By Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, 384PP, £20/$26.95
In 1596, an 11-year-old boy died of the plague in Stratford-Upon-Avon. We know his name, we know who his parents and who his siblings were, but otherwise there is very little known about him. We don’t need to know much, after all.
Maggie O’Farrell has taken the bare facts about Hamnet Shakespeare, and turned them into a novel of shattering, powerful, emotional effect. However, although the book opens with “a boy [is] coming down a flight of stairs”, Hamnet himself is not in fact at the novel’s centre. Nor is his never-named father, who is only ever referred to by his relationship to others: “the husband”; “her father”; “the brother”. The only time the name “Will” is used in the book is, with a kind of delicious irony, in the dedication, to O’Farrell’s own husband.
The real centre of this book is Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, referred to throughout as Agnes, the name by which she is called in her father’s will.
O’Farrell’s decision to call her character Agnes, rather than Anne, is one of many shifts in focus that are so successful in the novel. O’Farrell uses the few known facts about Hathaway and from them creates a character of real originality, power and clout. This woman is not just an adjunct to a famous husband, mother to a dead son, daughter-in-law of a glover – she is a woman who creates her own destiny.
Orphaned young, unhappily living with her widowed stepmother, she falls for the Latin tutor (working towards paying off his father’s debt to the family) and seduces him. Pregnant, she flees to take refuge in his family and marries him.
Agnes is no ordinary young woman. Her dead mother is rumoured to have come from the woods, and there is something magical, something “seeing” in Agnes. She has foreseen her own death and knows that she will have two children at her deathbed. Giving birth to twins shocks and confuses her until her desperate fight to keep Judith alive during the plague. It is because of Judith’s poor health as a baby that the family has not moved to London with the husband as he begins to become successful in the playhouse; there is no hint in this version of a young man tiring of his older wife.
Moving back and forth in time – from the courtship, to the birth of babies, the illness of Judith and death of Hamnet, O’Farrell creates an absorbing world in 17th-century Stratford. Her use of sound in particular is beautifully detailed and evocative. Hamnet, listening out for an answer to his call, hears “Nothing. Just the creaking of beams expanding gently in the sun, the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes, the crack of the fire, the indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty.” That’s some kind of “nothing”.
Listening is at the heart of this novel. Agnes “listens” to people’s hearts, but in this novel tangentially about our greatest writer, O’Farrell does not forget the importance of listening to words. “The words exist, if you know how to listen”, Agnes’s sister-in-law reflects while listening to a baby making a “string of sounds … ‘eff’ is in there, for ‘leaf’ and ‘ize’ for ‘Eliza’ and ‘oop’ for ‘soup’.”
The love story at the heart of the novel also relies on listening. “She thinks, as she holds the grain, of that landscape of caverns and hollows she sensed within him”; Agnes did not become pregnant by anybody – she knew this Latin tutor at a deep level, and chose him for the unseen she recognised.
But neither is the husband represented as some kind of a hero. When Agnes takes herself off into the woodland to give birth to her first child, and is tracked down by her brother and husband, it is the brother who takes control while the husband “makes a fuss and bother of the moment, gesturing, clutching his hair, his voice still churning away, throwing out words and words and more words into the greenery”.
And of course, the husband uses words to deal with the blow of his son’s death. Hamlet and Hamnet were the same name and it is when Agnes sees a playbill with her son’s name on it that she first feels betrayed by her absent husband.
Even now, O’Farrell does not focus on the playwright, but on his wife. It was she who, her mastery of herbs now useless, holds her son as he dies (and this reviewer wept at power of that scene) and it is Agnes’s reaction to the playwright’s reaction which holds the reader in the final scenes of the book.
This story of love and loss, of maternity and wifehood, is written beautifully, richly yet sparely. It is a masterpiece.