One challenge of historical fiction is how to relate to people who lived in a very different world. Calling Maggie O’Farrell to discuss her immersive plague-haunted book Hamnet, from a locked-in London basement to her locked-in Edinburgh home, that past no longer seems so distant.
In such ominous circumstances, there are understandably mixed feelings when a book suddenly becomes prescient. “There’s a chapter where I trace the journey of a plague flea all the way from Alexandria to Warwick,” O’Farrell points out. “I remember plotting maps of trade routes, marking out where they’d have picked up sugar and silks and so on. I sat there in my central-heated house thinking, ‘What would it have been like to have this thing coming towards you?’ ‘Or to not be able to go outside?’ The idea of contagion is so ancient to us. Or at least, it was. Now I find myself looking at infographics again, and people everywhere are walking around with masks, almost like plague doctors. It’s very surreal and worrying. Every day brings something new.”
The enigma of Shakespeare was part of the attraction for O’Farrell, “Shakespeare, as a man, left very few clues as to himself. He didn’t even preserve his own plays. We only have the First Folio because his friends collected them. He left a scant paper trail. He’s a very mysterious character.”
“It’s almost as if he’s a puzzle that cannot be solved,” I suggest. “Yet in your book, you manage to show that his family, and their world, are fascinating enigmas too. Where did this interest begin?”
“When I was at secondary school, Hamlet got under my skin then, as it does for a lot of teenagers. I was over-identifying with the character, himself. My teacher mentioned that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who’d died. The parallel between the two names stayed with me. I went on to do English literature at university and was reading lots of books about Shakespeare and I became disturbed by how little mention was made of the boy. You can probably find one or two in an average 500-page biography. It’s usually when he was born and died, followed by a passage on infant mortality with the implication that a child dying didn’t make much of an impact back then. What a terrible assumption to make. He was 11, for God’s sake. How could anyone not be knocked for six by something like that? When I set out to write the book, I wanted to give this boy, overlooked by history, a voice and a presence.”
Given the tragic fate of Shakespeare’s son and the fact that O’Farrell has children of her own, the process of writing Hamnet was an occasionally troubling if revelatory experience.
One of my main aversions in some historical novels is when writers put in everything they've found. They can't help showing you their homework.
“I tried to write it several times. One of the things that held me back was that I needed my own son to be above the age of 11, the age Hamnet dies. I’m not a superstitious person, but I knew that I couldn’t write this book until he had safely passed that age. I couldn’t write it in the house, where my children live. So, I wrote most of it in the shed. I don’t mean a nice cosy space like Roald Dahl had; I mean an actual dilapidated shed that was probably dangerous to be inside. I wrote it in there in short bursts, between walks around the garden. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch of the imagination, as a parent, to envisage how you would feel if you’d lost them – it’s the flip side of how much you love them. The most instinctive, atavistic thing is how to protect your child and that tips over into the fear that somehow you cannot. It must be the worst thing possible.”
Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway went through that “worst thing possible”. While the playwright evades easy analysis, his work took a dark turn after Hamnet’s death, towards his tragic masterpieces. Perhaps Hamlet was a consequence of grief or an attempt to extend his son’s life.
Why did she marry him?
“The act of calling a play, and a tragic antihero, after his dead son speaks volumes,” O’Farrell notes. “Hamlet seems so much like a teenager himself – 15 or 16. You count the years, around four years between Shakespeare’s son’s death and the release of the play, and you realise that’s how old Hamnet would’ve been. It reads to me like a fictional resurrection or a reimagining of this lost child that he loved; what he would’ve been like.”
Having restored a character lost to obscurity, O’Farrell reinvents another; an individual who, according to O’Farrell, has been unfairly treated in historiography and who reappears vividly in Hamnet. “I did a lot of research and I became more and more interested in Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, the woman who was then Anne Hathaway, and I couldn’t understand how there was so much vilification towards her. You ask anyone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife and they’ll say, ‘he hated her’ or ‘she tricked him into marriage’. There’s no evidence for this whatsoever. Sure, she was pregnant when they married and she was older but there’s nothing to suggest he didn’t love her and she didn’t love him. People cite things like the ‘second-best bed’ and his moving to London but it was common for men to go there for work. Towards the end of his life, he came back to live in Stratford. He could’ve stayed in London if he’d wanted.
“The book was originally about fathers and sons, as the play is, but I wondered why Agnes attracted so much criticism, extrapolated from so little. We know almost nothing about her. I read Germaine Greer’s brilliantly argued Shakespeare’s Wife and she points out that people have always asked, ‘Why did he marry her?’. Yet she could’ve had her pick of men to marry. Her family were landowners. Her father left her quite a sizeable dowry. The question we should ask is, ‘Why did she marry him?’ I like the idea of turning it on its head. Shakespeare was penniless. His father had been a successful glover but their finances had gone downhill. Why would she marry this trade-less boy of 18? But imagine what he was like. Maybe she recognised something extraordinary about him. It’s not just that no one has produced a body of work like he did for 400 years, no one has even come close.
“People like to focus on the playwright who sprang from nowhere, coming into London, having gone to grammar school and not university like Marlowe and Johnson. They think of him having freed himself from his shackles in Stratford. Yet every penny he earned he sent back to Stratford and his family. His heart was there.”
It’s tempting to follow O’Farrell’s assertions that Shakespeare’s family would have had a huge bearing on his work and imagination, even if it’s something she counsels against. “We have to remember it’s fictional; we don’t really know what life the real Mrs Shakespeare had. There are signs that Agnes ran a successful business later in life, in malting for the brewing of ale. I never got the sense she was just at home embroidering and pining for William. I’m fascinated by the range and depth of Shakespeare’s knowledge, particularly in Hamlet. There are these amazing details of plants and falconry. How did he know all this while spending most of his working life in London in tiny lodgings? How the hell would he know about hawking? Maybe he got that from her. And that was a way of giving her her own forms of expression.”
One of the ways O’Farrell brings us close to the Shakespeare family is by avoiding archaic language. “From the start, I was never going to write cod-Elizabethan dialogue. I can’t read books like that and I would never expect anyone else to. I was conscious, though, of using anachronisms so I had the OED open next to me, looking for words that weren’t used then or had different meanings. I’d written of a girl folding her dress into concertina, for example, and those weren’t invented until the early 19th century, so that had to go.”
“I’d continually come up against questions while writing. ‘What did they sit on when they ate?’ ‘What did they eat off?’ ‘What did they eat, in fact?’ ‘What time of day?’ And I’d go back to my books and find out they had their main meal at 11 in the morning. And I’d say, ‘Right, I can picture it now. I can see where the light would come from.’ There’s so much you need to know but not show. One of my main aversions in some historical novels is when writers put in everything they’ve found. They can’t help showing you their homework.”
While historical records are scarce, architectural ones survive in the form of rooms once inhabited by the Shakespeare family. O'Farrell is quick to point out how valuable it was to be able to visit these places. "I was writing the opening scene with Hamnet inside the house. He runs down the stairs and falls and I thought, 'Jesus, what is the floor made from?' I could find out what Tudor palace floors were constructed from but not houses. 'Ok, I need to go to Stratford.' It's the kind of place everyone should go once in their life. We know so little about Shakespeare. We only have six examples of his signature for Christ's sake, but then you go to Stratford and there's his house. There's the room he ate breakfast in every morning. There's the room where he was born. There's the bed he shared with his brother. You think, 'How can this be here?' It's mind-blowing. At the same time, it's hard for us to appreciate how restrictive Elizabethan England was. There were laws for all kinds of things. And life was hard. Lots of people died of starvation when harvests failed. Then there was the plague. It was a very challenging society to live in."
Hamnet is published by Tinder Press. Darran Anderson is the author of Inventory (Apollo)
While certainly a poignant book at times, Hamnet speaks also of deep resilience, in defiance of what Hamlet terms “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. It is a message that resonates in these uncanny times.
“The important thing is to look after each other,” O’Farrell says, “and see ourselves, our families, our societies as an interlinked organism. When we emerge from this – and we will emerge – we are all going to be different. The whole of society will be reconfigured. We’ll have to adapt and survive. And we will. It’s like an individual going through a severe illness. Anyone who has done that knows you come out the other side a different person, wiser, more aware of your surroundings and your own strength. We’re going to do the same.”