By Sarah Henderson
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The shortlist was as diverse as it was stunning, providing arguably one of its most fitting recipients. The prize was awarded to a novel that took a footnote in history and transformed it into the beautiful and shattering story of Hamnet. Maggie O’Farrell’s Shakespearean world is not that far removed from our own; families separated by distance, struggles within the arts and insurmountable loss find themselves at home both in the Bard’s pandemic world and our own.
Now more than ever, we are keenly aware of the “silent figures”, the voiceless yet impactful, living in the shadows of those in the spotlight. If you look at William Shakespeare’s Wikipedia page, you will find only a fleeting mention to his son Hamnet. Some link the loss of his only son to his infamous play Hamlet, with only four years separating his son’s death and the birth of his greatest tragedy. But for many, that’s where the link stops – a biographical detail in the colourful world of Britain’s greatest playwright. For O’Farrell, she saw the only male heir to one of the most long-lasting legacies in literature and dedicated a whole novel to the story of a child slipping away from the family he loved.
Hamnet provides a modern audience with the perfect study in grief in a time where grief itself seems almost inexplicable. O’Farrell invites us into a world of shared grief and yet somehow removes the reader from the pain of the wound, the perfect exploration of emotion for our current times. There is something rather refreshing about O’Farrell’s use of domesticity. Shakespeare, one of the most recognisable names in history, is merely “the husband” in the novel. Her decision to only loosely mention his beloved Stratford-Upon-Avon pulls them further into the ‘everyman’ family sphere of plague-stricken England.
In some ways the eponymous character is eclipsed by his own mother Agnes – more commonly known as Anne Hathaway – who steps into the shoes of a strong protagonist who we ache and cry for with every tragedy that befalls her. She does not act as “Shakespeare’s wife” in O’Farrell’s narrative, instead she is a well-known figure in town, rich in empathy with talents of her own in herbalism. The novel opens a window into the private collapse of a maternal bond at the hands of an unstoppable force. Arguably, it is the tragic poignancy of her grief that makes this novel lingering and unputdownable. Agnes illustrates the unimaginable grief of burying a child, all the while managing a marriage with a distant husband (in both senses of the word) and dealing with a very personal grief being consumed on a public level. In truth, Agnes is just as deserving of a Women’s Prize as her perceptive author.
There appears to be an intrinsic link between the founding of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the writing of Hamnet. The idea for the prize was born in 1991, when the Booker Prize failed to acknowledge the work of female writers on its shortlist. In response, the Women’s Prize for Fiction was born in order to shine a light on the group that was forgotten. There was something about studying Hamlet that left an indelible impression on O’Farrell’s creative subconscious that years later she pledged a story to his forgotten son. This novel can be described as a beautiful haunting, where the deepest maternal love intertwines itself with the most harrowing of grief. From a name in a father’s history springs forth a story previously untold, one so in touch with the human experience that it rightly holds its place as a Women’s Prize for Fiction winner.
Image: Zoltan Tasi via Unsplash