I was delighted to grab a ticket to the launch event of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet book tour at Ayewrite!, but with the decimation of the 2020 calendar of literary festivals, it was not to be. However, not to be thwarted, the author went on a virtual book tour last week. I caught her last Wednesday evening at the very impressive MyVLF.

Now I’m not going to repeat what she said, because there’s no need. The event was recorded and is still available to watch in the Theatre / Watch Now area of the site. (You will need to create an account to access this.) So, if you, too, missed out on seeing O’Farrell in person recently, this is a sweet note of consolation. She answers all of the burning questions about her novel: why does she call Anne Hathaway Agnes, why does she never name her husband, and why she is more interested in why she married him rather than vice versa.

“Forget everything you think you know about this family“, she said, while maintaining there is no evidence for the accepted history of Shakespeare being forced into marriage with an older woman, whom he depised. I have to say that O’Farrell writes a good alternative, creating a three-dimensional, intelligent and emotional woman out of the “wife-shaped void” (Germaine Greer) of historical record.

Hamnet is being praised as O’Farrell’s finest novel to date and is currently longlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Will it be shortlisted? I’m not sure, due to the competition from the other gargantuan Tudor novel on the list. I will say though that I read Hamnet in two sittings, and that it is on par with my favourite O’Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

It is impossible to read O’Farrell dispassionately. The central tragedy of Hamnet is, of course, the death of Shakespeare’s son at the age of 11 from bubonic plague, and yes, O’Farrell made me cry. She also made the hairs on my neck stand on end.

“For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.

The next 14 pages describes the journey of the bubonic plague from Alexandria to Warwickshire. While not a chapter, because the novel isn’t organised that way, it is quite possibly the most chilling interlude I’ll read this year. (And you all know why.)

The names Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable in 1596, and there’s the clue as to how Shakespeare processed his grief. The publication of the play came as a shock to his wife (the marriage was not in an ideal state by that time), and she went to London to sort things out. O’Farrell’s novel takes us with her to The Globe to watch a performance of Hamlet. There she sees something in the play that I have not noticed before …

but I will have my chance to follow in her footsteps as I stream a Globe production, which will be made available for 7 days from 7 pm tonight.