‘Remember Me’: A Review of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

In her 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, British writer Maggie O’Farrell details the many times she has come close to the brink. Near-drowning, mismanaged childbirth, the close call of a car boot smacking her five-year-old head. A debilitating childhood illness, a lark with friends gone wrong; so many occasions in which events could have gone either way. ‘There is nothing unique or special,’ O’Farrell writes, ‘in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realising it…We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’

This visceral awareness of the thin membrane separating life from death pervades O’Farrell’s novels. Her plots unfold against the humdrum rhythm of daily life when tragedy and devastation are abstracted and the precipice upon which all lives teeter is easily ignored. Apparent order is suddenly tipped into chaos by an unsettling presence, an insistent echo, or a fuzzy object at the edge of a character’s vision. As her characters wrestle with their haunted states, the edifices they have constructed around their lives and identities become suffocating and oppressive, demanding to be dismantled. In The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (from 2006, reviewed on this blog in 2019), an elderly woman is released from lifelong incarceration in an asylum and the injustice that put her there demands reassessment and remedy, with her descendants taking on the responsibility of righting the past. In The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), the birth of a baby reveals cracks in the story a family has clung to for generations. In Instructions for a Heatwave (2013), disconnected siblings are involuntarily reunited after their father disappears. In This Must Be The Place (2016), an Irish linguist living in New York grapples with the possibility that he contributed to the death of a former girlfriend.

O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnet, is a reimagining of the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of eleven from bubonic plague. In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell states that she has been fascinated by Hamnet ever since she learnt of him at school, and believes that his life and death have not been given proper weight or consideration by critics and academics. She takes particular issue with the idea that parents in the sixteenth century did not grieve their children merely because the child mortality rate was high.

Superficially, its Elizabethan setting and portrayal of actual historical figures characterise the novel as a departure from O’Farrell’s oeuvre of ‘contemporary domestic gothic.’ Indeed, much of the publicity surrounding Hamnet portrays the novel as an attempt to lay to rest the scholarly debate on whether Hamnet’s death inspired Shakespeare to write the play ‘Hamlet.’ While O’Farrell acknowledges this debate in her foreword, interrogating Shakespeare’s writing process is not her primary motivation. William Shakespeare is never named; in fact he is barely present, with the vast majority of the plot taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon while the playwright is in London. Rather, Hamnet can be seen as a continuation of O’Farrell’s established preoccupations, foremost of which is the necessity of confrontation with painful realities and repressed truths. While in her previous novels such confrontation hinges on the airing of shameful family or personal secrets, in Hamnet, O’Farrell draws attention to grief as an enduring state of being rather than as a transitory experience, and to the way in which the act of loving another is, in itself, a confrontation with death.

O’Farrell’s fiction consistently draws attention to the unrealised insight of lost moments and the claims of the unmourned. Her creative mission is to carve out a space in which profound emotion can be expressed, while avoiding simplistic notions of ‘closure’. Hamnet’s family members are disoriented by his loss. Part of this is shock at the rapidity with which life is extinguished; as Hamnet is laid out in preparation for burial, ‘[t]he soles and nails still bear the dirt so recently accrued from lie: grit from the road, soil from the garden, mud from the riverbank, where he swam not a week ago with friends.’ Because of the plague, his mother, Agnes (O’Farrell reverts to an alternative spelling of Anne Hathaway’s name that is found in some records) is required to relinquish Hamnet’s body shortly after death. Unable to observe adequate mourning rituals, she feels cut adrift; ‘more and more, her own life seems strange and unrecognisable to her.’ Similarly, as there is no word for a twin who has lost its twin, Hamnet’s death renders his twin sister Judith a stranger to herself.

In I Am, O’Farrell alludes to the inadequacy of language in coming to terms with loss. She recounts her experience of unexplained secondary infertility, which caused her to suffer numerous miscarriages. She writes that ‘losing a baby, a foetus, an embryo, a child, a life, even at a very early stage, is a shock like no other,’ and is aghast at the way society treats such losses as unspeakable; as ‘spirits, wraiths, who never breathed air, never saw light. So invisible, so evanescent, that our language doesn’t even have a word for them.’ For reasons that are also scientifically unexplained, O’Farrell’s body does not recognise that her unborn children have died, but she takes the unwillingness of her body to ‘let go’ as a visceral confirmation of the incomprehensibility of such loss.

One of Hamnet’s uncles articulates the dilemma facing the entire family following his death, wondering ‘how will we live? What will we do now?’ These are especially painful questions for William and Agnes, whose differing reactions initially tear them apart. William is away in London at the time of Hamnet’s death; initially summoned because Judith is gravely ill, he arrives to find that it is Hamnet, instead, who has died. As he goes back and forward to London, the heaviness of grief will not go away; ‘[h]e feels as though he is caught in a web of absence, its strings and tendrils ready to stick and cling to him.’

In many memoirs of terminal illness, it is not the fear of death that the writer is consumed by, but, rather, the prospect of eternal separation from their loved ones. Reflecting on mortality in her book Therapies of Desire, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that:

the intensity and dedication with which very many human activities are pursued cannot be explained without reference to the awareness that our opportunities are finite, that we cannot choose these activities indefinitely many times. In raising a child, in cherishing a lover, in performing a demanding task of work or thought or artistic creation, we are aware, at some level, of the thought that each of these efforts is structured and constrained by finite time.

Loving another entails opening oneself to the possibility of their loss; the very act of loving another is thus a confrontation with death. To me, this explains why confrontation with pain is so important in O’Farrell’s work; as the death of a loved one is the ultimate confrontation with pain, by denying death, we diminish our ability to love. In O’Farrell’s writing, the trick to survival is not to erase pain, but to sit with it; to hold it. It becomes the new centre.  ‘Every life,’ proclaims the narrator in Hamnet, ‘has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything radiates out, to which everything returns.’ Hamnet is, at its core, a story of death rewritten as a story of love. It is originally Judith who falls in, but in a magical scene, Hamnet swaps himself for her; the ultimate act of love.

In the final chapter of I Am, O’Farrell reveals that her second child- a miracle baby whose twin died at an early stage in utero- has severe anaphylaxis, which results in her coming close to death many times a year. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family live ‘in a state of high alert.’ Reflecting on the process of writing a memoir, O’Farrell told the Guardian: ‘I realised that trying to pin down in words what she goes through was my way of trying to feel in control but that control was illusory.’ She has spent countless hours poring over emergency plans for when her daughter has an episode, and trained her oldest child to say ‘at the age of six, how to dial 999 and say into the receiver, “This is an emergency case of anaphylaxis.”’ Agnes is portrayed by O’Farrell as a mystical healer; despite being sought after for her special knowledge, she is ultimately unable to save her own child.

Love is also the desire to protect your child from both physical harm, and also from losing their innocence. Having survived a chilling encounter on a mountainside with a man who later went on to rape and murder another young woman, O’Farrell contemplates the task of warning her children about ‘what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests… there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why.’ In Hamnet, Agnes’s instinct is to protect her husband from the knowledge of their son’s death: ‘Agnes looks at him and he looks back at her. She wants, more than anything, to stretch this moment, to expand the time before he knows, to shield him from what has happened for as long as she can.’

When Agnes hears that her husband has written a play named after their son, she feels a confused distaste, as though her husband has invoked her son’s name purely for his own ends. Travelling to London to see it for herself, her understanding transforms with the appearance of the ghost. By writing the play, Shakespeare has pulled off the very feat that is impossible in ordinary life: bringing back the dead. It chimes with her with her own desire ‘to scratch the ground, perhaps with a hoe, to score the streets beneath her, so that there will forever be a mark, for it always to be known that this way Hamnet came. He was here.’

The final word is reserved for the ghost: ‘remember me’.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

[contains spoilers]

It is most important to keep yourself very still. Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more.

As Elaine Showalter notes in her influential book The Female Malady, “madness has been the historical label applied to female protest and revolution.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, when women in Britain were campaigning for access to the vote and to universities, hysteria was the most common of all the nervous maladies to be associated with the feminist movement. She also points out that men benefitted from women’s actual experience of psychosomatic illness. In addition to using it to rhetorically delegitimise women’s calls for equality, its disabling effects prevented women from expending energy on campaigns. But perhaps Showalter’s most important point is her reading of the origins of women’s mental distress, contending that throughout history women have suffered because of their traditional role, rather than mental illness being a deviation from it. Until the mid-twentieth century- and echoes of this are still heard today – the options afforded to women did not allow them to fashion their own narratives or public presence: you disappeared into marriage and motherhood, or you could very well have disappeared into an asylum.

The consequences of feminine “impropriety” are the subject of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. A young woman, who calls herself Esme, although her given name is Euphemia, survives a childhood tragedy (her baby brother dies from typhoid) and goes on to become a “difficult” young woman. Her family, burdened by Esme’s reluctance to get married and preference for books and education over banal social niceties, incarcerates her in an asylum where she spends the next six decades. The story cuts between the 1940s and the present, when Esme is released because the asylum is being closed, and is taken in by Iris, a thirty-ish single woman who, as a distant relative, has unknowingly inherited guardianship of her.

O’Farrell’s writing is beguiling and magical, her concerns with memory, family, secrets and everyday violence timeless and penetrating. Australian readers may be familiar with O’Farrell through her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, a haunting and lyrical series of vignettes that detail her seventeen brushes with death, from contracting encephalitis in childhood to narrowly escaping the clutches of a psychopathic killer. When she was hospitalised with encephalitis, O’Farrell was not expected to survive, then when she did, it was predicted she would never walk again. Happily, today she retains her ability to walk, but, the disease having made “lacework” of her cerebellum, her coordination and sensory perception are severely impaired. While her memoir may have been a way to expunge herself of the visceral horror each brush with death left her with, O’Farrell ostensibly wrote it to give courage to her elder daughter, who has a severe immune disorder that results in as many as a dozen anaphylactic episodes a year. Everyday items have the potential to kill her. Consequently, O’Farrell and her family cannot travel more than twenty minutes from a hospital. They cannot allow visitors to the family home to bring items that most other people taken for granted. They exist, O’Farrell writes, “in a state of high alert.”

A former journalist, she also occasionally writes on assignment for various publications. Her recent article in the Guardian on her chronic back pain, like her memoir, reveals an intuitive grasp of the secrets of the body, and the way memories and past experiences can be reawakened through somatic phenomena. When, working as a journalist in the 1990s, O’Farrell experienced pins and needles in her back and shoulder, her boss worried that she had RSI, and sent her off to the company physiotherapist. But O’Farrell knew better. In between making phone calls and chasing copy, she had a “sensation that there was something behind me, something only I could see, nebulous and malevolent, something I thought I had outrun, a long time ago, but here it was, back to haunt me, placing its clammy hand on my shoulder and saying, you didn’t think you’d get away that easily, did you?”

Bodily hauntings are a recurring theme of her fiction. Peppered among her novels are characters who are prompted, through what can start out as an innocuous occurrence, to re-evaluate the significance of a past experience. In her debut novel, After You’d Gone, a young woman goes on a mental excursion through her past after being injured in an accident. Her Costa award-winning 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine jumps back and forth between the 1950s and the mid-2000s, revealing the ways in which strangers’ lives can be indelibly linked. Secrets are revealed through experiences of birth and death, highlighting once again the way in which O’Farrell’s writing thrives on the idea of the truth making itself known through our bodies. And in her most recent novel from 2016, This Must Be The Place, referred to by one critic as her “break out,” a lecturer in linguistics, Daniel Sullivan, must come to grips with the grief he has spent his life running away from.

O’Farrell’s writing is underpinned by an acute appeal to the senses. Sometimes her imagery is intensely sensual, at other times sparse, but it always manages to add depth and convey emotion. She often alludes to action that occurs off stage or in the background, which underlines her preoccupation with excavating our past to understand how we came to land in the present: “Somewhere out of sight a child is crying. The dog stands in the doorway, watching the tiny figures of people walking along the bridge high above them. Sometimes this street feels so deep cut into the city it’s as if Iris is leading a subterranean existence.” These sentences, taken from The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, exemplify O’Farrell’s talent for melding description with penetrating insight. Appearing early in the novel, they allude to key themes in the story: the ways in which our lives are influenced by what has come before, including by grander occurrences that we have no control over, yet in whose shadow we find ourselves existing.

In The Vanishing Act, the narrative voice switches between the third person, focusing on the lives of Esme and Iris, and first person from the perspective of Esme’s sister, Kitty, whose role in Esme’s incarceration is part of the intrigue. The style is unsettling, with no clear-cut answer as to whether Esme has an intellectual disability or mental illness. At times I speculated whether she could be on the Autism spectrum, then wondered if I could be blinded by the prejudices of my own era, which have their origins in the very ideas that led to the incarceration of women like Esme. Other women in the asylum have tragic stories, and, like Esme, have experienced significant grief or trauma:

There was Maudie, who married Donald and then Archibald when she was still married to Hector, even though the one she really loved was Frankie, who was killed in Flanders… In the next beds were Elizabeth, who had seen her child crushed by a cart, and Dorothy, who was occasionally moved to strip off all her clothes.

In an interview with the Guardian, O’Farrell advised that these stories are all true; she came across them while researching conditions of asylums, and discovered that some of her acquaintances had had relations incarcerated.

While these days Esme’s presence in the asylum would be regarded as an abuse in and of itself, her treatment at the hands of the authorities is mostly portrayed with an understatement that serves to reveal its insidiousness.  When Esme spends the night at Iris’s house, she sleeps in her coat “buttoned up to her neck” and barricades the bedroom door with an armchair, revealing protective behaviours she learnt in the asylum. So it is in the asylum that Esme becomes docile. This was after all their intended purpose: to iron out the kinks in the personalities of rebellious women who bucked against what Charlotte Wood has called “the natural way of things.” The discipline meted out in the asylum via the punishment of individuality and the inculcation of “appropriate conduct” through brutality also results in Esme’s erasure. After her incarceration she became persona non grata to her family, but she also learns to vanish herself as a coping mechanism:

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her specialty. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish… Even breathing can remind them that you are there, so only very short, very shallow breaths. Just enough to stay alive. And no more… Concentrate. Really concentrate. You need to attain a state so that your being, the bit of you that makes you what you are, that makes you stand out, three-dimensional in a room, can flow out from the top of your head…

With this magical thinking, her discipline is complete. To be a good woman is to be a non-entity.

There is a cruel, ironic element in the way that Esme’s intellectual thirst is her downfall. She wants to acquire knowledge, but not the right kind. By refusing to husband hunt, she refuses the only sexual outlet her society permits, and thus denies herself a sanctioned expression of sexuality. Despite many of her peers ostracising her, a boy takes an interest in her, and her family pushes her to accept his invitations. She is initially uninterested at an intellectual level, but when he makes physical advances, she becomes curious. Alas, she has not been warned of the dangers that lie in wait for her as a woman; she cannot avoid becoming his prey. She gives birth in the asylum, where the staff assume she will simply forget about her child.

Esme’s sister, Kitty, encounters marital problems; her husband refuses consummation. Neither of them possess the requisite knowledge, and their times prevent them from seeking advice. When Kitty hears that Esme has given birth in hospital, she does not realise that her sister had been raped, and sees her child – the only evidence of a woman’s worth- through jealous eyes:

I don’t think, until that moment, I’d fully realised what had happened, what she had done. She had done that with him. And in me rose an anger. How had she known and not me? She was younger than me, she wasn’t as pretty as me, she certainly wasn’t as accomplished as me, she wasn’t even married and yet she had managed to…

Kitty takes possession of Esme’s son and spends the rest of her life erasing the memory of her sister in order to keep up the pretence that she has imbibed the requisite knowledge for successful womanhood.

The novel’s only flaw is that the juxtapositioning of Iris’s and Esme’s lives are a little too clean cut. Esme is unquestionably a victim; Iris has free reign, her own sexual transgressions going unpunished. These include an affair with a married man and a fledgling relationship with her step-brother. While these actions add complexity to Iris’s character, they downplay the ongoing presence of misogyny in contemporary women’s lives, and the way our behaviours and aspirations are still guided by the sexism that we have internalised. However, this qualm aside, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and endlessly though-provoking.