Hamnet is a new novel by Maggie O'Farrell. It tells a fictional tale of William Shakespeare, his wife, Anne Hathaway, and their life in Stratford-Upon-Avon and London in the 1500's.
It is a great story of love, life and loss. A definite must-read, it is the 2020 winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction.
We used to have a lovely home in a small village in Warwickshire. Ilmington offered one shop, one school, one Catholic church, one Anglican church and two pubs. And while the village was quaint and bursting with English Country charm, the real selling point for us was it's location. Exactly 100 miles, door to door, it was an achievable commute from London. It sat at the foot of Ilmington Downs; perfect for daytime rambling night time star-gazing. And for my troupe of transplanted Americans, the best thing about Ilmington, was it's 8 mile drive to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Stratford was our go-to weekend highlight, and not because it still had a Blockbuster.
There was always a lot to do in Stratford. And while visits to the butterfly museum were replaced with visits to the Falstaff Plague Museum as the children got older, there was always time for an ice cream from the longboat cafe.
Walking around the old town was magical, and we always dragged, without fail, our visitors past the Tudor building that then housed what we called 'Ye Olde Pizza Hut'. Though we never ate there.
With guests, we always made a visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace. I had been so often I'm sure I could have skinned a goat and stitched up a pair of rabbit-lined 3/4 length gloves faster than you could say "John Shakespeare was a shady business man" (John, William's father, was a glove maker, trading in black-market wool.). After the tour of William Shakespeare's childhood home and garden, we drove out to Anne Hathaway's Cottage, which became a family joke after the release of the Princess Diaries (Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare's wife.).
Shakespeare's Birthplace, The New Place, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Ye Olde Pizza Hut
But, though having dived so deep into Shakespeare's architectural history, I had never read much more than high school Midsummer's Night Dream. This changed when my friend asked me to join her on a reading course called Friends with Shakespeare. You might think reading text in 16th century English out loud in front of trained actors to be tricky, and, yes it is. But it is also a lot of fun, and very good for the brain (though I must confess that I need adequate nap-time before each class to be at my peak performance.). I have now conquered FOUR complete plays, beginning to end, I am, in my own head, a bit of an aficionado.
So when that same friend presented me with a copy of Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell, I approached it with the gusto of a pastry chef's first visit to a Parisian patisserie. Simon Savidge, on Sky Arts Bookclub Live, claimed that he has never cried reading a book, but did with this one. Sign me up!
This book is fiction. We know so little about Shakespeare's life, that we have room to imagine what it might have been like in 1582, when William, then 18, married 26 year old Anne Hathaway. He fathered three children while living in Stratford. Soon after, his family behind for fame, glory and the bright lights of the big city. Nature, family, hierarchy, social constructs, death, love, lust, service, relationships with God are all on-going themes of Shakespeare's writing. With the subtlety of a feather pen, these themes are fleshed out and explored within the pages of Hamnet.
But this is a love story. The love between two people who fully understand each other, and the love of a mother and her children. It is also a story of loss. Hamnet elevates Agnes (Anne) from the footnote of history and places her front and centre in the mind of the world's greatest playwright. Hamnet is the 2020 winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction. I didn't cry until 3/4 through, but didn't stop until the end.
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