In one way, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet has not, in its effort to win the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, chosen its moment well: a historical novel set in the sixteenth century, it must defeat Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in its own Tudorbethan sub-category before even having a hope of triumphing in the tournament proper. It’s not that the novels’ approaches to the period are entirely similar – O’Farrell does not restrict herself to the third-person limited, and she opts for the economical over the encyclopaedic – but equally, and beyond the jerkins and the ruffs, they certainly share a lyrical, empathetic approach to the Tudors that inevitably situates them side-by-side on a shortlist.
In another key way, however, Hamnet is the perfect novel for the moment – because it is a plague book. No one really knows what killed the only son of William Shakespeare – he is primarily remembered by his orthographic near-double, the Prince of Denmark. But O’Farrell has chosen to have him bitten by fleas, and in so doing has written, quite without planning it of course, a novel that became in 2020 simultaneously rather too close to the bone and also unusually comforting. We should all, of course, still be paying attention to the high politics and state-making with which Mantel concerns herself; but in 2020 much of our attentions have also turned inward. Hamnet speaks to the smaller world of the domestic space, riven by disease and shattered by grief, out of control and yet also the only unit left to us in making sense of events. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre,” we read early on, “from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Hamnet is about that hub, where The Mirror & The Light is about – seeks to encompass – all its many spokes.
The novel begins with Hamnet running. He is, like most young boys, in persistent motion. At this particular moment, his family are nowhere to be seen, distracted by concern for his sister, Judith. Of course, this activity will end soon and the familial fretting will guiltily shift focus – and, equally naturally, the contrast is O’Farrell’s point. Also part of the purpose of the novel’s opening pages is sketching the geography of the very small world in which its events are set. When William eventually leaves for London and Southwark, we do not follow him; we instead stay in Stratford, and mostly on Henley Street – though occasionally we, like the characters, make the trip to the space of Shottery, where the Hathaways reside. This tight mise en scene offers O’Farrell the opportunity to paint the intimacy of the enclosed spaces in which most of the characters spend much of their time: the kitchen, the glover’s workshop, the bedchamber. The few streets of Stratford, too, become material in our reading the novel, and even a funeral procession to Holy Trinity is given the ballast of attractively quotidian detail.
By centring the novel in this way, its comparatively rather small stakes in fact come to matter a great deal – as of course they should. Hamnet isn’t really concerned with William except in his role as a father and husband; we spend most time with him early on, as a frustrated Latin master, and he becomes a mystery to us once he adopts the earring of the rakish playwright. The novel is, despite its title, in large part the story of his relationship with Anne – here known by her own insistence as Agnes. Agnes, the sister of the boys to whom William is assigned as Latin master, is given by O’Farrell the same gifts of human sympathy and understanding which are so often assigned to her husband; his self-actualisation becomes as much her project as his own. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul,” he says of her, before London and Hamnet’s death drive wedges between them. “There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.”
This comes as special relief to William, since his own father – the harsh glover, John – has no patience for his son’s sense of displacement, nor his apparent lack of interest in the practical trades to which John has devoted his life. Agnes, however, recognises that William “had more hidden away inside [him] than anyone else she’d ever met.” When William chooses to leave for London and not take his family with him, this hidden part bites the hand that has fed it. “It is evident to Agnes now … that her husband is split in two,” and duality feeds much of the rest of the novel: life and death, brother and sister, husband and wife, London and Stratford, sickness and health. Unusually, in doubleness the novel finds much not just of its conflict but also its consolation. In the novel’s denouement, for example, Agnes steals away to London, unbidden by her husband, to discover what his double life involves – adultery, probably, dissipation surely. But instead she attends the Globe, and sees a production of Hamlet, in which William plays the ghost of the young man’s father.
Her husband wrote these words, these exchanges, but what has any of this to do with their boy? … Why would her husband have done it? Why pretend that it means nothing to him, just a collection of letters? How could he thieve his name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? How could he take up his pen and write it on a page, breaking its connection with their son?
[… But] her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear. She tries to imagine how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely, and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heartbreaking turn of the head.
[…] Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dread. […] He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.
Having spent hundreds of pages, and in novel-time several years, with this family – who are in many ways historically, culturally, religiously distant from us – this passage, in which William at first has no idea his wife is present, is profoundly moving. This is because O’Farrell has picked apart the grief of the Shakespeares, the absence in their life that the plague has created. When Hamlet first dies from his sickness, which he has suffered while all the while his father is in London or travelling belatedly back, Agnes can barely believe it: “It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.” William, at first so distant as to see confoundingly unmoved, ultimately admits the same: “I am constantly wondering where he is,” he confides to her. “Where he has gone It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind.” The complexity of this family, the doubleness of the individuals that make it up, the tight confines in which they share space, are laid bare – rent open, cast into chaos – by the random event of illness. Each member of the family must first identity, then acknowledge, then somehow accommodate, the knowledge that “[what] is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.” Hamnet is in part a book about how one family might do that.
Their pain is heightened by how arbitrary is Hamnet’s death. In a bravura passage, O’Farrell proposes sketches how, for “the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these two people need to meet” – but, in the telling, she makes clear how reductive even this emphasis upon chance proves to be. In fact, the necessary connections are even more rosicrucian and random. The two people are a Murano glassmaker and a cabin boy: the second contracts fleas from a monkey he plays with; the first is sick one day and his understudy fails to pack a shipment of beads safely, instead using rags the cabin boy’s fleas eventually migrate to onboard the vessel. When the beads are eventually delivered to Stratford-upon-Avon, as a result of yet more coincidence and hundreds of miles from Alexandria and Murano, a young boy dies. The almost improbable chain of events encourages fear – buboes send Stratford into cold shivers – and also, of course, superstition and foolishness: when a doctor arrives in a plague mask, Hamnet asks why he wears the strange device. “Because he this it will protect him,” Agnes explains. Will it? the boy responses. “His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.'” But wear it he does.
All of this, needless to say, feels grimly relevant. But there is also a certain consolation in reading of plagues past, of quarantines and isolations and cumbersome prophylactics that – though terrifying then as now – also connect us to other human beings through shared experience and the empathy we can, with effort, practice in its presence. Hamnet adopts a laconic style that is never lachrymose or over-laden with pathos; but it is also deeply sad while finding room for hopes: of reconciliation, of memory, of love. I don’t think, in the quality of its execution or its clarity of vision, it has much in fact to fear from the mirror or the light.