“All fiction is a bit of a palimpsest of things that you make up or things that you borrow, or things that you observe in other people and things, actually, that have happened to you,” explains Maggie O’Farrell, neatly — and perhaps involuntarily — alluding to her talent for the literary sleight of hand.
Since her arresting debut After You’d Gone was published in 2000, O’Farrell has won legions of fans for her luminous prose, her deft portrayals of women and her interest in the dramas and discontents of familial relationships. You sense her everywhere in her fiction: in the restless and spirited Iris Lockhart, determined to unravel her family secret in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, or through glimpses of her own Irish roots in the Riordan family at the centre of Instructions for a Heatwave. Yet O’Farrell does not consider herself an autobiographical writer, and even her remarkable 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am manages to pull off that trick of giving everything and nothing away. With the success of her most recent novel Hamnet, however, she now finds herself under the intense glare of the spotlight as one of Britain’s most celebrated authors.
An ambitious work of historical fiction, Hamnet weaves the final days of Shakespeare’s young son before he succumbed to the Black Death in 1596 — and the reverberations of this event, with scenes from his parents’ early life together, exploring marriage, motherhood and grief’s quiet power to shape creative expression. It was published in late March, as coronavirus started to close down the world, but the book has captivated readers, not just because of our new-found fascination with plague but for O’Farrell’s ability to conjure, almost cinematically, the physical and emotional landscape of Elizabethan family life. It won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and film rights have been snapped up by a production company.
The UK is still in the grip of a second lockdown, so my “meeting” with O’Farrell will be yet another video call. I have retreated to a dimly lit corner of my bedroom, barricaded the door against the chaos of children’s bath time and carefully angled my laptop so that the charcoal nude on the wall and three baskets of laundry are out of shot.
O’Farrell, meanwhile, springs into view from the relative serenity of her study at home in Edinburgh. She gestures at a cupboard out of view that incubated ideas for her most recent book — her “Hamnet shelf” — and she points out a pinboard on the far wall still covered with the trappings of her research. “It’s difficult when you finish a novel — there’s a period of grief you have to go through, or mourning,” she says. “It has taken a while to say goodbye to Hamnet.”
Hamnet Shakespeare has fascinated her ever since she studied Hamlet for her Scottish Highers. “When you read these big 500-page biographies of Shakespeare, as I did when I was a student and when I was researching this book, Hamnet is lucky if he gets two mentions, that he was born and that he died — more often than not, wrapped up in statistics about child mortality in Elizabethan times. The implication being that it wasn’t really that big a deal, because lots of children died, which has always really got me.” The play was written four years after his death at the age of 11, and at the time, Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable names, “but a few biographers will kind of say, ‘Well isn’t that a strange coincidence!’”
O’Farrell started the novel years ago but has written three other books in the meantime. “I kept thinking about it and then thinking ‘No, I can’t. How will it work? How could it come together?’” Her hesitance went beyond self-doubt: “I’m not a very superstitious person but I was superstitious about writing a book about an 11-year-old boy when my own son wasn’t past the age of 11 . . . He’s now a 6’2 17-year-old, not that there was a huge risk of him dying of the Black Death.”
Illness and mortality are not foreign subjects for O’Farrell. In I Am, I Am, I Am (subtitled Seventeen Brushes With Death) she wrote unflinchingly about her own near-death experiences, from her life-threatening childhood illness to a chilling encounter with a murderer and the frequent emergencies that have resulted from her daughter’s immunology disorder. It’s a visceral and courageous piece of work. But she describes Hamnet’s death and his laying out for burial as “the hardest thing I’ve ever written”. I ask if she was tempted to shy away from it, have these scenes occur offstage? “No, because the whole impetus behind the book, the whole engine driving it, was always that I felt that the real Hamnet Shakespeare — not my Hamnet — he, and his death, has never been given the significance it deserves.”
William Shakespeare is unnamed in the novel, and he remains a peripheral figure, partly because he was busy forging a career in the playhouses of London while his family remained in Stratford. But Hamnet, Agnes — William’s lover, then wife, often referred to as Anne — and other family members appear fully formed, reanimated from the bare bones of historical documents. More than that, O’Farrell imagines the Shakespeares’ marriage as being one filled with tenderness, longing and mutual respect, in contrast to conventional accounts of Agnes, which range from invisibility to claims that she was ugly, stupid, reviled by her husband.
“Why is it we’re taught this narrative? Why are people so keen for Shakespeare to have a retrospective divorce? Is it so necessary for us to have our male geniuses footloose and fancy-free?” O’Farrell asks. “You have to be very circumspect extrapolating biography from his plays, but they are full of adored, faithful, intelligent, loyal wives.”
As the daughter of a 16th-century sheep farmer, Agnes Hathaway was quite likely illiterate but O’Farrell locates in her character a very specific intelligence, a deep connection with the natural world, which she evokes in exquisite detail: the honey Agnes collects from the comb oozes “slow as sap, orange-gold, scented with the sharp tang of thyme and the floral sweetness of lavender”; a kingfisher is “a jewel-backed arrow piercing the silver skin of the brook”.
In O’Farrell’s mind, Agnes is not only beautiful (the sole known portrait, made more than 80 years after her death, reminds her of the actress Saoirse Ronan) but a talented herbalist. Having identified various plant references in Hamlet — Ophelia’s botanical cures, for example — and also several metaphors relating to falconry there and in The Taming of the Shrew, she decided to “give” this knowledge to Agnes as a way of suggesting “a partnership of two minds” with her husband. Meticulous as ever in her research, O’Farrell learnt to fly a kestrel in the Scottish borders, which prompted her to rewrite one particular scene: “I had described the kestrel landing on [Agnes’s] glove with a ‘thud’, but when I actually flew a kestrel I realised they weigh less than a kitten, they’re a kind of light, magical creature.”
She also cultivated her own Elizabethan physic garden. “Of the women, in particular, I wanted to — in a very literal sense — get my hands dirty.” O’Farrell is well-attuned to the thoughts and emotions of her female characters but also gives a strong sense of their physicality: pregnancy, labour and childbirth feature in a number of her books.
Literary fiction that offers a female perspective, or a window into the domestic sphere, has all too often been dismissed as unserious or branded “chick lit”. I ask O’Farrell if she has ever been frustrated by the way her books are presented. “I don’t think so,” she says carefully. “I find the idea that a writer’s gender prescribes who they are read by — it’s just very baffling to me.” But statistically men read fewer novels, I say. “I don’t really understand it but then I live with a man [the novelist William Sutcliffe] who reads [fiction] all the time,” she replies.
O’Farrell is warm and engaging company — and unfailingly courteous — but for someone who is expert at revealing the innermost thoughts of her characters, she betrays very little of her own interior life. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, she grew up in Wales and Scotland, and lived for periods of time in Hong Kong, London and Italy, before she and her young family settled in Edinburgh. In I Am, I Am, I Am she details the numerous ways in which the near-fatal encephalitis she suffered at the age of eight impacted her life and shaped her as a writer. She emerged having acquired the still art of observation, after months of convalescing — “caught in stasis, a fly in amber” — and a “cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk”.
She was also left with co-ordination problems and a debilitating stammer (no longer apparent). “It’s an interesting thing because it makes you hypersensitive to grammar and meaning, you’re constantly editing yourself in your head,” she says. “You can come up with six synonyms for a single word, so you think, ‘If I can’t say hard, I can say difficult, problematic, challenging.’”
A year spent in bed reading and re-reading — The Moomins, Pippi Longstocking — sparked her interest in the “mechanics” of storytelling; in each of her own novels the plot is finely calibrated. Halfway through Hamnet, O’Farrell breaks into an account of the spread of “Afric fever” in 1596, beginning in Alexandria, when a plague-carrying flea leaps off a tame monkey and on to a young cabin boy, and ending in Stratford, with Hamnet’s twin sister Judith opening a flea-infested package of Venetian beads. She describes the maps showing trade routes for silks, glass, furs and spices that she used while writing this chapter. “I also had the paths of the Black Death, and I remember in February and March looking at the infographics on my screen and looking at my pinboard and thinking, ‘It’s the same, these arrows.’ That was a very weird feeling.”
It’s a reminder that as a writer, O’Farrell — who describes herself as an “instinctive” traveller — must have yearned for adventure and the stimulus of social interaction this year. “I think there’s a kind of physiological, neurological thing that we’re all really missing,” she says, as we peer at each other through the gloom, our faces small and somewhat fuzzy on the screen. But she says lockdown has not affected her reading or writing habits, and that the challenges faced by her household of three children and two working parents have mostly been logistical.
“There was one morning when I was trying to work, and my husband was doing the home schooling, but people were coming in every 10 seconds . . . It was driving me absolutely bananas, so I went and hid in my daughter’s Wendy house, which is tiny, and I had my laptop on my knee . . . Oh, god, it was bliss! Nobody found me for two hours, except for the cat.”
O’Farrell’s novel Instructions for a Heatwave, which centres on a character’s sudden disappearance during the scorching summer of 1976, was partly inspired by her observation that people start to behave strangely when subjected to a collective stress. I wonder what the traumas of 2020 will offer? “For me, certainly, it’s too soon yet,” she says. “I think it will take a while to filter through, to percolate through, like water coming through a limestone landscape.”
She has just published the first of two children’s books — a wintery fairytale titled Where Snow Angels Go — and admits she is halfway through a new novel, but politely resists my inquiries. “I really hate talking about things I haven’t finished. I think I worry that if I talk about it too much then it will drain me of the desire to write it,” she says, offering apologies but not so much as a hint of its subject. And yet, O’Farrell’s loyal readers have now come to expect that, whatever form it takes, her next novel will be immersive, revealing, relatable — that it will be well worth the wait.
Laura Battle is the FT’s deputy books editor. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is Waterstones Book of the Year 2020
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