The play was written after the boy’s death: how did real life influence art here? With Shakespeare, a man who guarded his private life, the answer is opaque. Hamlet is about fathers and sons, but how the tragic Danish prince relates to the Stratford schoolboy is entirely elusive. If there is more than the name in common it is in allusion only, too personal to be unearthed by modern scholars.
The play is anyway not O’Farrell’s main interest. She is best known as a literary novelist, her ventures into history always part of a parallel modern narrative. Here, she is immersed in a lost past, a family’s domesticity. The focus is on a woman’s life: the mysterious (or perhaps mundane) Anne Hathaway. In this novel she is Agnes, with her husband unnamed.
If there is an elephant wearing a ruff here, then it is Upstart Crow. Ben Elton’s funny, witty reimagining of Shakespeare is excellent television, with Liza Tarbutt’s exuberant Anne a perfect foil for David Mitchell. O’Farrell’s Agnes is very different — and somewhat problematic.
In giving Anne agency, O’Farrell has limited choices. She begins with Agnes as wild child, not unlike Elfine in Cold Comfort Farm, itself a satire of literary rural novels. Subsequently O’Farrell plumbs for a cliche of the popular historical genre, the wise herb-woman. Anne also happens to be psychic, but in this novel she utterly fails to foresee the death of her only son.
In terms of language, taking on one of the greatest word-players in English is a dangerous proposition. O’Farrell sensibly does not try to imitate the bard, nor have recourse to tushery. Her style is typically economical, without the po-mo invention of Elton or Mantel’s calculated use of anachronism (bun-face). It suffices for this lived-in past, a soupçon of poetry, never to excess.
A different writer would have gone mad with pastiche, or turned poetaster at the opportunity. A different writer would have tackled Shakespeare directly, with the likelihood of being utterly defeated by the subject.
Where the novel connects reader and character most effectively is when Agnes, so capable within her small sphere, is prostrated by sorrow. Her husband is both physically and emotionally absent. The story of their marriage is told in flashbacks, always in the present tense. How it will survive the tragedy is the real narrative of this book.
Yet the novel is not unrelievedly grim. You can sense O’Farrell’s joy in recreating Tudor times, the natural world reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. Where she soars most is in one small chapter, the tale of a flea travelling to England with the plague. It is a miniature tour-de-force, an opening of a casement window into a wider world.
Comparisons with Upstart Crow are invidious, yet Elton’s treatment of Hamnet’s death was similarly short, and very moving. An entire novel on the subject is not a misstep, but can read as ultimately too much — not only in length, but also technically.
Opinion on this novel is already sharply divided as to whether O’Farrell succeeds or not. In the end, the stepping outside of her natural subject boundaries is audacious, and not audacious enough.
Shakespeare himself said it best, in King John: ‘‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child.’’ Agnes in her grief engages, but the book does not retrieve the historic Anne, nor her husband the playwright.