Irish-British writer Maggie O’Farrell published her latest novel, Hamnet, earlier this year, and it has since been met with critical acclaim from both fans and critics. The novel, which follows the tragically short life of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, has now been awarded the prestigious Women’s prize for fiction after being selected from the shortlist. Martha Lane Fox, chair of the judges, described O’Farrell’s eighth book as a “truly great” novel, saying: “It expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring”.
The novel begins with Shakespeare’s son dying at the age of 11 from the plague, and explores the relationship between the boy’s mother Agnes, and her famous husband. Hamnet managed to beat a number of high profile titles to the prize, including Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other and the final entry in the Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The winner not only receives the coveted award, but also gains a cash prize of £30,000.
“I keep thinking it must be some kind of elaborate prank. There wasn’t really any particle of me that thought it would happen. Being on the shortlist was kind of enough and it never occurred to me they would choose my book,” said O’Farrell, who was given the award during a digital ceremony on Wednesday evening. “You’ve got these huge literary goddesses Mantel and Evaristo on the shortlist, they’re all such fantastic works telling such diverse stories, from different times and divergent places and perspective.”
Despite its rave reviews, Hamnet was omitted from this year’s Booker prize longlist in July. This caused a minor controversy, with O’Farrell’s husband, novelist William Sutcliffe writing on Twitter: “I can’t really see what more a British writer could do to be in contention for the top literary prize in her own country”.
As The Guardian reports, O’Farrell’s interest in Shakespeare’s son began in her teenage years when she studied Hamlet, which itsauthor wrote just four years after his son’s death.
O’ Farrell explained: “I had this absolutely fantastic English teacher called Mr Henderson and I don’t think I would have written any books, certainly not this one, without the foundation of what he told me about literature when I was a teenager. The play itself got really under my skin – I think it does appeal to this type of adolescent who’s introspective, likes to wear black, gloomy. And when he told me Shakespeare had a son who died at the age of 11, and he went on to write a play with the same name, because in Elizabethan times they were interchangeable, it just really struck me”.
The idea of the novel has been with O’ Farrell for sometime, but she avoided writing it. “One of the things that really put me off is that I have a son and two daughters, like Shakespeare. And I couldn’t write the book, I couldn’t get to grips with it or grapple with it, until my own son was well past the age of 11. I knew that I had to put myself inside the mind of a woman who sits at her son’s bed and watches him die. And I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
Given that it’s being published during a time when the world is experiencing its own pandemic with COVID-19, Hamnet strikes very close to home. “Usually when you finish a book, your relationship with it is set, somehow. You turn over the final page of your final copy-edit, and that’s it, your involvement in it is ended in a sense. But with this book, given what we’re all living through in this pandemic, my relationship with it has changed. In an odd way, my empathy for the characters is stronger. I feel a bit closer to the Elizabethans, because before it was impossible to imagine what it was like to be assailed by a disease that’s resistant to treatment, and the powers of healing,” said O’ Farrell.
The Women’s Prize was founded in 1991, after the Booker Prize failed to include any female writers on its shortlist. It’s aim is to promote and reward “excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from across the world”. Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Madeline Miller, and Tayari Jones.