Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

Featured

Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.

Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.

In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.

An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.

I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.

Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” This results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure magic. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

“Fierce Convictions” by Karen Swallow Prior – a book review

Image

Book Cover for Fierce Convictions        I have just finished reading “Fierce Convictions —  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I knew a little about Hannah More (1745 – 1833) prior to reading this book, particularly that she was one of the Clapham Sect http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/119725/Clapham-Sect, with William Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England. But “Fierce Convictions” makes clear that there is quite a lot to know about Hannah More.

Dr. Prior has done a marvelous job of writing a thorough, balanced biography of Hannah More, who accomplished so many feats  in her lifetime that it’s mind boggling. One should remember that she did all these things: write acclaimed poetry and plays and a novel, start a school for women, speak persuasively to the upper classes of England about abolition of slavery and reach out to the poor of her area by starting Sunday schools which were vehicles for literacy, at a time when being a woman was a liability to doing any public work at all. Astounding.

Dr. Prior has given us a wealth of finely researched information about Ms. More’s successes and charming ways, but she also tells us about her failures and her blind spots, thus helping to form a better, more complete, more believable picture of the subject. We are also kept aware throughout the book of the historical and cultural period in which Hannah More lived, which for 21st century minds, had some very perplexing and troubling customs. As far as the readability of the book goes, there are quotes from writers of the mid 18th century that are challenging to be sure, but Hannah More’s life is so interesting, and Dr Prior’s writing is so engaging,  that it is worth the reader’s effort to work through those passages.

After reading this book, I have compiled the Top Ten Admirable Attributes of Hannah More:

  1. She was bright, articulate and witty.
  2. She was from humble birth, was modest and self-effacing.
  3. She was a Christian who grew in her faith, and changed her manner of living to reflect that growth, including modifying her opinion on the cruel treatment of animals.
  4. She wrote a play in 1763 at age 18. It was published in 1773. By the mid 1780s had sold 10,000 copies.
  5. She was unstoppable in her efforts to end slavery and to bring about moral improvement in England.
  6. She was able to cross societal boundaries, both to the upper classes and lower classes, with grace; she was able to cross religious boundaries with an open mind and heart.
  7. She was able to survive great personal setbacks and attempts to destroy her good name. She didn’t recover quickly, but she didn’t quit living her life.
  8. She was generous to a fault with her time, talents and money in her efforts to help those in need.
  9. She had great friends: Dr Samuel (“Dictionary”) Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Edmund Burke, Elizabeth Montagu, William Wilberforce, John Newton, John Venn, and many,many others.
  10. She wrote her bestselling, most imaginative, most widely read works after age 60.

You can read all about this amazing woman in “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”. I believe that this book should be on the reading list of every young woman. I have asked our local library to purchase a copy for their shelves, and will encourage them to include it on the list of suggested books for Women’s History Month 2015.

This is Dr. Prior’s second book, the first being “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me.” I look forward to reading many more books from Karen Swallow Prior.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was sent an Advance Reader’s Copy of “Fierce Convictions” by Nelson Books for the purpose of reading and reviewing the book. My comments and opinions are completely my own.