare’s name is never mentioned in Hamnet. Justified by O’Farrell in these words: “I avoided using his name because the word ‘Shakespeare’ proved too distracting for me, and I knew it would be the same for readers. With this novel, I’m asking readers to forget everything they think they know about him and open themselves up to a new interpretation. Which is why I refer to him as ‘the father’, ‘the Latin tutor’, ‘the brother’, and so on”.

The novel introduces Shakespeare as an eighteen-year-old grammar school graduate, the eldest son of the alderman ( town councillor) and glove maker, John Shakespeare, living in Stratford-Upon-Avon in Warwickshire when he falls in love with the twenty-six-year-old Agnes Hathaway – known in history as Ann and only as Agnes in her father’s will and the Christian name preferred by the author for her book.

The eccentric and intuitive Agnes is an essential character in the story. She is very close to nature and a gifted herbalist who uses her herbs to heal people. She marries William Shakespeare in 1582 while three months pregnant with his first child, Susanna – which was not an uncommon situation in those days. Three years later, the couple will have twins, Hamnet and Judith.

In 1596, at the age of eleven, Hamnet died of the Bubonic plague. Four years later, his playwright, poet and actor father wrote one of his most famous plays and called it Hamlet in memory of his beloved, untimely deceased son (according to Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were entirely interchangeable at the time).

In Hamnet, the author portrays with great empathy and depth the premature loss of a child and the incurable suffering and grieving of a helpless mother faced with such unexpected calamity. O’Farrell believes that “grief is the other side of love, or, perhaps, a greater part of it” and that it changes one’s life forever. The description of the mother, Agnes, washing and laying her son’s body for burial is heartbreaking.

In her book “The First Hand That Held Mine” (which we read and discussed in our Book Club in 2015), like in Hamnet, O’Farrell emphasises the intense feeling of motherly love. She says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. Furthermore, she could not have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself.

This exact sentiment is described when one of the characters called Lexie says, just before drowning: “Didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the man she loved, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she will not experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

The author also wanted to focus on Shakespeare’s son Hamnet whose name has been neglected in all his father’s biographies and “his short life relegated to a literary footnote”. She adds: “without his tragically short life — we wouldn’t have the play ‘Hamlet.’ We probably wouldn’t have ‘Twelfth Night.’ As an audience, we are enormously in debt to him.”

In 1596, the year of Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare wrote his play, King John, where Constance in Act III, Scene IV, overwhelmingly grieving over her dead son, says in her touching speech:
“My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!”

O’Farrell’s vivid descriptions of everyday life and surroundings plunge the reader into the ambience of Shakespearean family life and Elizabethan England. It is clear to the reader that a considerable amount of research went into the story, primarily that there is little known about Shakespeare’s life despite the rich legacy of his work. O’Farrell has succeeded in writing a story about the sixteenth-century famous writer and his family, focusing on his wife Agnes and his son Hamnet, differently from other writers. The author proves that there is always a new perspective to every historical figure.

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Category: Book Reviews
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