Another zoom meeting during lockdown this month. We are getting more familiar with the technology but all of us still prefer to meet in person.
Hamnet is the story of the wife and children of an unnamed playwright of the sixteenth century living in the small village of Stratford, Warwickshire, England. It concerns Agnes (pronounced in the French way Ar-nes) and her children, Hamnet and Judith who are young twins and their older sister Susanna. We hear about Agnes’ early life and her courtship with the future playwright and the daily life of the village people. The crux of the novel is the very sad death of Hamnet from the pestilence at the age of 11 and the reactions by his mother and sisters.
Maggie O’Farrell is a prize winning UK author who has written 8 novels and the autobiography : I am, I am, I am.
All members enjoyed this novel and some even loved it and we were all very pleased to have read it.
- It inspired me to look into Shakespeare’s early life by reading a book by John Bell (of Bell Shakespeare company fame) called On Shakespeare. I have visited Stratford and Ann Hathaway’s cottage, a short walk out of Stratford and it was enjoyable to remember the scenery in reading this novel.
- I particularly appreciated the evocation of grief which was written so movingly. I have a few questions about this book though, so not totally won over by it.
- I really wanted to read it.
- I found it very moving, evocation of time showed that the author had researched the life of the villagers well. It was very dense at times and hard to penetrate the intensity but O’Farrell nailed it so well. The courtship scenes with Agnes and the playwright were good and the book was worthwhile.
- Reading about the sixteenth century plague during our pandemic was amazingly pertinent and the book was an incredible feat of the imagination and research.
- The grief struck me. I thought Agnes was a great character.
- It was a relief to read after having read Shuggie Bain, last month’s novel. I admired the way the author expressed the tenderness and the emotions of the characters. I wondered about the language at times as it seemed too much. I skipped over some passages. I loved the structure going backwards and forwards in the story.
- Immersive novel, a little dense but with evocative and beautiful language. It was about love and motherhood and grief. I wondered why not write about Shakespeare’s wife? The novelist nailed it.
- The portrayal of grief over the death of Hamnet was the ‘worst thing’. I felt that when the child died there was a loss of momentum in the second part.
- How did it get tied into the play of Hamlet? I am not clear on that aspect.
- I was won over on the second page with the sentence “ the smell of his grandparents’ house is always the same : …’ I can remember experiencing a similar sensation as a child. I loved all the details of the way people lived, it was fabulous detail. Including talking about the menstrual rags that had to be counted by the older women.
- I liked the structure of the child dying and the romance being interwoven through different time frames.
- I was lost on the mystical ‘stuff’. Hamlet is nothing like Hamnet. (It was pointed out that Shakespeare in the novel trained the actor to have similar mannerisms to his son.) The book is not about Hamlet or Hamnet. It is about motherhood and Agnes.
- I found it very readable and felt I got into the 16th century household. It was a poignant story and it starts off with a lot about emotion. Reminded me of The year of wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I found the story of the flea amazing, coming from Venice or in other stories from the Black sea.
Does the structure work ?
One member liked the weaving in and out of the stories and it seemed to her like two curves meeting at the end. The novelist pulls it off. It is not over-complicated and we enjoyed the dual storyline.
Why did O’Farrell write the book about this death?
Would it have had the same impact if it had just been chronological? We decided that the impact and tension would be harder to achieve with a different structure. The death takes such a short time to describe whereas the whole novel is over many years – in fact the whole of Agnes’ life up to that point. It engaged us. It also concentrated the story around Hamnet rather than him being a minor character. It portrays an intense look at Hamnet and his environment. It also shows Agnes’ undoing. Agnes is a strong character so her grief is like a ‘well’ around which her story is told.
Our next topic of discussion was about the different portrayal of Shakespeare’s wife shown in this book from the norm in popular culture such as in the English program Upstart Crow. In this comedy, the wife is a dullard not the strong woman we read about in Hamnet. One member mentioned that she particularly liked that O’Farrell picked up on Germaine Greer’s interpretation of Ann Hathaway. Does O’Farrell want to rewrite history?
Another member discussed the snippets of the relationship between Agnes and her husband and how she saw their life together and apart. When he came home from London it took a while for them to become close again. This lead to a short discussion on how many men have to work away from home for long periods even in the 20th and 21st centuries.
We also discussed that many women of the time were healers. It was fascinating that Agnes wanted to give proper medicine to Judith whereas the so-called doctor in his scary mask wanted to put a dried toad on the stomach of the child. (p. 148). Witches dealt in toads supposedly so was it ironic that the doctor did too?
How does the death and Hamnet relate to Hamlet?
This question is difficult. One member suggested that the quotation on a separate page and at the beginning of the second part of the book (page 255) from the play Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 2) quoted by O’Farrell was a clue. The quote is :
‘I am dead’ (line 330)/’Thou livest ;’ (line 331) … ‘draw thy breath in pain,’ (line 340)/’to tell my story’ (line 341).
Agnes sees the father and son characters in the play where the father is a ghost and the son is alive. The play relates to the son – has Shakespeare given life to his boy? Is that too big a stretch ?
Did Hamnet's death have an effect on Shakespeare’s plays?
Did it bring a greater understanding of grief – we decided it had a huge impact on the way he saw the world. He wrote his major tragedies after Hamnet's death.
He was inspired or needed to express something to evoke his son. However, Hamlet is not about Hamnet. Is it understandable that Shakespeare wrote the comedy Merry Wives of Windsor soon after the death, as it shows he couldn’t cope ?
How do you live with grief?
Agnes’ grief was extreme which lead to a sense of unreality. She lost her gifts to heal and tell the future. This section of the novel was the most moving, and as mothers we all felt for her. Some members thought that the novel lost a bit of tension in this last part as you felt drained and exhausted by reading it. It was a visceral feeling one member commented.
The birth of Susanna in the woods raised some interest. We also noted that Agnes wasn’t allowed to do it again. A nice touch was the planting of the Rowan Tree at the backdoor of ‘her’ house. The rowan tree is the tree of life. It symbolises courage and wisdom. Agnes learnt about it from her the Celtic tradition and her Mother. One member noted that the tree symbolises her mother's presence for Agnes.
We liked that Shakespeare appeared less knowledgeable about herbs than Agnes and wondered whether he wrote about them. In the famous witches scene in Macbeth it is toads in the cauldron. It is a nice idea that Agnes could teach him something. (John Bell says that Shakespeare talks more about herbs and flowers in his plays than any other playwright he knows.)
What about the psychic business – pressing of the hand and thumb?
Could Agnes foretell things? It was part of her early identity. Or was it something that O’Farrell thought appropriate for this character? Agnes was an observer and listener and had a sense of how people understand the world so maybe that helps to explains her ‘gift’. She was also intuitive. One member has faith in people being intelligent. Also often illiterate folk have excellent memories as did Agnes for all her herbs and their names and uses. Albert Facey is an excellent example of a person with this gift.
Another member reported on a book by William Dalrymple called Nine lives, about a group of Indian storytellers who had these gifts.
Other characters were discussed briefly. We all liked the lovely Bartholomew, Agnes’ brother. Such a good man. Some of the older women were not so pleasant, particularly Joan, Agnes’ stepmother.
Judith, Agnes’ younger daughter was like her mother, not like her more business-oriented father and sister. She didn’t want to learn from Hamnet who tried to teach her. She wasn’t interested in learning to read and write but she was an observer and intelligent nevertheless. Her sister, Susanna, thought she was useless.
John, Shakespeare’s father thought Will was useless as did Agnes’ family. We all noticed the description of John's face, when he thought he was getting a good deal by his son marrying a girl who had a reasonable dowry.
We thought O’Farrell handled the difficulty of having such a famous character in the novel extremely cleverly. He is never mentioned by name and had very little to say. She made it about Hamnet and Agnes. History made it easy too as there are no letters to clarify.
Some members particularly liked the way the author handled the first sex scene. It was fascinating and showed true feeling.
Various other scenes attracted attention including the description of Mary sewing, (p. 199) and the references to knot gardens.
We were pleased that the couple reconciles at the end of the novel when Agnes finally realises that Will did grieve for his son for many years just as she had. One member recommended seeing the movie called All is true. (This is available through a streaming service).
We thought life for everyday women of the time was pretty busy in the household having to do so much, just to eat and live.
Present : 10 members