For the first time in a very long while, I could feel tears coming to my eyes while I was reading a novel. I do not often cry when I read books because I am conscious of the techniques and writing styles being used by an author. But this caught me by surprise. I stopped, read the passages again, and sniffled some more. Why did Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell move me so? It is very beautiful. It is the best thing I’ve read in a long time.
Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is so simple, understated and direct that each sentence carries the same weight as many pages would in other novels. She describes the crucial moments in the story as if she had personally lived it, and observed exactly what she saw, smelled, felt, and thought, and then wrote it down so that you can experience it as if you were there. She has the ability to depict characters and their relationships in such a way that you feel deeply empathetical towards them. You feel as if you are them. It is a quite an experience.
It is, to quote one reviewer, “blisteringly beautiful”. Another wrote it is “a thing of shimmering wonder”. I absolutely agree.
Until now I had never read anything written by Maggie O’Farrell. I bought the book because it is about a child of William Shakespeare, and anything Shakespearian interests me. In the end though, it’s about much more than that – it’s about the power that words, poetry and story-telling have to keep memories alive, to recreate and bring to life again something precious that has been lost. It’s about the love between siblings, and the love between people who do not understand each other but nevertheless try to. It is about the pain, regret and desperation of losing a child. You might think, oh no, this sounds too sad to read. It is heartbreaking, but in the end, it is uplifting and especially hopeful because of the misery leading up to it. And it is just simply beautifully written.
Every so often I say to the people who read this blog: – buy a particular book. Read it. It’s worth it. So I say so again; buy this one, read it.
A simple premise
The story is set in 1580 in Stratford, England. It is the middle of the Elizabethan Era, 1558 to 1603. The premise is this: To the son of a glove-maker who becomes a playwright (not named, but inferred to be William Shakespeare) and his wife, “Agnes”, three children are born; a daughter and twins, a boy, “Hamnet”, and a girl, “Judith”. The story opens with a small boy, Hamnet, (a name that was also spelled “Hamlet” in those days) alone in his mother’s apartment, next door to the house of his grandparents. He is looking for someone, anyone to help him. But there’s no-one there. His sister, Judith, is in bed, very ill. She has a fever, chills and large, infected lumps in her neck and armpits. Hamnet does not understand why suddenly there is no-one when he so desperately wants help for his sister. At this point the reader has a rising sense of urgency about the adults in the story needing to realize the urgency and come to his rescue.
O’Farrell then switches back and forth between the past lives of the characters to lead up to that particular moment in time. It is a long, tense read to find out what is going to happen to Hamnet and Judith. Agnes, their mother, is a free spirit, intuitive, unusually perceptive, and a healer using plants that she grows. She is unconventional (she keeps a tame goshawk) and not accepted by the narrow-minded townspeople. The young playwright falls deeply in love with her and they get married. She has a premonition about having two children. She gives birth to the twins and it is Judith who is the weaker of the two, but who survives. Agnes believes her intuition about having two children refers to the twins, so she is not worried about them.
Their father is torn between his scorn for his home town, his fear of his violent father, his love for his wife and children, and his need to escape to London to make a new life as a playwright. In secret he is writing poetry, unusual in a society where most people are illiterate. He goes to London, a world away from Stratford, and eventually achieves success, but keeps his family away from his new life.
The twins, Hamnet and Judith
Judith raises the twins on her own. They grow up to be mirror images of each other. They look alike, with blonde hair, they are always together, they are connected with a love so strong that one cannot live without the other. Hamnet is right-handed, Judith is left-handed.
Then the twins become very ill, and one of them dies. That’s the crux.
Twins and what ties them together
I do not want to reveal which one of the twins dies, or how. It is a twist in the tale and the defining moment in the novel, and I doubt that it would have made any difference in the events that followed if it had been the other child. One way or another, it is devastating. When the child dies, O’Farrell’s depiction of the parents’ heartbreak punches you in the gut.
Most readers will recognize in themselves O’Farrell’s authentic descriptions of the grief and mourning of the parents and siblings who are left behind. The death of a child is a familiar and common theme in fiction, but one which should be handled with care so as to not be over-sentimental, schmaltzy or false-sounding. She achieves a fine balance between over- and under-statement by precisely mirroring in her descriptions the physical responses that people have to such tragedies. She is particularly good when describing the perceptions and responses of children.
In the normal course of events, we all witness those we love die when they have lived out their lives, and when we die, in due course, those left behind will, in turn, witness our deaths. But for a child to die when they are still young, and the parents are the ones left behind, is not normal, and particularly awful. Maggie O’Farrell has said in an interview:
What is left behind is grief, pain, broken-heartedness, helplessness, endless tears. O’Farrell accurately and sensitively depicts the need of people who are left behind to somehow grasp what is beyond the world of the living, to try to once more see or touch their loved one, even if it is only to say goodbye.
O’Farrell does not leave the reader with this tragic situation. The father of these children is a playwright and using words is the only thing he can do well. He cannot make gloves, like his own father. But he can write. So he writes a play through which to express his grief.
The motivation for the book
At the end of the book, Maggie O’Farrell explains why she wrote it. To her it came from speculation about the death of one of William Shakespeare’s children. She took as the core of the novel a historical footnote, just a footnote, because not much is known about this particular child of Shakespeare’s. It was the time of the Plague, the Black Death, in England and people were dying in their thousands, and infant mortality was high in any case, so the death of a child, while devastating for their family, was not important in the greater scheme of things. She built upon this one event – which had many unknown aspects – and created a lament for all children who die, for all parents who lose a child, for all twins who lose their twin sibling.
You can easily find the historical background about Shakespeare and his family, the descriptions of society, historical events, the theatre, even how the Plague got to England, and O’Farrell presents those facts accurately. But – as the book cover indicates – this is a novel. It is not just a reworking of a piece of history. That would not have made it as beautiful as it is. O’Farrell’s reimagining does that.
The book is filled with tenderness and grief, but ends with such hope and love that I cried all over again.
Judith goes to the theatre where her husband is performing his play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. (O’Farrell never actually calls him “William Shakespeare”.) He is on stage, playing the ghost of the father of “Prince Hamlet”, and speaks the famous words that he wrote and which, for me, encapsulates so much about the people we love and our memories of them:
“Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.”
The critics have raved over this, and I agree. It is the most moving, best written novel I have read in years. It is not long, complicated, wordy or over-dramatic. Yet it is everything an historical novel, a love story, a family story, or a Künstlerroman ought to be. I thought to myself, how can I demonstrate to people how well O’Farrell writes? It is almost impossible to do it with a review and with quotes, since, to feel it, you have to read it.
About the author
Maggie O’Farrell, born 27 May 1972, is an award-winning Irish-British novelist. Her debut novel After You’d Gone received international acclaim and won the Betty Trask Award. Her later novel The Hand That First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has twice been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award – for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be The Place in 2017. Her memoir I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death reached number one in the Sunday Times Bestseller list. Hamnet (the alternative title of Hamnet and Judith) won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.
- After You’d Gone (2000)
- My Lover’s Lover (2002)
- The Distance Between Us (2004)
- The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007)
- The Hand That First Held Mine (2010)
- Instructions for a Heatwave (2013)
- This Must Be the Place (2016)
- Hamnet (2020)
- I Am, I Am, I Am (2017)
The historical setting of Hamnet and Judith – It was the worst of times
The story is set during the Second Plague wave (also called Black Death, the Pestilence, the Great Mortality, or the Bubonic Plague) in world history, when many more millions of people died than had been killed in the first wave. The Plague – just “the Plague” as it is generally called (one researcher commented, “Finally, plague is plague”) has still not been eradicated right up to the present time. A Plague vaccine was not discovered until 1897, by Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, and in now we have that vaccine and antibiotics. The most recent outbreaks of the Plague was in Madagascar in 2014 and again in 2017.)
In Elizabethan England, there was no prevention or cure, and there was nothing more fearsome than to realize that one of your family members has been infected. When Judith has to treat her sick children, her treatments actually worsen their condition, though her plant-based medications were probably less harmful than the quack treatments by the so-called doctors of the time. Her fear and frustration, and their suffering, are really harrowing to read about. However, it is a principle of writing that to maintain both relevance and tension, the emphases in the plot of a book should be on life-threatening situations for the characters, which, in this case, they are.
About the illustrations and header in this post
Life in the Elizabethan Era in England can be seen in paintings, drawings and etchings of that time. One of the best Court Artists of the early 16th century was Hans Holbein the Younger, whose wonderfully life-like, exceptionally realistic portraits of famous figures such as King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, have become world famous. The almost photographic realism of the portraits he painted was unusual for that time. If you study the portraits you not only see a representation of a person but the fine details of how the people of that time actually looked and lived – from their clothes, to their hairstyles, their manners, and their possessions. Holbein the Younger died in 1543, aged between 45 and 46 years, some forty years before the story of Hamnet and Judith takes place. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, who was himself a skilled and talented artist. The drawing of the two figures, below, are by Hans Holbein the Elder of his children, including Hans Holbein the Younger on the right.
Portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger and Hans Holbein the Elder (below):
The analysis – Why did this novel touch me so deeply?
Having puzzled for a few days about just why this story touched me so deeply, and trawled through the Internet, I found a 2009 academic paper on people’s emotional reaction to art, which provides a possible explanation. The findings of the authors are similar to more recent research on the relationship between art, perception and neurobiology, for instance the work of Dr. Eric Kandel. The paper is an analysis of the principles of music composition (and the composition of writing and painting – the composing of anything, really), that when applied, lead to a direct, physical response in the listener or reader, thereby causing the listener or reader to literally feel what the composer or writer wants them to feel.
In music, in art and in creative writing, feeling and meaning are created primarily by the composer juxtaposing two elements in the work – through stability versus instability, content versus emptiness, unity versus variety, tension versus release, and motion versus stasis. This juxtaposition is critical in music, but also in writing.
If you look at O’Farrell’s writing style, you can see that she uses juxtaposition (appearing as changes from the norm or contrasts against the norm) very skilfully. Sometimes she omits words, leaving an element to the reader to imagine and complete; she varies short phrases with long sentences; she varies the setting and the time line, she creates sharply contrasted characters, emotions and settings, she moves the plot forward quickly in years, but sometimes expands on core moments that last mere seconds but are depicted as though time is standing still.
She places these juxtaposed elements against timeless motifs, and familiar behaviours and feelings in her characters, creating a stable “Ursatz”, or fundamental structure, that the reader can easily identify with. But even so, more is needed than simply juxtaposition to elicit feelings in the reader.
Reading a work of fiction generally causes feelings in the reader which are like the feelings experienced by the characters. In other words, a reader can have an empathetical reaction. But very good literature contains “feeling memories” which can stimulate actual emotion responses in readers. When a text is skillfully created by using juxtaposition, and aligned with the way humans experience and interpret information, it can make the reader think and feel those emotions directly within themselves. In other words, a reader can physically respond to a feeling that they have remembered from having read about it.
I think this is what O’Farrell has achieved in Hamnet and Judith – she has created a series of intense “feeling memories” in the novel which causes the same feelings in the reader. Does knowing this make me feel less “magicked” by the book? No, not really. A detailed analysis of any novel will usually reveal its flaws, as will repeated listening to and deconstructing a piece of music, or looking critically at the same artwork.