Books we love

This week, Fiona from Brompton Library will be reviewing Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.  

Hamnet book cover by Maggie O’Farrell

Over to Fiona to tell us more. 

Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize 2020, is named after Shakespeare’s son, who died of unknown causes at 11 years old.  The book focuses on Agnes (known as Anne Hathaway), Shakespeare’s wife, a woman who the author says has been vilified for 500 years.  Shakespeare was married at 18 to Agnes, who at the time was 26, and many historians have branded her an uneducated farm girl, a cradle-snatcher who trapped a young man into marrying her. However, very little is really known about Shakespeare’s marriage, his wife or his children other than a few scant facts and the details of his will, where he only left Agnes his second-best bed and the rest to his daughter.  Even the exact details of Hamnet’s death are unknown. 

O’Farrell focuses on Agnes, her marriage, her family and her children, with Hamnet’s death at the centre. Shakespeare is never mentioned by name, he is always named in relation to those around him; ‘the father’, ‘the husband’, ‘the glove-maker’s son’.   It focuses on the life of a woman, mostly alone with her children, and is rooted in the fields, forests and low-ceilinged rooms of Stratford.  The second-best bed even gets mentioned. 

I really loved this book.  If I’d had time, I could have easily read it in one sitting.  It is earthy, passionate, tender and deeply moving.  It has a folklore/fairy tale quality to it, brought to life by Agnes, a woman whose connection to the earth and her ways of reading people, makes her as much a poet as her husband.  The folklore atmosphere is heightened by the ever-present countryside that surrounds Stratford and Agnes mysterious nature.  

 There were points in the book that reminded me of Shakespeare’s plays.  O’Farrell does this quite subtly and is totally true to the story she is telling, sometimes at very poignant moments, but she has clearly drawn some parallels between his life and his plays; the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet; the playful twins who dress as each other from Twelfth Night; the fairy queen Titania and her wandering Oberon and, in the end, we come full circle back to Hamnet. 

Another interesting element is to the novel is the plague.  Before reading the book, I had read an interview with the author where she talks about her experience of being in lockdown having spent the previous while researching the black death and in an interview for the Women’s Prize, she says ‘I feel closer to the Elizabethans and the terror they must have felt with this ever-present disease.’  It also struck me that Shakespeare never wrote about the plague, but he was surrounded by it in London and would often return to Stratford when there were outbreaks of it.  Being in a similar type of outbreak, it’s easier to understand why he would rather focus on life as it is normally. 

Fiona, Brompton Library 

Copies are available to borrow using our Select and Collect service!