HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

What’s It Like to Make Love to Shakespeare?

Maggie O’Farrell

It’s almost November, which means: Please vote. And join us for a new month of goop Book Club. We’re reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, an entrancing drama about a propulsive and passionate marriage and a young boy that history has forgotten. Set in England in the 1580s, Hamnet is the kind of historical fiction that transports you across time and space while making you feel as if the action is unspooling in front of you, now.

  1. Maggie O’Farrell HAMNET
    Maggie O’Farrell HAMNET Bookshop, $25

The story begins when a young Latin teacher with little money and a few demons meets Agnes, who is, at the time, walking her family’s land with a kestrel on her hand. Agnes is seductive and intuitive, perhaps a little wild, perhaps an extraordinary healer, perhaps destined to be a devoted mother, and perhaps the force that will shape that man’s life, career, and legacy. In this scene from the book, the tutor and Agnes have sex for the first time.

Did we mention the tutor was William Shakespeare? Whether you know a lot or essentially nothing about Shakespeare: Prepare to be surprised. Hamnet will stretch your imagination and—we’d bet—your heart, too.

From Hamnet

The lines and lines of apples are moving, jolting, rocking on their shelves. Each apple is centred in a special groove, carved into the wooden racks that run around the walls of this small storeroom.

Rock, rock, jolt, jolt.

The fruit has been placed with care, just so: the woody stem down and the star of the calyx up. The skin mustn’t touch that of its neighbour. They must sit like this, lightly held by the wooden groove, a finger width from each other, over the winter or they will spoil. If they touch each other, they will brown and sag and moulder and rot. They must be preserved in rows, like this, separate, stems down, in airy isolation.

The children of the house were given this duty: to pluck the apples from the twisted branches of the trees, to stack them together in baskets, then bring them here, to the apple store, and line them up on these racks, spaced evenly and carefully, to air, to preserve, to last the winter and spring, until the trees bring forth fruit again.

Except that something is moving the apples. Again and again and again, over and over, with a shunting, nudging, insistent motion.

The kestrel, on her perch, is hooded but alert, always alert. Her head rotates within its ruff of flecked feathers, to ascertain the source of this repetitive, distracting noise. Her ears, tuned so acutely that they can, if required, discern the heartbeat of a mouse a hundred feet away, a stoat’s footfall across the forest, the wingbeat of a wren over a field, pick up on the following: twenty score apples being nudged, jostled, bothered in their cradles. The breathing of mammals, of a size too large to elicit the interest of her appetite, 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, of differing texture, moving over each other in obverse direction.

The apples are turning on their heads; stalks are appearing from undersides, calyxes are facing sideways, then back, then upwards, then down. The pace of the knocking varies: it pauses; it slows; it builds; it pulls back again.

Agnes’s knees are raised, splayed open like butterfly wings. Her feet, still in their boots, rest on the opposite shelf; her hands brace against the whitewashed wall. Her back straightens and bows, seemingly of its own accord, and low, near-growls are being pulled out of her throat. This takes her by surprise: her body asserting itself in this way. How it knows what to do, how to react, how to be, where to put itself, her legs white and folded in the dim light, her rear resting on the shelf edge, her fingers gripping the stones of the wall.

“The apples are turning on their heads; stalks are appearing from undersides, calyxes are facing sideways, then back, then upwards, then down. The pace of the knocking varies: it pauses; it slows; it builds; it pulls back again.”

In the narrow space between her and the opposite shelf is the Latin tutor. He stands in the pale V of her legs. His eyes are shut; his fingers grip the curve of her back. It was his hands that undid the bows at her neckline, that pulled down her shift, that brought out her breasts into the light—and how startled and how white they had looked, in the air like that, in daytime, in front of another; their pink-brown eyes stared back in shock. It was her hands, however, that lifted her skirts, that pushed herself back on to this shelf, that drew the body of the Latin tutor towards her. You, the hands said to him, I choose you.

And 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?

The apples, stretching away from her one way and the other, rotate and jostle in their grooves.

The Latin tutor opens his eyes for a moment, the black of his pupils wide, almost unseeing. He smiles, places his hands on either side of her face, murmurs something, she isn’t sure what, but it doesn’t matter at this particular moment. Their foreheads touch. Strange, she thinks, to have another at such proximity: the overwhelming scale of lash, of folded eyelid, of the hairs of the brow, all facing the same way. She doesn’t take his hand, not even out of habit: she doesn’t need to.

When she had taken his hand that day, the first time she had met him, she had felt—what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all—it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them. A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond, that needed to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command.

“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?”

She watches an apple turn its red-stained flesh towards her, then away, a pitted tree-mark appearing, then the flash of the navel-like end.

Last time he came to the farm, they had walked together after his lesson, up to the furthest field, as dusk settled on the land, dimming the trees to black, as the furrows of the new-cut hayfields seemed to deepen into valleys, and come upon Joan, stepping between the springy flanks of their flocks. She liked to check on Bartholomew’s work, or liked Bartholomew to know she was checking. One of the two. She had seen them coming, Agnes knew. She had seen Joan’s head turn towards them, take a long look at them, as they walked up the path together. She would have realised why they were coming, would have seen their joined hands. Agnes had sensed the anxiety of the tutor: all at once, his fingers were cold and she could feel them tremble. She pressed his hand once, twice, before releasing it and letting him go ahead of her, through the gate.

Never, was what Joan had said. You? Then she laughed, a harsh trill that startled the sheep around her, making them lift their blunt heads and shift their cloven feet. Never, she said again. What age are you? She didn’t wait for a reply but answered herself: Not old enough. I know your family, Joan had said, screwing up her face into a contemptuous pout, pointing at the tutor. Everyone knows them. Your father and his shady dealings, his disgrace. He was bailiff, she said, spitting out the word “was.” How he loved to lord it over us all, swanning about in his red robes. But not any more. Have you any idea how much your father owes around the town? How much he owes us? You could tutor my sons until they are all grown men and it wouldn’t come close to clearing his debt here. So, no, she said, looking round him at her, you cannot marry her. Agnes will marry a farmer, by and by—someone with prospects, someone to provide for her. She’s been brought up for that life. Her father left her a dowry in his will—I’m sure you know that, don’t you? She’ll not marry a feckless, tradeless boy like you.

And she had turned away, as if that had been an end to it. But I don’t want to marry a farmer, Agnes had cried. Joan had laughed again. Is that so? You want to marry him? Yes, she said. I do. Very much. And Joan had laughed again, shaking her head.

But we are handfasted, the tutor said. I asked her and she answered and so we are bound.

No, you are not, said Joan. Not unless I say so.

“It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.”

The tutor had left the field, marched down the path and off through the woods, his face dark and thunderous, and Agnes was left with her stepmother, who told her to stop standing there like a simpleton, go back to the hall and mind the children. The next time he came to the farm, Agnes beckoned to him. I know a way, she said. I have an answer. We can, she said, take matters into our own hands. Come. Come with me.

Each apple, to her, at this moment, seems toweringly different, distinct, unique, each one streaked with variations of crimson, gold and green. All of them turning their single eye upon her, then away, then back. It is too much, all too much, it is overwhelming, how many of them there are, the noise they are all making, the tapping, rhythmic, rocking sound, on and on it goes, faster and faster. It steals her breath, makes her heart trip and race in her chest, she cannot take it much more, she cannot, she cannot. Some apples rock right out of their places, on to the floor, and perhaps the tutor has trodden on them because the air is filled with a sweetish, acrid smell and she grips his shoulders. She knows, she feels, that all will be well, that everything will go their way. He holds her to him and she can feel the breath leave him, enter him, leave him again.

Excerpted from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Copyright © 2020 by Maggie O’Farrell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Publishing Group, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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