Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is, to me, the ideal kind of historical fiction. It fills in the gaps of what we know in a reasonably plausible way. It gives us characters who feel of their time but also not so very distant from us. And it tells a story that I cared about. Granted, it doesn’t have the level of scope and detail of, say, a Dorothy Dunnett novel, but I wouldn’t want all my historical fiction to have that same level of scope and detail. This is a story about a family that happened to live in the past, not a sweeping narrative about important people doing significant things.
Although, of course, Hamnet’s father is an important person. But his place as the preeminent playwright in the English language, the William Shakespeare, is hardly relevant to the plot. Until the final moments of the book, his career is mostly what keeps him from his family, not something anyone in the book talks about or cares about much.
The book begins by telling the story of William’s wooing and eventual wedding to Agnes Hathaway (known to history as Anne) in parallel with the story of the plague hitting the young family, specifically, the youngest daughter Judith, twin sister to Hamnet. O’Farrell reminds us in the historical note that opens the novel that Hamnet died at age 11 and that his father wrote Hamlet four years later. So the shape of the plot is already known to us.
But the plot isn’t what is important to the novel, although here, as is so often the case for me lately, I appreciate that O’Farrell does care about story, not just mood and setting. The important thing about the book is seeing that people of the past experienced tragedy in much the same way we do. It is an obvious truth, to be sure, but I think it’s easy to forget when we just look at numbers and names in a history book, even when those names are familiar to us, that the people did not experience these deaths as history. They were personal, just as the many deaths of our own contemporary pandemic this year are not just current events, they are personal tragedies.
The book also shows with great poignance that people manage tragedy differently. For me, these chapters toward the end of the book are what elevated it beyond just very solid historical fiction. The characters, William and Agnes in particular, but also their daughters Susanna and Judith, share the same grief, but they each carry it in their own way, in ways that the others do not or cannot understand fully. Again, tragedy is a personal process. Yet, it can also be shared, must be shared.