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Book on Bard's family wins prize

China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-14 08:07
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Maggie O'Farrell won the Women's Prize for Fiction on Wednesday for Hamnet, a novel that explores the lives of William Shakespeare's often-maligned wife and lost son.

O'Farrell's novel beat finalists including Hilary Mantel's Tudor saga, The Mirror and the Light, and Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize winner, Girl, Woman, Other, for the 30,000-pound ($39,000) award.

The Northern Ireland-born O'Farrell says she had long been fascinated by Hamnet Shakespeare, who died at age 11 in 1596-likely from the plague. His name is echoed in the playwright's great tragedy Hamlet, which was first performed several years later.

"You only have to read the first act of Hamlet to realize that it is all about this deep undertow of grief," O'Farrell says.

Yet Hamnet is "lucky if he gets two mentions in those huge, brick-like biographies of Shakespeare".

"His death is all too often wrapped up in statistics of infant mortality in the Elizabethan age, which, of course, was very high. But (it's) almost as if the implication unspoken was that it wasn't really that big of a deal," she says.

Shakespeare himself is never mentioned by name in Hamnet, which centers on his children and wife Anne Hathaway, called Agnes in the book.

O'Farrell says Hathaway has been portrayed as "an illiterate strumpet "because she was uneducated and eight years older than Shakespeare.

"She's always been treated with such hostility and suspicion, and actually just barefaced misogyny for the last 500 years," O'Farrell says from her home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the novel, Agnes is an independent woman, an expert in medicinal herbs who hunts with a hawk.

For research, O'Farrell visited Anne Hathaway's house near Stratford-upon-Avon, made remedies from homegrown herbs and learned to fly a kestrel-"the most fun thing I've ever done in the name of work".

Founded in 1996, the Women's Prize is open to female English-language writers from around the world.

The awards ceremony took place online because of the coronavirus pandemic, with one of the judges, The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins, traveling to Edinburgh to give O'Farrell the prize statuette.

O'Farrell says that "having lived through this COVID crisis, in a sense, I feel closer to the Elizabethans", who lived with constant fear of the plague and other illnesses, along with periodic lockdowns.

"I feel I have a slightly greater understanding about what it must have been like because they would have experienced what we've been experiencing for the last six months, constantly," says O'Farrell, who explored her own brushes with death in a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am.

Associated Press

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