Hamnet & Judith
Set in Shakespearean times with flickering candle light and the scent of herbs hanging from the rafters and soap making in the out buildings and woodsmoke redolent in the air, the tale of Hamnet and Judith begins. A story of love, heartbreak, motherhood, siblingship, grief, the trials of a long distance relationship, marriage, great sickness and trying to make a living, it’s interesting to note that in centuries past that while we feel so much has changed, the reality is that nothing much really has.
Emotions that we all deal with likely each day in various forms are the theme of this utterly captivating novel by award winning author, Maggie O’Farrell. Born in Ireland, growing up in Wales and Scotland and now residing in Edinburgh, Maggie writes about 16th century England like she was there. Her descriptions of the foliage, the structures in the country and in the newer parts of the towns and cities and even the weather and the scents carried on the wind place the reader so firmly in the time. Her prose had me craving mead, mutton stew and wanting to bake bread – I am certain I was one of the only people who didn’t have a sourdough starter when the pandemic lockdown began in earnest, but here I am reading and feeling like I should be baking bread and making soap! The picture of every day life in Stratford where our characters live, is vibrant and real.
Real – as is the raw grief our main characters experience as plague tears their family apart and we see how differently husband and wife integrate their own heartbreak in to their very separate lives within their marriage. And I dare say, we understand. This is a touching book, not a light and fluffy escape read, but escape you will. I found myself completely committed to the story, thinking about the characters when I was away from the book and nodding and muttering to myself while reading. O’Farrell offers a side of Shakespeare’s life that we have always wanted to know more about and of course is only possible to ponder on and create fiction to replace the absence of information – the magic of books encapsulated! While very little documentation is available on the intimacies of their marriage, this makes you feel and perhaps understand what it might have been like for the great Shakespeare and the woman who had his heart and family, his bride.