November 22, 2020 6:20:52 am
From her debut novel After You’d Gone (2009) to her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), the fragility of human lives have often shaped the narratives of British writer Maggie O’Farrell’s work with intuitive dexterity. In Hamnet, too, the historical novel that won her the prestigious Women’s Prize this year, O’Farrell reimagines the way the loss of the 11-year-old son of British playwright William Shakespeare cleaves those closest to him. In this interview, O’Farrell speaks of her fascination with Hamnet, finding the right words for her story and what happens when every parent’s worst nightmare comes to pass. Excerpts:
What drew you to Hamnet? Did you come to Hamlet first or to Hamnet?
I first heard about the existence of Hamnet when I was studying the play Hamlet at school. My teacher mentioned in passing that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. I was immediately struck by the sad confluence 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’.
Why do you think Shakespeare’s biographers tend to glide over Hamnet in their accounts and the link between the person and the play?
There’s a very strong and valid reason why biographers focus on Shakespeare’s life in London – 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. I’ve always felt 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.
What made you keep away from mentioning Shakespeare by his name in the novel?
I always knew that Shakespeare would be a lesser character; he’s not present in Stratford for most of the novel. There is a playbill that proves his company was touring in Kent when Hamnet died, so it’s not known whether he made it to the funeral.
I avoided using his name because the word ‘Shakespeare’ proved too distracting for me, and I knew it would be the same for readers. With this novel, I’m asking readers to forget everything they think they know about him and open themselves up to a new interpretation. Which is why I refer to him as ‘the father’, ‘the Latin tutor’. ‘the brother’, and so on.
Agnes preparing Hamnet’s body for burial is one of the most moving sections of the novel. How difficult was it for you to imagine Agnes’s grief?
I really enjoyed creating the character of Hamnet’s mother. We are so accustomed to calling her ‘Anne Hathaway’ but her father’s will clearly names her as ‘Agnes’. That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.
If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticised her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.
I’ve long thought that grief is the other side of love, or, perhaps, a greater part of it. If you love someone, it’s not a huge leap to imagine what your life would be like without them. I tried to channel this thinking into those scenes and ask myself, what would it mean to lose a child? It is, of course, every parents’ worst fear.
This has been a year of living on tenterhooks, of coming to terms with loss and bereavement. How do you reflect on the ongoing pandemic?
It has been a strange year for everyone – and it’s far from over yet. Any person who has come through a severe illness will know that the experience changes you forever. You emerge from your sickroom as one who has passed through fire, recast, all too aware of your frailty. In the same way, a population which goes through a widespread disease will also be changed, and the coming generations will inherit this sensibility. We will emerge from this but we will be different. We will never be able to go back to a time before this pandemic, to a time of security and confidence, when we thought we were inviolate, immune.
The language of Hamnet is unlike anything you have written before. Did it take a lot of work?
Nothing prepared me for how disorientating it would be to write about the 16th century. I felt that I had to relearn everything I knew about constructing a sentence, a paragraph, a line of dialogue. There were whole swathes of metaphors and images suddenly unavailable to me; I could no longer reach for similes that came easily to me. I could not say ‘her scream was like a fire alarm’ because, of course, such things didn’t exist in Elizabethan Warwickshire. The experience of writing Hamnet reminded me most of my first forays and attempts into fiction, back in my early 20s: that sensation of feeling your way in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. It was invigorating; it made me work hard.
Your spouse (William Sutcliffe) is also a writer. Does that mean a lot more of dinnertime conversations on writing?
It’s helpful to have a spouse in the same line of work as there’s much less you need to explain. We don’t need to tell each other not to disturb or knock on the door when we’re working. My husband is also my first reader – he gives me his honest opinion on everything I write. Sometimes, too honest…
Is there something you are working on now?
At the moment, I’m writing a picture book for children, my second. Unbeknownst to me, my seven-year-old daughter was looking over my shoulder as I was going through the final version of Hamnet, and she said: ‘I don’t like this book, it’s much too sad. I want you to write a happy story next.’ So I’m doing as I’m told.
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