In the 1580s, a couple living in Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.
The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.
Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell
With this historical note begins Hamnet & Judith, a historical fiction from Maggie O’Farrell, recent winner of the Women’s Literary Prize. (This book was published as Hamnet in the U.K. but as Hamnet & Judith in Canada.) The story begins when Judith falls suddenly ill and her twin brother frantically searches for someone to help him. His mother, grandmother, and older sister are each away on their own errands. His grandfather is a man to be feared, not one to turn to in a moment of trouble. His father is away in London as he has been for most of Hamnet’s life. That father is never called by name throughout the book. We all know who he is but he is referred to only as a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a tutor. Instead, the focus is on those around him, the family in Stratford.
O’Farrell sticks to the historical facts as they are known, but facts around Hamnet’s brief life are few. His cause of death is unknown so here O’Farrell imagines it as a result of the spread of the bubonic plague, noting in the afterword that despite being a huge issue of his time, Shakespeare never mentions it.
Hamnet and Judith and their mother Agnes are at the heart of the novel. Agnes’ unruly and tempestuous childhood, the death of her mother at a young age and her upbringing with her stepmother. We watch Agnes’ fall in love with the young tutor brought in for her brothers and we watch her life shift once more when she becomes pregnant, marries, and moves in with the glove-maker’s son and his family. Agnes’ is a somewhat unworldly character, a woman able to see glimpses of the future, her own and those around her, simply through touching hands. She has a vision of her own death bed with two figures beside her and so feels confident that she will have two children. When her second pregnancy results in twins – and thus three children in total – it casts an uncertainty over her future. Judith is the frailer twin, more prone to illness. So when she fall sick with the dreaded plague, Agnes is frantic to save her. Does she miss the clues that Hamnet’s life is in danger or is this her maternal guilt that plagues her afterward? Can we really know our futures and how much is in our control?
The reader knows from the first page that Hamnet will die and from other reviews I’ve seen that some have struggled with this lack of tension. Personally, this didn’t bother me. For me, the tension was in how this family would survive. It was in the relationship between Agnes and her husband, who love each other deeply but have lived the majority of their marriage apart. Before their oldest daughter is born, Agnes recognizes her husband’s need to be apart from his family and his father’s history. She has no inkling of his talent or his genius but seems to sense that he needs something more, something different. So she sends him to London with her blessing where he becomes a success in the theatre. In the years that follow she wonders continuously if she has done the right thing.
This is also a story about grief. Because we know that there is only one outcome of this illness, every moment, every thing we learn about these characters is clouded over with the grief to come. It is a story about life after loss and a story about how one death ripples out. It is a story about how two people can have a life linked together but be pulled apart by the loss of a child. The conclusion, when Hamnet’s father writes and performs a play that shares its name with his son, is beautifully written.
The novel is prone to asides, most notably when it traces the path of a flea that leads to Hamnet and Judith’s illness. While I can see where O’Farrell may have lost some readers during these sections, I enjoyed the historical glimpses into a pandemic so different than our current one and yet with a few similarities. The story is slow on plot and far more character driven but the characters are so well drawn that I never minded.