The Most Tragic of Tragedies: the Death of a Child
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This book is an intriguing novel that readers – and book clubs – will love. It is also a lesson in creativity for writers. Indeed, it will give them scads of ideas for novels. And beyond that, it provides a breathtaking description of the magic of writing.
Here is the amazing plot:
Even though the author never once says the name, William Shakespeare, this is an historical novel about his personal life as seen through the eyes of his wife, “Agnes.”
Evidently, there is not a lot known about Shakespeare’s private life. A little research online shows that he married “Anne” Hathaway in 1582 when he was eighteen and she was twenty-six. During their marriage, they had three children. Suzanna was born first and then the twins, Hamnet and Judith. Susanna was baptized in 1583, and the twins in 1585. In 1596, at the age of eleven, Hamnet died from some unknown cause, perhaps the plague. By that date, Shakespeare had already begun a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a theater group. And somewhere in the time frame of 1599-1601, he wrote Hamlet.
By the way, Maggie O’Farrell tells us that the names Hamnet and Hamlet were used interchangeably in Stratford at that time. The same was true for the names Anne and Agnes. The “g” in Agnes was almost silent, and pronounced “Ann-yis.”
What I found so intriguing is the fact that O’Farrell took this tiny bit of historical information and fleshed out a wholly believable love story between Shakespeare and Agnes, complete with the way each dealt with the devastation of losing a child. Another element of her plot – wives of successful men will identify with this – was the story of an often absent spouse/parent. Agnes is living in Stratford with her children while her husband is in London. Thus even before the death of her child, Agnes struggled “to live as best [she could] in the presence of [his] enormous, distracting absences.”
The book is written in two parts, before and after the death of Hamnet. While part one is broken up into chapters, the second part is not. Perhaps the fact of losing a child is one endless nightmare. Part of the nightmare is that Agnes’ husband feels he must return to London soon after the funeral. Agnes asks her husband incredulously, “You will leave now? Today? We need you here.” When he replies, “It is imperative that I return. I cannot just abandon these men who—” She breaks in to ask, “But you may abandon us?” And yes, of course, he may, he can, and he does. He leaves for many reasons, one of which is the need to get away to lose himself in his writing.
O’Farrell talks about the magic of writing this way:
“He longs, it is true, for the four close walls of his lodging, where no one else ever comes, where no one looks for him or asks for him or speaks to him or bothers him, where there is just a bed, a coffer, a desk. Nowhere else can he escape the noise and life and people around him; nowhere else is he able to let the world recede, the sense of himself dissolve, so that he is just a hand, holding an ink-dipped feather, and he may watch as words unfurl from its tip. And as these words come, one after another, it is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do. He cannot give this up, cannot stay…not even for his wife.”
And so, he leaves and soon writes a tragedy that shares the name of his dead son. Whether that is a travesty or an honor is the burning question at the end of the book, and a meaty question that readers and book clubs will love discussing.
But wait! For writers there’s a one-word takeaway from this novel:
After reading what O’Farrell did with the barebones of Shakespeare’s life, writers must ask themselves what they would have done with those same ingredients? Moreover, as writers look for things to write about, the barebones story of any other historical figure could likewise be the basis for a novel. The same is true of any barebones story – be it tragic or happy – that one reads in the newspaper. Simply put, this book puts writers on the lookout for barebones.