Life and death. Roles and responsibilities. Poverty and plague. Elizabethan England.
Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ provides an alternative insight into the family life and development of a famous playwright. (Guess who?)
Set in England in the late 1500’s – a time cursed by disease and poverty, it introduces a young girl wracked with fever. Her twin brother anxiously seeks help for her, but their father is away in London and their mother is occupied elsewhere. Where is she? Why isn’t she here to help him?
Time then moves back to when their parents first met, and how, against the wishes of parents and step-parents, they became husband and wife.
Because of this, theirs is not an easy marriage from the beginning and neither seems to be able to fulfil all the expectations of family and society.
The mother, Agnes, has gifts inherited from her mother – an unusual intuition, the ability to heal and a quiet way of observing and understanding the people around her. And the father strives for more than the village of Stratford-upon-Avon can offer his abilities, spending much of his time in London – away from Agnes, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.
“Two extraordinary people.
A love that draws them together.
A loss that tears them apart.”
‘Hamnet’ describes the challenging settings and experiences of many people in these times, when infectious diseases were easily spread and poorly controlled. (How a flea in Alexandria is able to impact many on a sea journey and end up killing a child in England is thoughtfully described. Its final impact on the family is traumatic.) Agnes’ healing herbs are however a comfort, and sometimes a cure, for the village people who come to her for help – even though they do not entirely approve of her way of ‘being’.
Through the visions Agnes experiences, we know that someone in her family will be lost to the plague – but even she is unable to understand who it might be. The struggles of the family are multiplied as the parents each seek to realise their own role in life. And it is particularly heartbreaking as they deal with the death of their child, in different ways. Neither will be hurried in their grief.
Visiting England in the late 1500s through the tragic events of this family and their community is a real and thought-provoking experience. You can smell their home, feel their conflicts, empathise with their struggles, and sense their great sorrow. Life is far from the glossy pictures we might have about a renowned playwright the whole world now honours. Historical fiction at its finest; accessible and engaging, with lots to ponder.
Here, Maggie O’Farrell talks about Hamnet:
# Awarded 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.