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Please see archive for October's discussion of There There by Tommy Orange

November 2021
Hamnet
Maggie O'Farrell


Warning: plot spoil.

This prizewinning novel, published in 2020, centres on the life led in Stratford-upon-Avon by Shakespeare's wife, the woman known as Anne - or Agnes - Hathaway, while Shakespeare was living his life as a playwright in London, during which time their eleven-year-old son Hamnet died. The novel has received almost blanket rave reviews in the mainstream literary pages, claimed by some as O'Farrell's 'finest novel yet.'

It seemed to me an idea full of exciting thematic possibilities, and promised perhaps some interesting insights about a playwright whose work makes up such a huge part of our literary consciousness and literary tradition. In addition, I had read another novel by O'Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, which I had found immersive (though that was perhaps partly because its subject matter links to that in my own novel Astral Travel, which I was writing at the time), so I was keen to read Hamnet and suggested it for the group. I am sorry to say that in the event I was surprised to be extremely disappointed in this book, and almost everyone present felt the same, as did Mark, who was unable to attend but sent a pretty dismissive note about the book. Ann said that she had almost given up on it, and John had done so. Only Jenny, who had read it twice, liked it, and said she liked it even more the second time around.

The book opens with eleven-year-old Hamnet coming downstairs to look for help because his twin sister upstairs has been taken ill, finding no one else at home and having to seek elsewhere. Straight away for me the novel revealed one of its main faults. The situation depicted here is clearly one of urgency - and some reviewers have indeed praised it for its urgency - but I found that the writing militated against any sense of urgency whatever. It is leisurely, ponderous even, with far too much time and space - pages, in fact - spent describing the surroundings, basically setting the Elizabethan scene, as the boy runs looking for help. We get a long contemplative description of the house, of the boy's grandfather's glove-making workshop, of the streets as he runs through them. We are told by the narrator that the boy in fact isn't noticing these things - and then we are treated to a page-long portrayal of the boy's personality: 'He has a tendency to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him' - but the point is we are being made to notice, indeed relish the scene around him - as a matter of historical curiosity - as well as the filled-in character study, and so the boy's present worries and the plight of his sister become defocussed and distanced.

This is a problem that continues for the whole of the book, which moves between the events around Hamnet's death and the earlier courtship and marriage of Anne/Agnes and Shakespeare. It felt to me - and to the others in the group - that the whole novel consisted mainly of scene-setting. Since the novel is set mainly within an absence - Shakespeare's absence from the family home - for much of the book not much happens (in spite the title, Hamnet is in fact out of focus for much of the book). Instead, much is given over to describing the household setups and processes and the herbal ministrations of Agnes who is depicted here as a kind of fay/wild creature of the woods cum earth mother/healer-witch with supernatural senses. Reviewers have said that the book wears its research lightly, but we felt that on the contrary the research smothers and weighs it down entirely. As for the prose itself, the rhythm is soporific, with frequent overblown lists of nouns or adjectives divided by commas, usually in sets of three, creating a downward fall at the ends of sentences: Agnes's bees cling 'to their comb, their prize, their work'; 'Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre.' The distancing of the characters and situation is further created by occasional authorial pullings back from the scenes, as, for instance, we see them interacting through the eyes of a group of unknowing children watching from afar, or from the viewpoint of a flying owl, or simply a detached authorial viewpoint. As John pointed out, the viewpoint is all over the place, moving from character to character and out towards the narrator without any apparent reason or scheme, with a resulting loss of forward narrative drive. As Ann in our group said, the whole thing would have pulled together better if it had all been done from Agnes's viewpoint.

So for us the book lacked narrative drive and psychological pulse, and it never seemed to me fully imagined. The characters - including Agnes - never came fully to life, which belies the blurbs's claims for it as 'the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten' and 'the story of a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit off the woman he loves.'

These are outright misrepresentations, as is the claim that it's 'the story of a kestrel and its mistress'. (One viewpoint that is never included is that of the kestrel Agnes owns when Shakespeare first meets her; it quickly disappears from the book after she gives it up to move into the Shakespeare family home, and little use is made of it thematically.) Hamnet, as I say, is forgotten for much of the book, and it is a clear authorial choice to make the book very much not Shakesepeare's story, but Agnes's. He is absent from this story in more ways than one. He is never actually named - he is the 'tutor', 'the glovemaker's son', 'the playwright'. When he does appear - near the start, as tutor to Agnes's stepbrothers and as her suitor, and later when he visits the family home from London, he is still something of an absence, with a strangely wimpish personality for the writer of those lusty plays. There is an implication that in the early days his real nature was being suppressed - there are hidden depths that Agnes divines at their first meeting via her clairvoyant method of pressing the skin between first finger and thumb, a hidden 'landscape' - and, as far as I remember, there is even a statement that he reverts to his earlier personality when he returns, ie that he has a different personality in London from the one he has at home, but we have to take the author's word for it. We never see any real evidence of that psychological 'landscape' beyond our extratextual knowledge of those plays. The only hint of any spirit in him is his memory of an incident when, for once, he stood up to his bullying father, but his subsequent behaviour with his father belies the promise of this (and in fact comes over as inconsistency). We all thought it a great mistake to make Shakespeare such a nothingness, since it gave us no clue as to Agnes's attraction to him, or the emotional import for her of his absence from their home. Someone, I think Doug, said, to the agreement of others, that it was in any case very hard, due to the overall distancing, to get a grip on Agnes's psychology, and on her development from a wild child of the woods to the earth mother/witch of the subsequent chapters.

Something else bogging the narrative down is irrelevant detail, often holding up the action at potentially dynamic moments and dissipating the possibility of tension. For instance, as we are leading up to the climax of the book, Agnes finally goes to London to seek out her husband, and arrives at the house where he is lodging. She is greeted by a girl who is described in such vivid detail that I and others in the group thought she was going to be significant, but she turns out not to be significant in any way. Even Jenny wondered why, in a section describing the progress of a plague-carrying flea from Alexandria to Stratford, much is made of the fact that the sailor boy involved was from the Isle of Wight, with ultimately no apparent significance.

As for the 'climax', it seemed anticlimactic, and certainly artificial. Agnes (who can't read) travels to London because she has been told that the title of Shakespeare's current play is the name of their dead son. (An epigraph explains that 'Hamnet' and 'Hamlet' were interchangeable for Elizabethans.) This has deeply upset her. When it comes to Hamnet, her clairvoyance has failed her: used to 'seeing' people's futures, she did not foresee Hamnet's death, and, used to sensing the presence of the departed, she has been unable to sense any presence of the dead Hamnet. Now, with this news, she feels that Shakespeare has stolen him from her. None of this rang psychologically true for us (why wouldn't she see it as Shakespeare's tribute to Hamnet?) , and in any case we didn't find it convincing as a reason for her journey to London. Arriving at a performance of the play, she discovers Shakespeare playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and in the role of Hamlet a boy whom Shakespeare has chosen for his likeness to Hamnet, and has schooled in Hamnet's demeanour and gestures. At this she understands: Shakespeare has brought his dead son back and taken his place as a ghost. At least I think that was it: it was hard to make head or tail of the psychology of it, and by this time I hardly cared. And it seemed an extremely artificial way of linking Shakespeare's son and the play.

There has been a long-standing discussion in our group about whether or not you come to novels for facts. I am strongly of the view that facts are not what you come to novels for, but, since Shakespeare is such a huge part of my own literary background, I did approach this novel with an interest in the historical setting. However, all of the above led me not to trust this portrayal, and I have to admit that if I come across an obviously wrong fact in a novel, then my whole trust in the novel crumbles. There were some glaring errors here. It's not unusual to come across errors in novels, missed by copyeditors (and I put my own hand up - I know that at least one of my novels has at least one blooper), but as Ann said, it's hard to forgive factual errors that are central to a novel, as happens here. The biggest error for me came with the treatment of the fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith: throughout they are treated by the author as identical twins (not possible if the twins are of different sex). Much is made of their identical nature, presumably in an attempt to establish the biographical basis of the themes of twinning and mirroring in Shakespeare's plays. Furthermore, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of their identicality: while we are told that they would sometimes dress up in each other's clothes in a way that fooled the whole family, it later turns out that Judith is a weakling, and obviously smaller than her brother. Ann said that the point at which she almost gave up on the novel was when the ship with the plague-carrying flea docked at (landlocked) Aleppo.

It is not known what Hamnet died of, but this novel proposes that he died of the bubonic plague brought by this flea. Ann, who is an expert in social history, pointed out that people would have kept well away from a house of pestilence, which does not happen here. She also felt that travel between Stratford and London would have been easier in the Elizabethan era than is portrayed and indeed made much of in Agnes's journey to London. Ann also noted something that had occurred to me: that, in spite of the stress in this novel on the household doings - Agnes's gardening and bee-keeping and medicine-making, the breadmaking and soap-making - there is no sense of the sheer back-breaking work that all this would have been, or its time-consuming nature. It would not in fact have been possible to do all of the things that Agnes seems to do, with apparent miraculous ease, in one day, or indeed as discreetly as she seems to in her early days living with Shakespeare's family. In spite of the supposed emotional hardship for Agnes of her husband's absence, which should have been unsettling, and her grief after her son's death, the whole thing came over as an unrealistic idyll. Ann said that what it reminded her of more than anything was the tales of Little Grey Rabbit (who lives in a house and bakes and grows carrots). By sheer coincidence, the day before our meeting I had been looking at a book of Beatrix Potter nursery rhymes, and an illustration of a rabbit tipping cowslips from her pinafore into an old-fashioned steen to make cowslip wine had immediately brought this book to mind for me. Ann suggested that the reason it has been so praised in spite of all its faults, is precisely that feelgood fairytale air, just right for a readership locked down in a pandemic and requiring comfort and escape from harsh realities. This seemed completely right to the rest of us, and Jenny said with a grin that that was probably why she enjoyed it.


The next meeting will be in December when we'll discuss Nora Webster by Colum Toibin (Jenny's suggestion).


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