[I read this 2020 novel in three sections, and wrote in detail after each section. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
23rd January 2021
To when Agnes returns late from her beehives
There are two time-lines going, not that we realise it at first. The novel opens with the boy we soon discover to be Hamnet trying, among other things, to get through his day without crossing his bullying grandfather. He, Hamnet, is also trying to work out what’s going on. O’Farrell has chosen to write in the continuous present tense that has become the norm in historical novels, and she uses it to trap whichever consciousness she’s following in the forward momentum of a fast-moving moment that is deliberately, I assume, given little or no context. Even more than the characters, the reader has to work things out as events unfold. Sometimes O’Farrell will help us out, explaining relationships and, sometimes, a little about what the current protagonist knows. But this is the sort of narrative where at least as much is left out as is included. It makes for an uncomfortably vertiginous read, an effect I’m guessing O’Farrell is seeking.
We also know Hamnet isn’t long for this world. There’s a ‘Historical note’ before the first chapter, telling us that he dies at the age of eleven. One of the things he’s trying to do today is get a doctor to look at his twin sister Judith—and as soon as the doctor’s housekeeper mentions buboes we can see where it’s all going. He had seen the lumps, two of them the size of quails’ eggs, under his sister’s skin. And at the point I’ve reached in the novel, some hours into Hamnet’s time-line, he’s feeling terrible too. He’s just startled himself awake by his sister’s side: ‘Judith’s face is waxen and still, a sheen of sweat making it glimmer like glass. Her chest rises and falls at uneven intervals. / Hamnet swallows, his throat closed and tight. His tongue feels furred, ungainly, too large to fit in his mouth. He scrambles upright, the room blurring around him. A pain enters the back of his head and crouches there, snarling, like a cornered rat.’
I’ve quoted this not only because it’s a significant moment, but to give an idea of how internalised the stream-of-consciousness narration feels. O’Farrell wants us not only inside the minds of her characters, but inside their corporeal being too. We know exactly where that pain is that has just hit the boy, and O’Farrell’s image of the rat takes us right inside the 16th Century consciousness of a boy who’s no doubt seen a lot of rats in his short life. Meanwhile, there are other points of view in this time-line to compete with his, like that of his mother Agnes (also, O’Farrell later points out helpfully, sometimes known as Anne). She, we discover later in the other time-line, has a reputation for knowing the kind of unworldly things only a certain kind of woman knows. She’s a mile away, dealing with her beehives and deciding that she’ll have to ignore a sudden moment of uneasiness because that angry-looking swarm isn’t going to settle itself without her whispering, cajoling help.
‘Later, and for the rest of her life, she will think that if she had left there and then, if she had gathered her bags, her plants, her honey, and taken the path home, if she had heeded her abrupt, nameless unease, she might have changed what happened next.’ Next? O’Farrell jump-cuts to Hamnet at the physician’s door, being asked by the irritable housekeeper about buboes. ‘Lumps. Under the skin….’ Ah. ‘A cold fear rinses down through his chest, encasing his heart in an instant, crackling frost.’ And I realise O’Farrell is at least as fond of those images as she is of getting deep inside her characters’ core being. I suppose people were closer to crackling frosts 400-odd years ago, too. It’s the literary equivalent of a painting by one of the Breughels.
There are several other points of view in this first chapter. We’re there inside Judith’s delirium as her fevered mind tries to understand where she is. As soon as she closes her eyes, ‘she is elsewhere. In many places at once. She is walking through a meadow, holding tight to a hand. The hand belongs to her sister, Susanna. It has long fingers and a mole on the fourth knuckle….’ It’s the child’s-eye-view, focused on the details of familiar people and things. And now she’s ‘in and also above a crowd, on a pair of strong shoulders. Her father. Her legs grip his neck and he holds her by each ankle; she has buried her hands in his hair. Thick dark hair he has, like Susanna’s.’ O’Farrell is really good at this, transporting us into the moment-by-moment experience. At other times in the chapter, we are with Susanna and their grandmother, out on the street and irritated in one another’s company. All human life is here…
…except it isn’t, really. It’s the full-body, all-seeing, all-feeling, all-experiencing dashcam making its way through the moment. It’s ambitious and, in O’Farrell’s hands, it’s extraordinary. But… but what? Why am I not simply leaning back, or craning forward, into the ride? Maybe I’ll come back to that, but there’s a lot happening now. And not only in this time-line, because after this chapter ends with the boy returning to the silent house, we’re at Hewlands—a familiar name, because Agnes’s patch of land is there—‘fifteen years or so before Hamnet runs to the house of the physician.’ And who is it at the window, idly looking at how the spring wind moves the trees at the edge of the forest?
We might guess, in a novel about Shakespeare’s son, who this ‘Latin tutor’ might be. And sure enough, over a page or two, we we’ve learnt enough to know for certain. He’s here because of a deal made by John, his father, the glove-maker—who is Hamnet’s overbearing grandfather. O’Farrell never uses the name of the man who will one day write Hamlet—she hadn’t even used it in that teasing little ‘historical note’—but here he is at the window, the Latin verbs intoned by the boys he’s having to teach ‘rolling on’ around him. He’s there long enough for O’Farrell to fill in some background details, about the arrangement his father has come to, following a shady deal gone wrong, that the lessons will count in part-payment to the farmer. And we find out that while the young man might be old enough not to accept his father’s beatings any more, he also knows when he has no choice but to do what he’s told.
After all this, he’s still at the window—it’s the stillest that O’Farrell’s dashcam has been since the novel started, although we’ve been inside a key moment in the meantime. Some time in the recent past John, for no good reason, hit William in the face. The pain has ‘a sharp, whipped, lacerating quality.’ But before his father could give the second blow that was definitely coming ‘the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort.’ And yes, it’s the end of that part of his childhood. It’s also the end of the flashback, a rare thing in this forward-bounding novel, and the ‘Latin tutor’ is still looking out.
We’re really back with the stream-of-consciousness narrative now, as William has to work his way around to a realisation about someone who suddenly appears: ‘he sees, from the trees, a figure emerge. For a moment, the tutor believes it to be a young man. He is wearing a cap, a leather jerkin, gauntlets; he moves out of the trees with a brand of masculine insouciance or entitlement….’ There are enough clues here to tell us that it isn’t a man at all, but it takes William two full paragraphs: ‘he registers the long plait … a form that curves suspiciously inwards around the middle,’ and, finally, ‘an arched brow, a full red mouth.’ Clearly, it isn’t only the reader that O’Farrell likes to wrong-foot—if anything, the characters have a harder time of it. William won’t be guessing that soon he’ll be marrying this woman, but we’re guessing that a character like this one—there’s a hawk on her wrist, for goodness’ sake—isn’t going to be introduced for no reason. And William won’t know that his sexuality will still be a matter of literary gossip 400 years after this moment. We know it isn’t only women he’s attracted to.
But… we see, a chapter or two later, that it’s her womanly aspect he’s definitely interested in. How does the O’Farrell full-body dashcam work when sex is in the air? Or, in fact, in the apple-shed that doubles as a roost for Agnes’s hawk? Like this, beginning from—wait for it—the kestrel’s point of view. She, the kestrel, is trying ‘to ascertain the source of this repetitive, distracting noise. Her ears … pick up on the following: twenty score apples being nudged, jostled, bothered in their cradles. The breathing of mammals … increasing in pace. The hollow of a palm landing lightly on muscle and bone. The click and slither of a tongue against teeth. Two planes of fabric…’ and so on. Mostly, after that, it’s Agnes’s head we’re in, and the rest of her, appraising this new thing she and the Latin tutor are doing: ‘now there is this—this fit. It is altogether unlike anything she has felt before. It makes her think of a hand drawing on a glove, of a lamb slithering wet from a ewe, an axe splitting open a log, a key turning in an oiled lock. How, she wonders, as she looks into the face of the tutor, can anything fit so well, so exactly, with such a sense of rightness?’ How indeed?
And how did the seventeen-year-old William get so far so fast? Answer: it’s because Agnes has a knack of being able to know stuff. She has learnt from somebody, possibly her birth-mother, that there’s something special about the little web of flesh between a person’s thumb and forefinger. She, to William’s great surprise, had reached for just this part of his hand when he had finally tracked her down—and, as soon as she’s felt it, she knows. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever come across in literary fiction to Mr Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld. She gets right in, and ‘has the expression of a woman reading a particularly hard piece of text, a woman trying to decipher something….’ Moments later, with the skin of his hand feeling as ‘raw, peeled, ravaged’ as we’re told it always feels after this examination, there’s another surprise. She’s full of surprises. ‘Without warning, she presses her mouth to his. He feels the twin plushness of her lips…’ and, also without warning, she’s out of there. And it’s only now that he pieces together who this young woman must be. ‘Isn’t it said that the household’s eldest daughter keeps a hawk?’
She’s the farmer’s daughter from his first marriage, and has a brother who, like her, was brought up with their forest-bred mother more in the forest than out of it. O’Farrell offers a fairytale version of the sister and brother growing up in the company of a mother who has an uncanny knowledge of things… but she dies in childbirth, and their father marries Joan, a woman who has no interest at all in what has become a part of Agnes’s core being. She bears the farmer six children—some of whom William is now tutoring—but it’s Bartholomew, the firstborn and Agnes’ full brother, who runs the farm and inherits it all when the father dies. Joan is to remain in the house as long as she lives, and her children looked after until they are of age, but the details of ownership come to matter. When Joan realises that Agnes is pregnant—her investigation into why there seem to be more of the ‘monthly cloths’ in the clothes-store than there ought to be is a set-piece description from an utterly practical countrywoman’s point of view—she wants to throw her out. But Bartholomew intervenes. It’s his house, and she can stay.
But Agnes knows her own mind. She picks up the bundle of belongings her stepmother has deposited in front of her and sets off to William’s house… where there’s another set piece. We know enough by now about John’s evil temper to understand why this is going to be tricky, probably leading to a violent scene. The family constantly bears the brunt of his anger at his loss of status in the town, brought on (we don’t know when) in a highly public hearing that had laid bare his cheating ways. He had never been liked, and he is never able to come to terms both with the loss of his position as Bailiff of the town and any remaining shreds of his reputation. (In the Hamnet time-line, he’s still trying, and failing, to wheedle his way into the company of respectable men gathered in the town. The testiness between his wife and granddaughter Susanna comes out of the older woman’s constant efforts to present a brave, respectable face that the girl doesn’t understand.)
The violent scene doesn’t materialise. William’s mother is appalled, and she is as strong in her condemnation as we might have expected John to be. But no, he seems to be taking no part in it, standing with his back to them all and staring out of the window. Until, in his own good time, he tells them what he’s thinking about. This man is incapable of being straight about anything, but he clearly sees an alliance between his family and Agnes’s to be something worth having. He owed Agnes’s father a lot of money, still owes it in theory, and… and who knows what he might be able to gain by having William marry her?
With Agnes in the room, he attempts to be all politeness: ‘It is settled, then. I will go out to Hewlands, to set out my terms… our terms… to… to seal this most… sudden… and, it must be said, blessed union between our families. The girl will remain here.’ His greed is transparent enough, but outside the room, alone with William, all pretence is gone: ‘if you have ploughed and planted another one – just one – I’ll kill you. And if I don’t, her brother will. Do you hear me? I swear I will part you from your life, with God as my witness.’ And a couple of pages later, we’re with Joan’s children at Hewlands, still terrified after her rampage over the pregnancy, as they see that some sort of deal is being made between their older stepbrother and some man from the town. As they shake hands, ‘Oh,’ says one of the girls. The sons let out their breath.’ And another daughter says, ‘It is done.’
That’s as far as I’ve got. William is about to marry Agnes, and we know that it is Susanna she will give birth to in time. Meanwhile, in the later time-line… well, we think we know. Judith is in a terrible state, Hamnet is suffering a fever of his own, and Agnes is preparing herself for what might well be a lifetime of self-recrimination. William, the almost entirely absent father—it’s a holiday for all the children on the rare occasions he makes the journey—is in London, writing home about the near-impossibility of running a theatre company. But now, as a chapter ends, Agnes wonders what happened to Hamnet’s face—it was a blow from John, of course—and, when he shakes his head and points to the stairs, she takes them ‘two at a time.’
To the end of Part 1
In the Hamnet time-line, now that Agnes is home, there isn’t such a sense of that vertiginous rush we’ve been feeling up to now. It’s by no means gone entirely, because urgent things continue to happen in both time-lines, including the worsening of Judith’s illness to the point when all hope seems to be lost and, in the other time-line, two extraordinary scenes of childbirth. Except ‘scenes’ doesn’t describe what O’Farrell puts her readers through. We’re rarely simply looking on in this novel, and as some of the key events unfold the dashcam is on again, not so much stream-of-consciousness as a stream of one vivid sensation after another. And however much O’Farrell’s characters might live in their own heads, sometimes the head has little to do with it as other imperatives simply take over.
We saw that a while ago, in the apple-shed, but as some of life’s almost impossibly hard realities come into play in these central chapters, the idea that anybody might be in charge of their own destiny becomes hard to sustain. It’s a difficult lesson that Agnes, in particular, is forced to learn. She is very used to being in charge, of knowing where things are going. She knows, for instance, that the only place where she can possibly give birth is in a particular womb-like space in the forest: ‘there is a clearing, of sorts, where sunlight penetrates, creating a thick fleece of green grass, in circular patterns, the curved fronds of ferns. There is … an immense fir, felled like a giant in a story… [and] underneath its end, where it once stood in the earth, is a hollow….’ She knows she’s going to have a daughter, and knows exactly when she needs to set off, leaving behind her mother-in-law Mary and the preparations she’s made.
And it might be the first indication from the author that Agnes is too inward-looking. Until now, she’s been presented almost as a mythical archetype of womanhood, and it’s all been admirable. But now, suddenly, we realise how she simply doesn’t consider how her actions might impinge on others. She’s in her twenties, and yet she’s somehow never had to think about it. O’Farrell doesn’t make it explicit, but it will not have occurred to Agnes that her sudden disappearance exactly when the baby is due is bound to be a huge worry to absolutely everybody. It leads to a big search, but only Bartholomew, when he’s told about it, can guess where she must have gone.
I’m intrigued to know what O’Farrell’s plan is for Agnes. Our introduction to her was striking, William’s first meeting with her was even more so, complete with a New Age undertone of dark knowledge… and that fairytale description of her early life in the forest is a tour-de-force melding of mediaeval superstition and magic realism: ‘People would say these words, to each other, Did you ever hear about the girl who lived at the edge of a forest? as they sat around the fire at night…. The girl and her brother were born feeling the pull of the forest, its beckoning power. People … believed that the girl’s mother had come out of this wood. From where, no one knew.…’
Agnes, in the early chapters, is allowed to exist outside the normal parameters of literary fiction—she is not of this world, so get over it. But we’re not in the early chapters any more, and this world is making itself felt. She has to live in the town, the strangeness of which after a life on the edge of the forest takes up some paragraphs of her first morning after the wedding. She and William live in a kind of lean-to annexe to his parents’ house, two storeys in the form of a capital A, Agnes thinks, A being one of the letters she knows. It had previously been used for storage, but now the upper storey is their bedroom. She doesn’t like being so far above her beloved earth, but William lets her know that’s how it has to be.
But this is small stuff compared to what comes later. Mary, as practical and down-to-earth as Agnes’s stepmother Joan, really doesn’t like her. And she hates the way, as she sees it, that John forgives her nonsense: ‘How are we today, Agnes? he will say, as if to a child. He will look upon her mildly, if she brings a tangle of filthy roots out of her pocket, or opens her hands to show them a collection of shining acorns. He tolerates her eccentricities…’ and reminds Mary she is a country girl. She’s not having this. It’s the first time O’Farrell has given us such a frank appraisal of Agnes from the point of view of a woman, and it’s damning ‘You forgive her too much, and only because of that dowry of hers. Don’t think I don’t see this. And: I am also from the country, brought up on a farm, but do I run about the place in the night and bring wild animals into the house? No, I do not.’ What I like about this is that we aren’t being told by the author how to think. Yes, it really would be that annoying to have to deal with somebody like Agnes, day in, day out. Not that it endears Mary to us at all. She often seems small-minded and sour, regarding practicality as the only thing worth considering…
…which sometimes comes in useful, of course. When Agnes goes into labour at the end of her second pregnancy, much earlier than expected, Mary has already made careful plans for a conventional birth this time. William is living in London by now, and the rest of the household has been put on high alert to keep Agnes at home. It’s one of William’s brothers who encounters her on the street, lost in a near-delirium in a way that is completely new to her. Why didn’t she know any of this in advance? She’s taken aback by the strangeness of it, feeling unmoored and doubting all the certainties of a life she had thought she could foresee. She doesn’t know she is having twins—which, at the magic/realism level, accounts for why she can’t interpret the highly mixed messages she’s receiving about the child’s gender—and, once the contractions really come on, she almost literally doesn’t know where she is.
Some time before she reaches this crisis, she’s been almost dragged back to Mary and John’s house. Nothing about it is familiar, the bed, the birthing-stool—and the pain. ‘She will die, she thinks. What other reason can there be for her having no sign that any of this would happen? That she is about to die, to pass on, to leave this world. She will never see him, never see Susanna again. Agnes takes to the floor, felled by this presentiment. Never again. She braces herself with her palms flat to the boards, her legs folded either side of her, crouched. If death is to come, let it be quick, she prays.’ This is O’Farrell doing her full-body deep involvement thing more convincingly than ever. Only in Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon can I remember the reader being so totally inside characters’ sense of disorientation. But at last a boy is born—then, some time later, a tiny girl who, we learn, is a weak child throughout her childhood. And, many days later, William comes home.
So why didn’t O’Farrell call her novel Agnes? I’m certainly beginning to think that it’s more than a match for most in that (fairly) recent genre of the feminist re-write of what the Patriarchy has allowed to come down to us from the past. It’s more organic, for a start, because O’Farrell doesn’t simply offer us the wife’s-eye-view of a famous male biography. Agnes’s point of view is one among many even if, in these middle chapters, it’s her we’re with more than any other character. But I’ve already shown how keen O’Farrell is to give us alternative versions. In the stories of the locals, she is a forest-child, the possessor of arcane knowledge they often come to seek her out for. In her own mind, she is a complex mixture of secret understanding and passionate drives. To William’s parents she is… well, we know. And to her own daughter, aged fourteen in the later time-line, she is simply an embarrassment: ‘Why do people not see that there is nothing Susanna is less happy to talk about? How can it not be plain that it is nothing to do with her—the herbs, the weeds, the jars and bottles of powders and roots and petals that make the room stink like a dung heap…?’ We’re never being presented with a single, simple alternative narrative.
And a lot of other things are going on around her. Before the birth of the twins, William has made his move to London. Ostensibly, it’s John’s idea, so that he can set up a potentially lucrative new market for the glove business. In fact, it’s Agnes who pushes it, persuading Bartholomew to drop the idea into a conversation with John so that he thinks it’s his own idea. It has nothing to do with gloves, in fact, because Agnes has seen that William is climbing the walls with the tedium of his life in Stratford. She doesn’t know what it is—the signs she can read are rarely explicit or unambiguous—but it will have something to do with his passion for endless writing. He has reached some sort of block, either uselessly cutting one new quill after another or simply brushing them all aside in frustration…
…and the part she played in his leaving comes back to haunt her when she goes into labour early. It becomes a part of her conviction that she has lost her powers when she realises that she is the one who brought it about that he now lives four days’ ride away. It’s the last thing she needs in this crisis which, she thinks, has brought a lifetime of certainties crashing down on her. When he is finally able to be at her side, over a week after the birth of the twins, we are shown Agnes from another viewpoint, that of the young husband shocked by the toll taken on her by this second labour. And all the time I’m wondering which other modern writer is both willing and able to use the techniques that O’Farrell does? Her hyper-real version of stream-of-consciousness. Her seamless switching of the point of view. Her easy insistence that there may be kinds of recondite knowledge that aren’t contained in science books…. It’s often a heady mix.
What else? There are two time-lines, and I’ve hardly mentioned the later one. As Judith becomes more and more ill, nobody is looking to the twin who had hardly ever suffered a day’s sickness. We aren’t often with Hamnet in these chapters, but when he reaches his own crisis it’s as harrowing as anything Agnes is suffering in the parallel time-line: ‘His head is filled with pain, like a bowl brimful of scalding water. It is a strange, confusing kind of pain – it drives out all thought, all sense of action. It saturates his head, spreading itself to the muscles and focus of his eyes; it tinkers with the roots of his teeth, with the byways of his ears, the paths of his nose, the very shafts of his hair. It feels enormous, significant, bigger than him….’ All the while, he is terrified that Judith is going to die, and O’Farrell is setting up a dreadful irony. In his delirium Hamnet hatches a plan: ‘it might be possible to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other….’ He doesn’t understand that he is already the one who is dying.
The same false alarm concerning Judith is a set-up for another terrible irony. Agnes is refusing to let Mary write to William—to write would be to accept the seriousness of it—but, eventually, Mary does it anyway. ‘I am sorrie to tel you that Judith, your daughter, is verie sick. We belief she has not manie hours left to her. Pleaƒe come bak to us, if you can. And make hast.’ This is going to lead to a shattering outcome. At the point we’ve reached in this later time-line, William is running a theatre company which has been forced on tour by one of the fairly frequent outbreaks of the plague in London. O’Farrell narrates the journey of Mary’s letter in a way that seems to echo an earlier account, of how plague-ridden fleas were passed from person to person all the way from Alexandria to Warwickshire.
When the letter reaches him, somewhere in east Kent, the effect is as cataclysmic as the one brought about by the bite of the flea. ‘It seems hard to breathe, suddenly. The air in the hall is as hot as a furnace, with particles of chaff. He feels his chest labouring in and out, but no air seems to be reaching him. He stares at the page, reading the words once, twice. The whiteness of the paper seems to pulse, stark and glaring, one moment, then recede behind the black strokes of the letters. … He must get out, he must leave this building. … Outside, the colours accost his eyes….’ The irony, of course, the one we know about but William does not, is that it won’t be a dead or dying daughter he will find when he reaches his home.
There’s plenty more happening, not least the evocation of a world in which domestic life is a drudgery for women and communications are haphazard and slow. But it’s time to see how O’Farrell deals with the emotional horrors to come. And how will she deal with the fact that it’s the bright young boy, clearly a scion of his father, who is dead and not the girl? I doubt that this author will aim to score simple anti-Patriarchal points—William is crushed by the love he feels for Judith as he reads the letter—but the powerlessness of women is something she’s never lost sight of. The respect earned by Agnes as a wise woman is a grudging, marginal thing—Susanna’s embarrassment is totally understandable—and I wonder if William will unwittingly add to the self-blame she already feels for having ignored the signs of the impending catastrophe as she hived the angry bees….
And now, in the dead of night, Hamnet’s idea of hoodwinking Death leads Agnes to a terrible moment of confusion. He is lying down on the pallet-bed next to Judith, in her clothes and terribly ill, while the twin in Hamnet’s clothes seems to be doing all right…. Agnes realises, although she doesn’t know how on earth it has happened, that the plague seems to have left Judith and entered Hamnet, some terrible trick of fate. And she can do nothing now. Hamnet responds to none of her treatments—all her wisdom, it seems, has come to nothing. ‘She thinks of her garden, of her shelves of powders, potions, leaves, liquids, with incredulity, with rage. What good has any of that been? … She would like to go outside and rip up those plants by their roots and fling them into the fire.’
Part 1 of the novel ends with Hamnet’s death. O’Farrell describes how it is for him and, paradoxically, in his fever he is dying of cold. This is what exposure on a frozen mountain-side is like. ‘Hamnet, in his place of snow and ice, is lowering himself down to the ground, allowing his knees to fold under him. He lies down; he presses his cheek to the softness of the snow…’ and so on. He knows he mustn’t close his eyes to sleep, but he does anyway. ‘And there, by the fire, held in the arms of his mother, in the room in which he learnt to crawl, to eat, to walk, to speak, Hamnet takes his last breath. He draws it in, he lets it out. Then there is silence, stillness. Nothing more.’
Part 2—to the end
It seems to me now that O’Farrell’s plan for Agnes is quite strange. I’m not entirely comfortable with the way almost everything remarkable about her, Agnes, in the first half of the novel gradually leaches out of her in the second. She still has the vestiges of her old powers—very near the end, she is able to look right into her husband’s heart—but O’Farrell puts her through such a terrible series of trials it isn’t surprising she constantly doubts herself. And, yes, she really does seem to get more things wrong than right. As she watches the opening scenes of Hamlet at the very end of the novel—her realisation of what on earth her husband thought he was doing by co-opting their son’s name for a play is shortly about to be the denouement O’Farrell has been working towards all along—she is appalled by him, not for the first time. And, not for the first time, she’s wrong. He isn’t a monster, unrecognisable as the man she married. He feels the pain of Hamnet’s death as brutally as she does, a truth she only recognises because ‘her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy.’ The alchemy is not hers, but his.
Had the novel’s title been Agnes, Part 2’s subtitle might have been The Suffering of Agnes. I can see why this section is as it is—O’Farrell has to convince us of the unfathomable depth of her grieving—but I’m not convinced it needed to be quite so long. It’s true that in order for O’Farrell to bring about her extraordinary Hamlet denouement, six years have to pass. It can’t be a sprint, because this novel’s stream-of-everything narrative style doesn’t allow for it. In fact, the pace slows almost to a standstill to begin with, the hours following the death feeling like a near-eternity as much for the reader as for the stricken Agnes. If you want to know what empty hours feel like, they feel like this.
It takes many, many pages—there are no chapters now, only page-breaks between the episodes of misery—to get through the agonising hours. Agnes’s self-imposed vigil, the sewing into the shroud, the walk to the graveyard, the burial… every bit of it is detailed to the point where you could make a YouTube video of how to do it. It isn’t exactly boring—how could it be, when Agnes’s grief is so well evoked?—but it’s painstaking. Told, as usual, from the inside, we come to understand what grieving is like… and it’s as harrowing as anything that’s gone before. I think my favourite moment isn’t directly about Agnes, although it’s she who is having the thought after the pain has become too much for her to carry on: ‘Mary takes the sheet from her. She tucks it one way, over his legs, then the other, over his chest. Some part of Agnes registers, in the deft way she performs this task, that she has done it before, many times.’ This is a kind of new beginning, in fact, and Agnes is always able to see Mary more clearly after this moment of insight. O’Farrell seems to like making Agnes have to learn new things.
But otherwise, to all intents and purposes, Agnes is disabled by her grief. Those thoughts she was having at the time of the twins’ birth, and later as Hamnet is nearing the end—when she wanted to throw all her herbs and concoctions on the fire—are replaced now by apathy. It’s Susanna who eventually has to throw away the herbs, dead in their pots, and the desiccated remains of twigs nd stems in the rafters, but she doesn’t do it gleefully. Surprisingly, she is the one who keeps the garden going and, as the season turns from a stifling summer to autumn, it’s Susanna who almost forces Agnes to take part in the annual gathering of rose hips. It becomes part of the healing process—and it seems that Susanna, usually the eye-rolling adolescent until now, is growing up.
And meanwhile, where is her husband? After the funeral, there’s a scene that reveals how demented Agnes has been rendered by grief. The urgent necessity of William’s having to go back to London—‘I must go . . . now’—simply doesn’t compute for her. ‘To her, it is simple. Their boy, their child, is dead, barely cold in his grave. There will be no leaving. There will be staying. There will be closing of the doors, the four of them drawing together…. How can there be any such talk of leaving? It makes no sense.’ She sees his travelling bag. ‘She points at it, mutely, unable to speak.’ And here’s something new: ‘he mutters, stumbling over his words, this husband of hers who always speaks in the way a stream runs fast and clear over a steep bed of pebbles. There is… a trade party leaving today for London… and they have… a spare horse. It is… I need to… that is, I mean…’ Nope, this isn’t working for her. ‘She is incredulous… We need you here.’
O’Farrell has decided to make it a feature of her version of William Shakespeare that he’s somehow never able to simply tell Agnes what his intentions are. His first letter from London, all those years ago in Part 1, had mentioned a contract for supplying gloves for a theatre company, but no more. Now, he doesn’t drop what is this bombshell for Agnes, about his leaving, until his bag is packed and waiting by the door. Any reasonable person—never mind an unreasonable one like the devastated mother or, as Agnes becomes in a later episode, the suspicious wife—would become convinced that he was hiding something. Maybe he is. We’re given more than a hint of the fear he has that she takes too much of him when she looks into his soul… so he does his best not to reveal any of it to her.
And time passes. The narrative moves forward through the necessary six long years, as though O’Farrell has forgotten that her two-timeline technique in Part 1 allowed her to skip nine years without a blink. One thing that becomes very clear is that Agnes and William live even more separate lives than they did before Hamnet’s death. William stays away for almost a year to begin with—and only the reader knows how constantly he thinks of his dead son, looking out for a glimpse of him in every audience. Later, when he is doing well enough to return with expensive gifts and money to buy a new house in Stratford, for days all Agnes can see is a man who is clearly comfortable living his prosperous life in London—and to sense, on his clothes and on his skin, the indelible touch of the women he spends his time with.
Is she right? In the end, it doesn’t matter. This time, like all the other times—I think it’s Susanna who notices it—the miasma of London he brings with him seems to fade away for Agnes after a few days. For the remainder of this and the other visits, an uneasy normality returns. But life in Stratford is somehow out of joint, and Agnes and her daughters, especially Susanna, become more separate. Susanna makes a bed for herself at her grandparents’ house, while Judith is beset by insomnia, obsessively searching for her lost twin. She, Judith, is somehow out of focus, unable to stick to tasks in the way that Susanna can. And she never is able to learn to read, despite her sister’s efforts to teach her.
Does it sound plodding? O’Farrell needs to shake things up, and she does it through a moment of pure soap opera. In an earlier scene, O’Farrell has had Agnes point out to Bartholomew how their stepmother is so dissatisfied she wants everybody else to be the same. She sows discontent. Now, with years having passed since Hamnet’s death and William not having written home for months, here she comes to visit, unannounced. O’Farrell turns it into a set piece. Agnes is preparing her precious plants for an assault from an oncoming storm when Joan arrives. Perhaps she knows full well that William hasn’t written, but she pretends Agnes must have heard from him about his new play. She’s brought one of the playbills she says are circulating in Stratford and…
…for Agnes it’s a moment of lurching, vertiginous confusion to match anything to do with childbirth and death. There, in big letters in the middle of the bill, is Hamnet’s name. She’s not a great reader but it shouts out at her. Susanna or Eliza reads out the rest and, like the time he told her he was returning to his life in London, this just does not compute for Agnes. What on earth is he doing, writing a play about their dead son without telling her? All she knows about it is that it’s a tragedy, so at least there’s no surprise there. But Agnes, not for the first time, is almost demented. Eventually, Joan is hurried from the house, shocked at the effect her spiteful little joke has had.
Are we nearly there yet? It seems that O’Farrell, having now broken Agnes to pieces for the third or fourth time, needs to put her back together again for the final act. At least she needs to have her find some of her old mojo, or whatever it was she had before the realities of life and death made her doubt herself and find herself becoming marginalised or ignored. She’s going to go to London to find out what all this nonsense of her husband’s is about. Or… O’Farrell needs to get her main character to the Globe Theatre if her final bit of alchemy is to happen, and a bit of Agnes’s old independence of spirit will do the job nicely. It’s easy for her to turn Bartholomew’s efforts to dissuade her into a promise from him to hire a pair of horses so he can go with her… and they’re off. Cue plausible-sounding accounts of inns, saddle-soreness, days and nights of unfamiliar experiences.
And I’m beginning to realise that one of the problems I’m having with all this is the way it makes Agnes into an ordinary woman. Instead of her main selling-point being her outlandishness, now she is having to live through the kind of historical-novel stuff that everybody in historical novels has to go through. It adds to the plausibility—this is what it would be like to negotiate the ramshackle shopping street that London Bridge had become, this is what it would be like to see the hideously rotting heads of executed criminals on pikes…. OK, fine. But we’ve all been there before, or somewhere very, very like it.
At least now we really are nearly there. They find William’s lodging-house, Agnes even finds his garret-like room, and the letter to her that he has started to write but not got beyond her name. They are directed to the playhouse and, luckily, she is going to be just in time to see the beginning of the play. (Cue food-sellers, jostling among the groundlings, all that stuff.) And, at first—has she really never seen a play before? The wife of Shakespeare? No little shows put on by the children?—she’s mystified by the pretence of it all. Why are those men saying these words, why does…? etc. And, at last, Hamnet comes onstage.
This, finally, is where the ‘alchemy’ is to happen. This boy might not be Hamnet, but it is as though this moment of magic had been created just for her. He is the age their son would have been had he lived and, as she watches, Agnes realises that her husband must have schooled the young actor to the point where all his actions and mannerisms are so like Hamnet’s he could be standing there before her. This is the alchemy he’s achieved, and it only gets better. You’ll never guess who is playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Oh, you have. Agnes recognises him even before he’s raised the visor of his helmet and, as they speak the lines he’s written, at last she gets it. Before this moment, she had been ready to leave to make her way straight back to Stratford, leaving a note to William never to go there again. But now…
‘Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.’
The coda following this epiphany is short. O’Farrell (or is it Agnes?) looks to what will happen later: ‘She will say all this to her husband’ after the play is over, after the bows have been taken, after he has found her as the audience leaves and ‘they have stood together in the open circle of the playhouse, until it was as empty as the sky above it.’ But time is doing strange things, because she is still in the moment when the two Hamlets, father and son, are on the stage. She stretches out a hand—she’s right at the front, of course—‘as if wishing to pierce the boundary between audience and players, between real life and play.’ Wouldn’t it be nice?
And maybe her character—because we remember don’t we, reader, that this isn’t real life either—is thinking it would also have been nice for her to have that last word. But no. Her husband, as Hamlet’s father, ‘is looking straight at her, meeting her gaze, as he speaks his final words. “Remember me.”’ He’s hardly said anything striking all through the novel, despite his reported way of speaking—how does it go?—‘in the way a stream runs fast and clear,’ and here he is, stealing all the thunder. But O’Farrell has got her denouement, and we know what meaning she has forced into those words for both of them. It’s not a dead Danish king they’re remembering, but… well, they know. We all know.