Martin's Must Reads: 'Hamnet'
“In the 1580’s, a couple living on 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.”
I’m Betty Martin with "Martin’s Must Reads" and that’s the Historical Note that opens Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague. The story begins with eleven year old Hamnet searching for an adult, any adult to help his twin sister Judith who has suddenly fallen gravely ill. The best person would be his mother Agnes who knows how to heal with the herbs she gathers, but she is off tending to her bee hives. He also can’t find his older sister Susanna or his grandmother Mary or his mean tempered grandfather, the local glover.
As the novel progresses it flips between this time and thirteen years before when eccentric Agnes falls in love with the young Latin tutor. Growing up in cruel homes makes them both long to start a life together.
Early in their marriage Agnes realizes her husband would be happier taking his scribblings to London. He becomes entrenched in the theater scene, visits his family a couple times a year and never sends for them as promised.
This novel immerses the reader in the 1590s, the harsh way of life, the reality of children dying on a regular basis and how easily the plague spread via fleas from one country to another. In her Author’s Note, O’Farrell states that this is a work of fiction based on the short life of Hamnet and a very few historical facts...the rest is a “result of her idle speculation.”
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, then you must read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.