Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is announced today as Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2020. The novel reimagines the short life and tragic early death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died in 1596 aged 11 from the Bubonic Plague, and shines a light on how his family coped, in particular his mother Agnes. Four years later, Shakespeare wrote what many consider to be his greatest play, Hamlet.
Bea Carvalho, Waterstones’ Fiction Buyer, says: “Maggie O’Farrell’s novel is a literary treat which offers texture to the history of our most famous playwright, a portrait of parenthood’s dazzling highs and devastating lows, and a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit."
O’Farrell’s novel came out in March, has also won both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Books Are My Bag Readers Award, but turns out to have been a subject close to her heart for over thirty years.
You’d been thinking about this novel for a long time. How did it start?
I first heard about the existence of Hamnet, the boy, when I was studying the play Hamlet at school. My teacher mentioned in passing that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who died several years before the play was written. I was immediately struck by the echo of these names. What did it mean for a father to call a play after his dead son? And how might Hamnet’s mother have felt about it? I remember looking down at the cover of the play and covering the ‘L’ of the title with a finger. How easy it was to make ‘Hamlet’ read ‘Hamnet’.
What’s the connection between Hamnet and Hamlet?
In the sixteenth-century, spelling was not as stable as it is now. Hamnet and Hamlet are, in fact, the same name: there are numerous examples of them used interchangeably in parish records of the time. I’ve always thought that Shakespeare naming his play, his protagonist, and a ghost after his dead son was an enormously significant act. It cannot have been a casual decision.
What were the challenges of separating fact from fiction?
There are very few facts known about Shakespeare. He left us a very sketchy account of himself. He didn’t even take steps to preserve his work for posterity – it’s only thanks to his friends and colleagues, who collated the plays into the First Folio after Shakespeare himself died. So the first hurdle for me was lack of facts, rather than too many, but it worked for me because I wanted to focus on the untold story of Shakespeare’s home life.
There’s a very strong and valid reason why biographers focus on Shakespeare’s life in London, rather than his family in Stratford – and that’s because of his career and his writing, which continues to shape us as human beings. The stage and London is where the action is for scholars, but I’ve always thought that the biggest drama of Shakespeare’s life happened off-stage: the death of his only son.
Hamnet’s story has been eclipsed, his short life relegated to a literary footnote. He gets very little mention in any of his father’s biographies; his mother has too often been inexplicably maligned and misrepresented.
With this book, I wanted to give voice to Hamnet and his mother and sisters, to imagine what life had been like in the glover’s house in Henley Street and how the tragic events of August 1596 might have played out.
How did you find an appropriate 16th century ‘voice’?
I had what I thought of as my ‘forsooth line’; I was strict with myself about never crossing it. There was no way I was ever going to attempt to recreate a cod Elizabethan dialogue. I tried, where possible, to avoid using words which had a different meaning to today’s.
Infant mortality was much more common in the past than it is now. Is it wrong to suppose that made it easier for people to accept?
I believe so. It’s a terrible assumption to make, that people didn’t feel their children’s deaths as profoundly as we might, just because it was a more present threat. I refuse to accept that any people, ever, are able to resign themselves to it. I think that family grieved deeply for Hamnet: how could they not? You only have to read the opening scenes of ‘Hamlet’, or consider the separated boy-and-girl twins in ‘Twelfth Night’, to comprehend this.
One of your own children has anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition. How has this has affected your fiction and in particular the theme of infant mortality in Hamnet
I think that the death of a child is every parent’s deepest fear: it’s what we all dread. Certainly, parenting a child with additional medical needs makes you viscerally aware of this.
You’ve just published your first children’s book, Where Snow Angels Go. How did this come into being?
I made it up for my children; when I went on a book tour, I wrote them a letter every day, with installments of the story. Then my youngest daughter said, I want this to be a proper book with picture. I’m useless at drawing so luckily the talented Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini stepped in to help me with that part.
It’s about a girl called Sylvie who wakes one night to find someone standing beside her bed. She realises it’s the snow angel she made the previous winter and he’s come on a mission, to save her life.
The death of a child is every parent’s deepest fear
What are you planning to write next?
I’m about halfway through another novel; I’m also writing a second children’s book.
How have you and your family been coping in lockdown?
We’ve been very lucky as none of us has been ill, as yet. We also have a garden, which made homeschooling a lot easier. Days are quite dull and repetitive, aren’t they? We are trying to make the most of Edinburgh’s green hills and woods, and watching some very good films.
Describe your typical working day
There is no ‘typical’! I try, where possible, to reserve mornings for writing. I go to my studio at the bottom of the garden, where there is no phone and no internet, and spend time with my fictional characters. Afternoons are for answering emails and calls, and the rest of the day I’m with my children.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished the glorious and memorable The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré, which gives a compelling and at times horrifying insight into modern Nigeria.
An exclusive extract from Hamnet:
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the all, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three starts, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.
It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow, set into the plaster.
He gets up, rubbing his legs. He looks one way, up the stairs; he looks the other, unable to decide which way he should turn.
The room is empty, the fire ruminating in its grate, orange embers below soft, spiralling smoke. His injured kneecaps throb in time with his heartbeat. He stands with one hand resting on the latch of the door to the stairs, the scuffed leather tip of his boot raised, poised for motion, for flight. His hair, light-coloured, almost gold, rises up from his brow in tufts.
There is no one here.
He sighs, drawing in the warm, dust air and moves through the room, out of the front door and on to the street. The noise of barrows, horses, vendors, people calling to each other, a man hurling a sack from an upper window doesn’t reach him. He wanders along the front of the house and into the neighbouring doorway.
The smell of his grandparents’ home is always the same: a mix of woodsmoke, polish, leather, wool. It is similar yet indefinably different from the adjoining two-roomed apartment, built by his grandfather in a narrow gap next to the larger house, where he lives with his mother and sisters. Sometimes he cannot understand why this might be. The two dwellings are, after all, separated by a thin wattled wall but the air in each place is of a different ilk, a different scent, a different temperature.
This house whistles with draughts and eddies of air, with the tapping and hammering of his grandfather’s workshop, with the raps and calls of customers at the window, with the noise and welter of the courtyard out the back, with the sounds of his uncles coming and going.
But not today. The boy stands in the passageway, listening for signs of occupation. He can see from here that the workshop, to his right, is empty, the stools at the benches vacant, the tools idle on the counters, a tray of abandoned gloves, like handprints, left out for all to see. The vending window is shut and bolted tight. There is no one in the dining hall, to his left. A stack of napkins is piled on the long table, an unlit candle, a heap of feathers. Nothing more.
Hamnet (Tinder Press, £20)
Where Snow Angels Go (Walker Books, £14.99)