Book review: Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s bravura new novel opens with a terse “Historical Note”, which, given that it is set in the Elizabethan period, probably should not be subtitled “Spoilers”. As a whole it reads: “In the 1580s, a couple living in Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet”. As the secondary title to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII would put it: “All Is True”.
Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/ShutterstockMaggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock
Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock

If you are feeling a twinge of concern about a novelist releasing a Tudor historical novel at the same time as Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light, be not afraid. This is a remarkable piece of work, in which emotional intelligence and solid, intellectual research are evident, but with enough of a “space for fiction” to make it a novel and not a thesis.

How do you write a novel about Shakespeare? Others have tried – the only one which seems to me a success is Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like The Sun which, in a rather extravagant performance, only uses words used by Shakespeare (with one exception). I would suppose that the cardinal rule is: you can’t get into the mind of Shakespeare. A subsidiary recommendation is not to try to write in cod-Shakespearean, full of prithees and privies and fol-de-rols and hey, nonny, nos. Mostly because that’s not really like Shakespeare. O’Farrell excels in avoiding both the traps, and, perhaps most impressively of all, has fashioned a novel of true heart and character that can be read and appreciated even if you have no interest in Shakespeare at all.

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Part of the ingenuity is that Shakespeare is, if not absent, very much in the background. The two lensing characters are Agnes and Hamnet. Agnes is Anne Hathaway: Elizabethan orthography was rather more fluid than we have today, and it is also a subtle way to assert the fictive nature of the book. She has something in common with the depiction in Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, being assertive, clever and nobody’s fool. But O’Farrell adds in a layer of almost mysticism. To deploy and yet not succumb to the “witches were just clever herbalists oppressed by the patriarchy” is a cunning move. Hamnet is a clever and sensitive and imaginative boy; perhaps too clever and too sensitive and too imaginative. The Bard appears most frequently not as the Bard at all. He is “a Latin tutor”, “my son”, “that wageless, useless, beardless”, “my husband”, “the father”.

Even though there is no attempt to imitate Shakespeare, the novel does have a very distinctive set of Shakespearean registers. Shakespeare has an odd number of negative words, from privative suffixes, as seen above, to the use of “no” words (as in King Lear’s “no, no, no life!... Never, never, never, never, never!”) He also had a penchant for words beginning “un”, and this is replicated in O’Farrell. We get unfinished, unrisen, ungainly, unasked, unruffled, unmoving and many, many others. It gives a Shakespearean tang. More so, in scenes where Shakespeare is in dialogue with other characters, his most frequent response is “nothing”. Although this is an astute reading of the texture of Shakespeare’s style, it also serves the purpose of keeping him a blank. Nothing will come of nothing, speak again. There are other touches, such as Agnes’s bridal crown or herb garden which give the granular detail of flora that is reminiscent of the plays (such as Ophelia’s famous speech); or the details about Shakespeare’s father’s glove-making business. But it is not cluttered detail for its own sake.   

In the 20th century, academic controversy raged about the possible connections between the death of Hamnet and the tragedy of Hamlet – or even the links it might have to the lost son Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale or to the (slyly referenced) female twin who thinks her brother is dead in Twelfth Night. But the novel’s success is nothing whatsoever to do with where one thinks the balance of probabilities lies. Rather it is about grief, about the loss of a child, about the transformational capacity of art, about childbirth, about ambition, about absent fathers. These are all themes O’Farrell has explored before in novels like The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox, or The Hand That First Held Mine, and, as with her other novels (and her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am) the same shuttlecocking of chronology generates tension even when the outcome seems predestined. 

This is a staggeringly beautiful and unbearably poignant novel. O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction. When I finished it, I wondered – no, I hoped – that instead of shifting genre again, O’Farrell might not follow Mantel with a sequel. After all, the final years of Shakespeare between leaving the stage and dying are another curious absence.

In one scene Hamnet returns to “the narrow house, built in a gap, a vacancy”, making it much like the superior kind of historical novel. No-one is at home. “He pauses waiting for an answer but there is nothing: only silence”. “The rest is silence”, as Hamlet says. But there is still the rapturous applause of the audience. 

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, £20

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