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November Book Club: Hamnet

November Book Club: Hamnet

Welcome to our November choice for the Well Read Company Book Club!

Hamnet has remained a novel I’ve intended to read for months, and I’m almost glad I waited until now to finally do so. It is perfect for this time of year, when the smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air, the earth is damp and covered in fallen leaves, and it seems quite possible that the line between the real world and the supernatural is growing fragile. Hamnet focuses on the titular son of William Shakespeare, who died in 1596 aged 11. The rippling effects of this tragedy are the centrefold of the novel, and of course are the inspiration for the play Hamlet. The great Bard himself remains a distant, shadowy figure throughout - instead, the focus remains on his wife, Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway). 

Novels and films focusing on William Shakespeare are not in short supply which is perhaps why I put off reading this novel, as it seemed to be well-trodden ground. However, by relegating Shakespeare to merely an unnamed ‘lodger, brother, husband, father and, here, player’, the focus is returned to the domestic sphere and is therefore much more profound and relatable as a result. Maggie O’Farrell captures grief beautifully and painfully. The detailed descriptions of the Shakespeare home will be recognised as spot-on by any visitor of Stratford-upon-Avon, however the humanity she injects into her characters elevates them from historically mythical figures to real people. Agnes herself is an intriguing, almost fey-like woman: ‘She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange.’ The other villagers are wary of her, but her family and the natural world are her escape. Her meanderings into woods bring to life the simplicity of that time in history, when physical sensations and toil were how we experienced life, rather than through a screen.

Tropes that any Shakespeare fan will be familiar with are present here: Hamnet is a twin, some of the villagers mistake Agnes for a boy, the natural world continually provides metaphors for the trials of its human counterparts. What could become a heavily indulgent nod to the Bard’s work however remains steeped in realism and the minutiae of domestic grief. The lyrical and sparse style of O'Farrell's writing, though not without beautiful imagery, leaves the whole novel weaving a dream-like atmosphere. This echoes the way in which grief can distance us from reality, as the mind struggles to escape from the unthinkable horrors that have befallen us. 

 A definite (and welcome) change to what I expected, Hamnet turns the spotlight to women and mothers, two figures often forgotten throughout our history. Agnes’ strength to keep herself and her family afloat is omnipresent, making me wish more scholarly attention was paid to the wives, mothers and daughters of the men who have made such a huge cultural impact throughout history. 

We loved reading this novel this month and are so excited to discuss it with you - please tell us what you thought via social media or by commenting on this post!