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Inspired by Shakespeare: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

24 Nov


As a creative and artistic high school student, I was naturally drawn to the Drama Club and became smitten with theater when I was cast as Christopher Robin in “Winnie the Pooh” and then as the Emcee in “Cabaret.” Many other leading dramatic roles followed throughout high school, which cemented by lifelong love for theater. And in college, while majoring in English Literature, I developed an ardent passion for Shakespeare, which I studied for a year. I even had the opportunity to spend a summer abroad at King’s College in London intensely studying Shakespeare and did an internship at the Globe Theatre. A rewarding and exhilarating experience that has remained etched in my memory all these years later. So, when I learned that the award-winning Irish-British novelist Maggie O’Farrell had written the historical novel “Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague,” I knew that I had to read it, because it combined my fervent love of theater and Shakespeare.

This compelling and mesmerizing novel focuses on the untimely death of Shakespeare’s beloved son Hamnet, a name interchangeable with Hamlet, in 15th century Great Britain. Much like today’s COVID 19 Pandemic, England was ravaged by the Bubonic Plague in the 15th century and approximately 5 million people perished. According to the story, Hamnet was one of the young, innocent victims who succumbed to the plague. However, the plague is merely a backdrop in this deeply moving novel about a young, penniless Latin tutor (Shakespeare, although the author never refers to him by name) who falls in love with Agnes, a wild, eccentric and headstrong young woman who is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. She has a better understanding of plants, herbs and potions, than she does of people. However, when she becomes pregnant, they are forced to marry, much to the dismay and disapproval of both families. She soon becomes a devoted and over-protective mother and an influential force on her young husband, whose writing career is just taking shape. After the birth of two more children, he becomes restless with family life and parts for London to pursue playwriting. The story then shifts to Agnes as she essentially raises her children alone, including the cunning, mischievous, and much favored Hamnet.

Ultimately, the story is a revealing portrait of a struggling marriage, a family ravaged with grief and loss, and a tender re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten. How ironic, yet profoundly meaningful, that Shakespeare named his most celebrated play after his son. This novel captured my attention from the opening page and held my interest throughout. The intriguing and well-drawn characters came to life for me and the compelling story quickly transported me to another time when life was simpler, yet just as complicated, and full of hope.

Written by:
Ethan Galvin
Information and Digital Services Librarian

Fantasy Romances Inspired by Classic Literature: Without a Summer and Defy or Defend

4 Nov

Although mashups of classic literature with monsters such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Emma and the Vampires had a moment, some authors rather than simply splicing in elements of fantasy, instead take the source material as a place for inspiration, weaving in their own unique characters. In her afterword for Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal thanks Jane Austen from who she says, she “stole three sentences and the essential character arc of Emma.”  In her Author Afterthoughts, Gail Carriger notes, “Before you ask, Defy or Defend is indeed an ode to the fantastic Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.”  Both stories may have been inspired by classic works, but they have their own unique twists and I highly recommend them.

Without A Summer
I was intrigued by Without a Summer first because of its setting during an unusually cold year in 1815 during which crops failed worldwide and snow even fell in New York in June.  This was notable for keeping Mary Shelly inside during a house party when she wrote her novel Frankenstein.  The cause is suspected to have been from the eruption of Mount Tambora in April in what is now Indonesia and another smaller eruption that had happened the year before in the Philippines. 

In Without A Summer though Cold Mongers who can use ether to provide cooling breezes and sometimes even make ice are suspected of a nefarious plot which is causing the climate change.  A match making sister, Jane, who along with her husband have been hired to create a Glamural in a ballroom for a wealthy family becomes caught up in this political intrigue.  Unlike regular murals a glamural is not simple painted, but magically comes to life.  I thought the fantasy elements were well integrated into the historic setting.  The book is third in The Glamourist Histories.  You can check it and the first novel in the series Shades of Milk and Honey out from eBCCLS.

Defy or Defend  
Gail Carriger is one of my favorite authors and I’d say this rates amongst the whimsical best of hers that I have read.  Defy or Defend is the second novella in her Delightfully Deadly Series set in the 1860s, which are a spinoff of her Finishing School Series, all of which takes place in the Parasolverse an whimsical gaslight fantasy look at the past that merges humor, romance, and often a bit of mystery. The Finishing School Series unlike the rest of her work was written for Young Adults and was set at school for spies.  Although Defy or Defend follows up with an adult version of Dimity, it is not necessary to have read The Finishing School Series beforehand (though you should read them since they are enjoyable for adults as well as teens). 

In Defy or Defend Dimity’s mission is to find out why a vampire hive has gone “Goth” and to see if she can turn things around before it is necessary to exterminate the problem.  The romance between Dimity and Crispin is sweet. Dmity’s efforts to bring some color in to the lives of the dark and gloomy vampires is a fun romp and if you enjoyed the book or terrific film version of Cold Comfort Farm as I did, you will want to check this out. 

Written by:
Aimee Harris
Head of Information and Digital Services

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