The Really Popular Book Club: Hamnet with Hester Lees-Jeffries
Tuesday 25 January 2022, 7.00pm to 8.00pm GMT
The Really Popular Book Club is the reading group hosted by Cambridge University Libraries. Everyone is invited to join them and their special guests to discuss a really popular book, one that we all know and perhaps or perhaps not love.
This January the Club will be discussing Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (2020). Hamnet reimagines the story of William Shakespeare’s wife Anne (or Agnes) Hathaway, and in particular the sudden death of their son Hamnet, twin brother of Judith, from the plague in the summer of 1596. Agnes is a countrywoman, a free spirit, and a healer and her husband is a dreamer, enthralled by ideas and by words; both have fraught relationships with their own families and a determination to make their own way in the world. Hamnet’s death is the novel’s pivot, but it is a novel concerned as much with joy and tenderness, between lovers, parents and children, siblings and friends, as it is with loss.
The special guest for the evening will be Hester Lees-Jeffries, who lectures in the Cambridge University Faculty of English, mostly about Shakespeare and early modern English literature. She’s particularly interested in material culture, and at the moment she’s finishing her third book, titled Textile Shakespeare: in it, she’s written about gloves and glove-making, wool, silk, and linen, sewing and embroidery, as well as what people wore, onstage and off, in Renaissance England. Her second book, Shakespeare and Memory, thought a little about Shakespeare’s life in Stratford, too, and she’s currently also writing a new introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, and an Oxford Very Short Introduction to Shakespeare’s Histories.
About Hamnet, Hester says: ‘I put off reading Hamnet for a while. I’ve really enjoyed other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, but I was apprehensive about both the subject matter, the death of a child, and the fear that I might know too much, that I’d be irritated by details that were ‘wrong’. I needn’t have worried: I think it’s a beautiful and profoundly moving study of a family, and in particular of relationships between women and between siblings, as well as a deep dive into time and place that’s immersive and fine-grained without ever tipping into olde worlde historical novel clichés. It’s a novel about love and grief, and the different ways in which they might be experienced and expressed.’
As well as hearing from Hester about their thoughts and observations on Hamnet, the Club will once again be opening the floor up to you, the club members, to share your own observations and remarks. To get you thinking and to help prepare any comments or questions you might want to share, we have prepared three starter questions:
- What are the most memorable or evocative aspects of the world that O’Farrell creates for Agnes and her family? What are some of the spaces or objects or experiences that have remained with you, and why? In what ways does it feel properly historically distant?
- Hamnet falls into two parts. The first is longer, part subdivided into shorter fragments, jumping backwards and forwards in time, telling different parts of the story. The second part is shorter part undivided and more linear in its narrative. What were some of the effects of organizing the book in this way? Did you find anything difficult to follow?
- The word ‘Shakespeare’ doesn’t appear in O’Farrell’s novel. How did your knowledge of his life and works shape your reading of Hamnet, if at all? Is it ‘about’ Shakespeare the man and writer (or ‘Shakespeare’ the cultural phenomenon) in any sense?
Further information about The Really Popular Book Club, including our FAQs, can be found here.
Booking for this event is now closed.