|The cover on my book and on this book differ. The subtitle of mine says, "A Novel of the Plague", where this one says, "A Novel."|
I should say at the outset---I loved this book, Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O'Farrell. That said, I recognize that my feelings toward the book may end up being a problem for our upcoming book club discussion. Usually if one person loves a book there is another who hates it then the discussion devolves into squabbling match defending one's opinion rather than discussing the merits or aspects of the book. We'll see if this happens this time.
Hamnet, which I'm assuming many of you know, was William Shakespeare's only son. Little is known about Shakespeare outside of his brilliant plays. It is known that he married Anne (or, according to some records, Agnes) Hathaway when she was 26 and he was 18 and that she was three months pregnant. Together they had three children: Susanna, born six months after their wedding, and twins, Judith and Hamnet, born three years later. Shakespeare's father, James, was a glove maker and for a while was the mayor of Stratford, though later some event occurred that caused him to lose his position and his prestige in the town. William Shakespeare was the oldest living child to his parents, he had several younger brothers and a sister. At the time of their marriage it is likely, though not known for sure, that William and Anne (Agnes) lived in an attached house next to his parents' home. Later, after he had established himself as a playwright and an actor, they moved to a large house (the second largest) in Straford which he bought, though Shakespeare himself was mostly away living and performing in London. Scholars also have found records that both Suzanna and Judith grew up and got married but Hamnet died when he was just eleven years old. It is not known what caused his death but it is very possible that it was due to the Black Death (the bubonic plague), which was a very common cause of death in those days. Four years after the boy's death his father wrote "Hamlet" (a name synonymous with Hamnet) possibly as an homage to the memory of his son. Many consider "Hamlet" to be one of the finest plays ever written. Shakespeare was able to transpose his grief into a masterpiece.
From these few scant details, Maggie O'Farrell has crafted a beautiful and believable story. About her book, Where the World Ends, another fiction book based on scant details of an historic event, Geraldine McCaughrean wrote in her notes, "What you are reading is a true story...and there again, it's not. Fiction is elastic: it stretches to encircle true facts and then crimps them into shape to create Story." Taking the barest of details about Shakespeare and his life and his family, O'Farrell has done the same thing and created an amazing 'Story.'
So why did I like Hamnet so much? First, the book was only tangentially about Shakespeare, who interestingly goes unnamed throughout the book. It is more a book about a marriage, about domestic life in the late 1500s, and about grief, specifically a parent's grief after the death of a child. Like so many marriages the one between William and Agnes (as she called in the book) is complicated and messy, yet O'Farrell also makes it full of love and passion. The scene where they first make love is in such a unique setting---the apple barn, where the apples twist and jiggle around as the couple are likewise bouncing around. A common enough act gets turned on its head by the action of the apples.
Secondly, though the subtitle mentions that the novel is about the plague, there is really very little about the disease and there are no lengthy, science-y descriptions of the causes and effects of it. There is, however, one very clever 10-page sequence about how the plague reached the Shakespeare children. "For the pestilence to reach Warwicksire, England, in the summer of
1596," O'Farrell writes, "two events need to occur in the lives of two
separate people, and then these people need to meet" (140). Then, like a forensic epidemiologist, she charts the original flea and its progeny as they make their way from Alexandria aboard a merchant vessel living on monkeys, cats, midshipmen, glass blowers, and finally entering Stratford on rags designed to keep the glass bobbles safe. Judith happens to be present when the glass bobbles are unpackaged, along with the fleas therein. The transmission of the plague through such an unlikely route seemed terribly prescient today with the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and its variants twirling around the globe. The timeliness of the page 56 quote, too, has struck me. Even in Elizabethan England the Queen knew about social distancing and quarantines. (See below.)
Agnes (Anne) Hathaway is a remarkable character. She is a kind and thoughtful healer who grows her own herbs which she puts to good use in her community. A comparison to Cinderella comes to mind--a hard worker and completely overworked and overlooked. At the moment when her children are falling ill with the plague, she is a mile away dealing with bees which have left their hive and swarmed in a nearby tree. While she is gathering the bees back from the swarm her son Hamnet is running around (see page one quote at bottom of blog post) trying to find her to help his sister Judith, the first to fall ill to the disease.
Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry ... It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life (9,10).
She will look back on that day with the bees many times. Though she was unaware of her children's illness, poor Agnes is left to
suffer from guilt at not knowing. O'Farrell writes, "There is a part of her that
would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to
spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet's death." But of
course she realizes, "There will be no going back. No undoing what was
laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she
will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only
one way" (241). Such profound grief.
Often when I read historical fiction I am struck by how clear the details of life in the by-gone era. It is as if the author has actually stepped back in time to get everything just right. Here O'Farrell helps the reader experience life in the sixteenth century where little is known about the ways diseases are spread and where cleanliness is hard work and then someone throws the contents of the chamber pot out the window. Where people often employed magical thinking and often spoke of seeing ghosts and worried about the dead being lonely. While descriptions of the domestic life of the time were very clear, many of the details of the story are delivered in a dream-like fashion as though the characters were almost sleep-walking through their own lives. Perhaps that is the way life feels after a tragic, untimely death.
I loved the ending even though I wanted the story to go on and on and I didn't want it to end. As I read the last passage and closed the book, I sighed to myself--"perfect."
As it turns out, it is my turn to lead the discussion this month on Hamnet. Here are a few resources I think will assist me as I prepare for the club meeting:
- The UK Women's Prize for Fiction-Reading Guide for Hamnet.
- Sally Flint's Book and Family Chat - Hamnet
- Goop Book Club quotations to generate discussion
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
If the plague comes to London, he can be back with them for months. The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public. It is wrong to wish for plague, her mother said, but Susanna had done this a few times under her breath, at night, after she has said her prayers. She always crosses herself afterwards. But still she wishes it. Her father home, for months, with them.