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Hamnet: A Review

This has been an interesting one to listen to and I've been considering for a little while, as the 'time left in this book' ticked down, how I wanted to approach the review of it. As I've said before, I'm not a huge fan of Maggie O'Farrell's work, but this book is beautifully written.

My initial attraction to it was - if I'm to be completely honest - made up of the following points: 1) it was set in Stratford-upon-Avon (my walking location at the time) and 2) it was vaguely related to Shakespeare. It sounded vaguely interesting so I thought I'd give it a go. Essentially, the story is not about Shakespeare, but rather is about his family left behind in Stratford. He is quite a shadowy figure throughout, always viewed through the lens of other characters.

However, the more I listened to it, the more I was drawn into the lives of these people. The book might be set five hundred years ago, but its themes are still relevant today. The aching loss of losing someone you love, especially a child and the impact it has on your other relationships is something many people today are all too familiar with.

Nevertheless, it's not this aspect that interested me in terms of writing a review of the book. On Monday I took part in my online writing group and the task we'd set ourselves was to re-write a 500 word section of a novel that we disliked. The books we chose were a varied selection, from a re-working of Cinderella to one that tackled Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. However, they all had one thing in common and this was something we hadn't intended. Each of us had chosen to re-write a weak or underestimated or victimised female character and give her a stronger voice.

I'd chosen to tackle the scene in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles where Angel confesses to his affair with an older woman and Tess makes a confession of her rape. Thinking about how I wanted to change this made me realise that it wasn't just that Tess' fatalistic attitude to life had annoyed me when I first read it, but rather that it was the attitude of Angel to her confession that irritated me. He has the chance to be supportive, to comfort her, to assure her that what happened wasn't her fault. He does none of these things. Instead, he turns his back on her love and tells her she is not the person he thought she was and the Tess he had fallen in love with was an illusion. He doesn't see that by telling him about her ordeal, she is trusting him to still love her. She knows what society says and she doesn't have to tell him anything, but she chooses to tell him because it is in her nature to be honest. Angel recognises none of this.

Consequently, as I was listening to Hamnet, I found myself wondering why it was that knowing Shakespeare's wife was older than him and had been left in Stratford when he went to London, meant that I had always assumed he married her for money and then left when it was convenient. It never occurred to me to wonder why she had married him, other than to accept the explanation often given - that of a shotgun wedding. O'Farrell gives an explanation for this, but her account of their relationship is much warmer, more loving and infinitely more satisfying than the one I had envisaged for them. It is also far from a shotgun wedding, it is in fact a carefully planned way to force the hands of others who are reluctant for the marriage to take place.

Agnes (as O'Farrell calls her) is a strong woman who is different to others around her. Her difference marks her out in ways both positive and negative, but she is at the heart of this book. The plot revolves around her in the same way her family does and it is she who holds it all together. In a time when women were seen as weak and feeble, Agnes is neither of these things. Like so many women whose contributions to life have gone unnoticed and unrecognised, she is the driving force behind everything that happens. Bad things happen to her and around her, but at no point is she a victim. She is a clever and strong woman who manages her own life and I want to believe that this is the real 'Anne' Hathaway, not the one who is merely a footnote in the life of her husband.

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