This was another Christmas present. My goodness Maggie O’Farrell can write. I feel a bit ridiculous putting that to be honest, it’s a bit like saying that Usain Bolt can run. Biographies of William Shakespeare tend to include short pieces of information about his home life. They are short as there is very little known. He had three children : Susanah and twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died aged 11. Shakespeare wrote his play Hamlet (the two versions of the name are interchangeable) about 4 years later. That’s all that is known about the boy.
Maggie O’Farrell wanted to give the boy a life, a back story, a presence. She actually gives the family and Agnes (one version of Shakespeare’s wife’s name) some colour and most certainly a presence. It is wonderful.
It is not for the faint hearted. I sat in tears for much of the second half of the book. Agnes simply descends into grief that is inconsolable, not helped by her husbands departure for the play houses of London. The book suggests the not unreasonable view that the play Hamlet was Shakespeare’s way of coping with his son’s death.
I loved this book. I wanted to know more about Agnes’s daily life creating herbal remedies, keeping bees and running the large house for the extended family. Her father in law John Shakespeare was a glover, making and selling gloves. Maggie O’Farrell created her own herb garden and learnt how to create tinctures and balms in order to be able to write Agnes’s life accurately.
She is the main focus of the book. Her husband is only referred to as such, or the Latin teacher or the playwrite. I was completely transported to 16th century Stratford and mesmerised. It is wholly fiction other than the dates of birth and death but it is as if you have been enraptured by one of Agnes’s potions.
It is no surprise that this won Costa women’s prize for fiction. It is a triumph, powerful, moving and exquisite.
I am writing this on my phone sitting outside a hospital waiting for a daughter (no panic, routine stuff) so it’s a bit of an experiment.