Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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Reviewed by Harriet

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, 
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;           

So wrote Shakespeare in King John, either just before or just after the death of his little son Hamnet in 1596. Just before would have been an interesting case of precognition, but we’ll never know. In any case, this is not something that Maggie O’Farrell refers to in her novel, which is based around Hamnet’s death at the age of eleven.

O’Farrell imagines the circumstances that led up to this tragic event, and the way it affected his family, in particular his mother, who we know as Anne Hathaway, but who is referred to here by the name her father gave in his will, Agnes. William Shakespeare is never mentioned by name in this book. He’s there, very much so in the first part of the novel, but only referred to as ‘the glove maker’s son’, ‘the Latin tutor’, ‘the husband’, ‘the father’, and the reader is almost never privy to his inner thoughts.

O’Farrell takes the known facts, which are notoriously thin on the ground, and builds a wonderfully absorbing and convincing story around them. The cause of Hamnet’s death is not known, but it’s perfectly possible that he died of the plague, which had hit Stratford at that time. Here, it is his twin sister Judith who falls ill – she’s already a delicate child and unlikely to survive. So her brother, a fine strong boy, actually lies in bed next to her, willing the infection to pass from her to him. Which of course it does. 

Naturally, then, the physical presence of the boy disappears from the novel fairly early on. But it is the effect his death has on his mother that is the subject of what follows. The reader knows Agnes well by this time, as she first appears as a young woman, living with her father and hated stepmother in the countryside outside Stratford (though the town itself is never named). Strong and independent, she avoids the farmhouse as much as possible, preferring to spend her time gathering herbs or hawking with her own kestrel. Then she meets the young man who has been employed as a Latin tutor to her young half-brothers. He is the first person to truly appreciate her for what she is: ‘extraordinary to be so close to a creature so emphatically from another element, from wind or sky or perhaps even myth’, he thinks. One thing leads to another, and soon Agnes is pregnant. Before much time has passed, a wedding is arranged and soon she is living in Henley Street with her new husband. 

Her in-laws grudgingly accept her, but find her hard to understand. Her knowledge of herbs is much appreciated, but Agnes also has the ability to understand peoples’ deepest motives and thought processes, and also to predict future events. She knows her young husband will never be happy with the life his parents want for him, following his father into the glove trade, so when he gets the opportunity to travel to London to help sell his father’s gloves, she encourages him to go. She realises that he will find there whatever his true calling in life is to be, even if it means he will no longer be living with his family.

When Judith falls ill, word is sent to London asking her father to return. But by the time he gets the message and manages to travel home, Hamnet has died. Agnes is soon left alone to deal with her grief while her husband returns to his mysterious life in London. She suffers all the agonies any bereaved mother will go through, but her pain is exacerbated by the fact that her ability to predict future events had deserted her in the case of Hamnet’s death. And she feels resentful because her husband is apparently untouched by the same grief that has almost paralysed her. It’s several years before she comes to understand that he has found his own way of expressing it.

Despite dealing with such an upsetting subject, this is a surprisingly comforting book. Who has not wondered how Shakespeare’s wife felt, left on her own when her husband carved out his brilliant career? How did she feel about the women he undoubtedly slept with when he was away? (‘It’s as if her mother needs London, and all he does there, to rub off before she can accept him back’, thinks Judith). Was she happy in the new grand house he had built for her? Why did he leave her his ‘second best bed’ in his will? And, of course, did she ever see one of his plays? All these questions find an answer here. And, in the final analysis, it seems that despite the separation, the doubts and the pain, this is a relationship strong enough to endure.

Besides being superbly and seamlessly researched – the sights, sounds and smells of the time and place are wonderfully vivid – this novel is a thing of great beauty for the quality of its prose and its superb, deeply moving depiction of parental grief. If you’ve read Maggie O’Farrell’s autobiographical book, I Am I Am I Am, which I reviewed here, you will know that she has a child with a rare and life-threatening health condition, such that her possible loss is present every day. Is this relevant here? I suppose it must be, but it shouldn’t diminish the superb imaginative achievement of the novel.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (Tinder Press, 2020). 978-1472223791, 384pp., hardback.

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  1. So glad you enjoyed this Harriet. It’s on my shelf and I will get round to it soon I hope. (Annabel)

  2. This is one of the finest books I have ever read.

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