What were the origins of “Hamlet”? An article, a novel, and a broadcast

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet was inspired by Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 article in the New York Review of Books “Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet.” https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/10/21/the-death-of-hamnet-and-the-making-of-hamlet/  Greenblatt argues that the power of Shakespeare’s greatest play came in part from the grief that Shakespeare felt after the death of his son, Hamnet. O’Farrell tells the story of the family from before Shakespeare married Agnes (Anne Hathaway, as we know her) with the play appearing only at the very end of the book. As you read the novel you search for clues about the origins of not just Hamlet but all of Shakespeare’s writing.

Greenblatt’s article describes the technical developments that Shakespeare made to be able to show the inner life on the stage, to “invent the human,” as Harold Bloom calls it. Shakespeare tried it with a soliloquy in Richard III written in 1591 but Greenblatt describes it as “oddly wooden and artificial.” Shakespeare does better with Julius Caesar written in 1599 with Brutus shows signs of thinking in the soliloquy that includes:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.

Most of Hamlet takes place in the “phantasma or a hideous dream” between when his father says that Hamlet must revenge his murder and when he takes his revenge. In that time we are unsure whether Hamlet is mad or pretending to be mad, whereas in the original version which Shakespeare used (as was common then) it is clear he is pretending to be mad. Greenblatt writes: “Shakespeare found that if he refused to provide himself or his audience with a familiar, comforting rationale that seems to make it all make sense, he could get to something immeasurably deeper.”

But the play is much more than a technical achievement. It is shot through with emotional energy. Where did that come from? Greenblatt argues that Hamnet’s death must have been one of the ingredients: “coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it [Hamlet] expressed Shakespeare’s deepest perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.”

O’Farrell sets out to tell us how Hamnet’s death fuels the play. She has a fairly free hand as we know little about Shakespeare’s life, particularly after the death of Hamnet in 1596. The novel begins with Shakespeare, the Latin tutor, meeting Agnes and falling in love with her. Her mother was a creature of the forest, with all that forests imply of magic and the irrational. Agnes has the forest inside her, has a great knowledge of plants (Shakespeare’s plays are filled with plants), and has a gift of seeing everything about people. “She can look at a person and see right into their very soul. There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.” Asked by Shakespeare what made her love him, she answers: “That you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.”

The couple have three children, including twins, Hamnet and Judith. Each of the twins constantly pretends to be the other, just as happens all the time in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare is disconsolate, lost in Stratford, and in the novel it is Agnes who engineers him leaving for London, initially to sell his father’s gloves. Through making gloves for actors, particularly boys playing women, he finds his way into the playhouses.

The plague comes to London and Stratford, and a chapter in the novel describes the journey of the flea that carries the bacillus from Alexander to Judith and then Hamnet. Judith survives, but Hamnet dies. The best writing in the novel describes the grief of the mother and father, the laying out of the corpse, and the burial.

Soon after the burial Shakespeare against Agnes’s wishes leaves for London. She continues distraught with a grief that her mother-in-law finds indulgent. He can find some peace in writing: “And as these words come, one after another, it is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do.” The plays he is writing are comedies and history plays.

After several years, during which time Shakespeare returns only occasionally, Agnes is appalled to see that Shakespeare has written a play called Hamlet, abusing, as she sees it, her son’s name. She travels to London, probably to excoriate or at least understand him, and arrives at the theatre south of the river just as a performance is beginning. Shakespeare is playing the ghost, Hamlet’s murdered father, and Agnes sees that far from abusing his son’s memory he has done something magical:

“Her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear.

Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.”

Greenblatt sees other roots to Hamlet, including that Shakespeare and his father may have found it hard to discard the Catholic belief that after death the soul spends time in purgatory being cleansed of sins before admission to heaven. It was not permitted in Protestant Elizabethan England to pray for the soul in purgatory, but perhaps Hamlet is a sort of mass for his dead father as well as son. The Ghost says:

My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

O’Farrell notes that the word pestilence does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’ve listened to a radio broadcast in which—in this time of pandemic—Greg Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, reflects on the role that plague may have played in Shakespeare’s life and writing. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000q9bp Shakespeare was born in a year of plague, and many other babies in the street where he was born died of the plague. Plague was constantly present throughout Shakespeare’s life, and with a mortality of nearly 50%, striking young and old, it was terrifying. The theatres were shut again and again because of the plague, and Doran speculates that Shakespeare may have joined a theatre troop when it was exiled from London to Stratford because of the plague.

The general thesis of the broadcast was that Shakespeare’s plays turned deep and tragic at the beginning of the 17th century and that the plague may have played a part in the transition—as might the Gunpowder Plot, which Doran suggests had the impact of 9/11.  Doran finds plague imagery in Shakespeare’s plays and suggests that Romeo and Juliet may have been set in the time of the Black Death in the 15th century: “a plague on both your houses.” He suggests as well that the death that the Ghost describes in Hamlet could have been a description of the rapid death from plague:

The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.

We are perhaps blessed in knowing so little about Shakespeare’s life in that it allows much fascinating and imaginative creating.

Here are the quotes I took from Hamnet:

Quotes from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell


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.

They will be married. He will be a husband and a father, and his life will begin and he can leave behind this, all of this, this house, this father, this mother, the workshop, the gloves, this life as their son, the drudgery and tedium of working in the business. What a thought, what a thing. This child, in Agnes’s belly, will change everything for him, will free him from the life he hates, from the father he cannot live with, from the house he can no longer bear. He and Agnes will take flight: to another house, another town, another life.

Agnes now, as they enter the kitchen, as he stirs the fire and throws on a log, that her husband is split in two. He is one man in their house and quite another in that of his parents. In the apartment, he is the person she knows and recognises, the one she married. Take him next door, to the big house, and he is sullen, sallow of face, irritable, tetchy. He is all tinder and flint, sending out sparks to ignite and kindle.

‘That you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’

And as these words come, one after another, it is possible for him to slip away from himself and find a peace so absorbing, so soothing, so private, so joyous that nothing else will do.

‘No, the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else.

He and his friends have just performed a historical play, about a long-dead king, at the Palace. It has proved, he has found, a subject safe for him to grapple with. There are, in such a story, no pitfalls, no reminders, no unstable ground to stumble upon. When he is enacting old battles, ancient court scenes, when he is putting words into the mouths of distant rulers, there is nothing that will ambush him, tie him up and drag him back to look on things he cannot think about (a wrapped form, a chair of empty clothes, a woman weeping at a piggery wall, a child peeling apples in a doorway, a curl of yellow hair in a pot). He can manage these: histories and comedies. He can carry on. Only with them can he forget who he is and what has happened. They are safe places to stow his mind

‘I find,’ he says, his voice still muffled, ‘that I am constantly wondering where he is. Where he has gone. It is like a wheel ceaselessly turning at the back of my mind. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, I am thinking: Where is he, where is he? He can’t have just vanished. He must be somewhere. All I have to do is find him. I look for him everywhere, in every street, in every crowd, in every audience. That’s what I am doing, when I look out at them all: I try to find him, or a version of him.’


‘Do you know,’ he says, addressing the covering above him, ‘that this is the foremost reason I love you?…that you see the world as no one else does.’

She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.

‘I mean,’ he says, ‘that I don’t think you have any idea what it is like to be married to someone like you…..Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say – and what you might not – before you say it. It is,’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.’

She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.

‘She can look at a person and see right into their very soul. There is not a drop of harshness in her. She will take a person for who they are, not what they are not or ought to be.’


His is a mind so quick, so attuned to others that she knows he can read her thoughts, like words written on a page.

You look like a ghost, standing there like that.’ Mary will tell herself, in the days and weeks to come, that she never said these words. She couldn’t have done. She would never have said ‘ghost’ to him, would never have told him that there was anything frightening, anything amiss about his appearance. He had looked entirely well. She never said such a thing.

How baffling the adult world seems to Hamnet at that moment, how complex, how slippery. How can he ever navigate his way in it? How will he manage?

He can pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.

The family

How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?

The play

He cannot tell, as he stands there, whether or not this new play is good. Sometimes, as he listens to his company speak the lines, he thinks he has come close to what he wanted it to be; other times, he feels he has entirely missed the mark. It is good, it is bad, it is somewhere in between. How does a person ever tell? All he can do is inscribe strokes on a page – for weeks and weeks, this was all he did, barely leaving his room, barely eating, never speaking to anyone else – and hope that at least some of these arrows will hit their targets.

Her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. He has written words for him to speak and to hear.

Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.


There are other eggs, forming in her armpits, some small, some large and hideous, bulbous, straining at the skin. She has seen these before; there are few in the town, or even the county, who haven’t at some time or other in their lives. They are what people most dread, what everyone hopes they will never find, on their own bodies or on those of the people they love. They occupy such a potent place in everyone’s fears that she cannot quite believe she is actually seeing them, that they are not some figment or spectre summoned by her imagination.

The moment she has feared most, the event she has thought about, mulled over, turned this way and that, rehearsed and re-rehearsed in her mind, during the dark of sleepless nights, at moments of idleness, when she is alone. The pestilence has reached her house. It has made its mark around her child’s neck.

The doctor’s remedy for plague; ‘Madam,’ the physician says, and again his beak swings towards them, ‘you may trust that I know much more about these matters than you do. A dried toad, applied to the abdomen for several days, has proven to have great efficacy in cases such as these.


Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.


Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the relentlessness of it. It is like trying to stand in a gale, like trying to swim against the current of a flooded river, like trying to lift a fallen tree. Never has she been more sensible of her weakness, of her inadequacy. She has always felt herself to

And now she must give up this body, submit it to the earth, never to be seen again.

She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusion, but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin.

The sound that comes out of him is choked and smothered, like that of an animal forced to bear a great weight. It is a noise of disbelief, of anguish. Agnes will never forget it. At the end of her life, when her husband has been dead for years, she will still be able to summon its exact pitch and timbre.

The dead

How frail, to Agnes, is the veil between their world and hers. For her, the worlds are indistinct from each other, rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them.

I am dead:

Thou livest; . . .

 draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story


Rue, comfrey, yellow-eyed chamomile. She takes purple lavender and thyme, a handful of rosemary. Not heartsease, because Hamnet disliked the smell. Not angelica, because it is too late for that


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?

Venice Diary: The last day. Saturday 29 March 2003

Dear Silvia and Alvise,

I’m in my last few hours in the palazzo and sorry to be leaving but pleased to be going home. It’s good that it’s that way round.

I’ve had a wonderful time here in Venice, better even than I expected. I wondered if the ability of the city to make me gasp with its beauty would wear off, but it hasn’t. Particularly as I shop in the fruit market beside the Grand Canal I feel very privileged to have been able to spend eight weeks in the city. I remember being similarly entranced when I first visited that market in 1971 and was half the weight with ten times the hair.

And—thanks to you—I haven’t stayed in a tiny room but in as beautiful a place as I have ever stayed. I continue to find the palazzo simultaneously calming and inspiring, and my guests are all amazed when they come through the door. I’m very grateful to you.

I have finished the first draft of my book, around 130 000 words. I have now a rough beast that needs remodelling and polishing. When the book is published (some way off, I’m sure) I will send you both a copy. I’ve promised one as well to Elida.

Elida has been very kind, gracious, and gentle, and I managed to tell her so by writing a letter in English and getting a friend to translate it.

Luckily, there have been only two breakages—the tip off the spout of the teapot and a chair. I was sat in the chair and making a very important (but now completely forgotten) point when the chair cracked. I was no more animated than in an average Italian conversation. Elida knows about the chair. Please let me know what you want to do.

I’m sure that there will be a big phone bill, not least because an American guest downloaded his email from the US. Please let me know how much I owe you, and it would be good if I could have the bill—so that I can pass on his bit to him. I suppose I might even be able to claim some tax relief on both the phone and, it occurs to me now, even the rent. It may not have been essential to write the book in a palazzo in Venice (although perhaps in some way it was), but I would have had to have found somewhere. Might you therefore—no rush—give me a receipt?

I have left the portable CD player, as I’d always intended to. I can’t carry it, and the voltage is wrong for Britain. The acoustic of the big room is so beautiful that the CD player sounds remarkably good. You should do whatever you want with it.

Thank you once again for having trusted me with your beautiful palazzo, and I hope to see you both again. I’m sorry too that I didn’t meet your mother. I hope that I will some day. Please thank her for me. And I hope that whatever you decide to do with the palazzo works out. I only wish that I could afford to buy it.



I’m in the airport lounge, 35 minutes from departure. As airport lounges go this must be close to the best. It has enormous windows, and I can see across the lagoon from way north of Torcello to the skyline of Venice. The sun is shining, but the light is soft—more English than Italian. I can see the bulk of the church at Torcello standing up from a sliver of land. The campanile stands beside it. They have stood there for a thousand years, for well over 900 years before there was an airport.

          Yesterday I stood at the top of the campanile and was stunned by the beauty of the view—much more beautiful than the exciting and engrossing view from the top of the campanile in Piazza San Marco. The beauty had to do with stillness and sadness. Northwards I looked across small fields to broad lagoon and distant towns. West was the roof of the church, more fields, and then lagoon and land, closer than to the north. East was a river winding through marshes to the distant open sea. South is shining sea and the skyline of Venice. Burano, with its brightly coloured houses, is tucked into the south east. I thought of the people who fled here 1600 years ago and built the beautiful church beneath me. They seem close, but Torcello faded as Venice rose a thousand years ago. The people who had sought sanctuary were driven out by malaria.

          The beauty lies in the sleepiness, the domesticity, the big skies, the soft light, the stillness of the marshes, the openness to the sea, and the view of Venice. Very special. A moment to recapture as I die and join these who are gone from Torcello.

Now I’m about to go from Venice, returning to the real world, where I realise I will be bombarded with sounds and images about the war. I’ve mostly had just words—because I’ve been accessing the world though the internet not through radio and television. Plus, I’ve read only the International Herald Tribune, which I describe, perhaps unfairly, as the world’s dullest newspaper. It’s the New York Times with all the interesting bits taken out. Since being at the airport I’ve read the Times, which seems full of life and liberalism in contrast. The IHT does have “liberal” bits, as you’d expect, but they are overwhelmed.

Its constitution stops the US tackling the big problems, remembering the thoughts of Alain Enthoven

From 1989 to 1990 I spent a year at the Stanford Business School that changed me considerably. I went thinking that business and management were boring and came back thinking that combining ideas, people, and capital to make things happen is challenging, creative, and exciting. That year came about because of Alain Enthoven, a professor at the business school but also much more, and he talked to me about the US constitution in a way that I’ve never forgotten.

Enthoven became known in Britain because he devised the idea of the internal market for the NHS. This made him a hate figure for some, who pointed out with glee that he had worked for Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War. I remember Enthoven saying that talking to doctors was like talking to admirals: the admirals would say we need 30 destroyers, and Enthoven would answer “Why 30? Why not 20 or 40? What is the logic behind 30?”—they usually had no logical answer. For destroyers read ventilators.

My year in Stanford came about because I was a candidate to be the next editor of the BMJ. If appointed to the post I would also be the head of the organisation, responsible for the business as well as for the content of the journal. My predecessor, Stephen Lock, was conscious that he had not been well prepared for the business role and wanted whoever followed him to be better prepared. Sometime in the late 80s he found himself sitting next to Enthoven at a dinner and asked him—in very Stephen language—what he would advise for a “crown-prince” who needed a rapid education in business and management. Enthoven advised the Sloan Programme at Stanford. (Stephen had to go through all sorts of machinations to make it happen, and I remain very grateful to him. He is now 91 and we speak every few weeks.)

The observation that Enthoven made to me was that the separation of powers, the basis of the American constitution, meant that it was hard if not impossible to solve big complex issues like health care. He said this to me in 1990 when the US was much less divided than now, and when a problem much more complex than health care, climate change, was little talked about. The US still has the world’s most expensive health system with some of the worst results.

The US constitution put such emphasis on the separation of the powers—among the executive, the legislative, and the law—to avoid a mad king or a tyrant being able to arise. A tyrant has just come close to seizing power, but the constitution has so far stopped the rise of a tyrant.  But this arrangement has also made it difficult, particularly in a time of intense partisanship, to tackle big problems: the power is too diffused. Another important aim of the constitution is to balance the power of the states and the federal government, which was achieved by allowing every state, no matter its size, to have two senators but the House of Representatives, which has a composition based on population, to control the budget. This too has diffused power and meant that small states, which are mostly rural and conservative, have disproportionate power.

Just over a year ago I met in a villa above Lake Como a man who was an expert on constitutions. He had rewritten several constitutions and was just rewriting Iceland’s constitution. He told me that constitutions need rewriting about every 15-20 years. The US constitution has amendments but is essentially as it was when it came into force in 1789.

The US constitution is full of faults, and I would include among them political control of district boundaries, political appointments to the Supreme Court, the election of the president by the Electoral College, the over-representation of the small states, and the filibuster—but perhaps the most important is that power is, as Enthoven suggested, just too diffused. The US constitution does, however, have a near sacred status (like the NHS) and is unlikely ever to be changed substantially. Perhaps having worked well for the US for so long the constitution now contains the seeds that will destroy the country.

Last night we listened to a webinar from the London School of Economics on what the next four years hold for the US. https://www.lse.ac.uk/Events/2021/01/202101211800/four?fbclid=IwAR0jZIpLzXDxiq-DO7m-iaXKqnQxlyTmbqElIFCsGRk1VunC-EqE6MFuZT8 The point was made (and was made by Timothy Snyder in the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html ) that the Republican party is split between “breakers” and “gamers.” The breakers, followers of Trump, want to break the constitution and install a tyrant, while the “gamers” are busy manipulating the constitution to make it harder for blacks, Hispanics, other people of colour, the poor, and the young to vote. They are the only two ways for the Republicans to counter the demographic changes in the US.

A better response would be everybody shifting to the left and rethinking the constitution. Neither is likely to happen.

Venice Diary: Days 37 and 38: Tuesday 25 March 2003

At about 7.30 in the evening I finish the first draft of the book, all 22 chapters—probably about 115 000 words. I know that I have more material to add, possibly even a whole chapter on “Should medical journals be political?” I don’t feel exultant, but I’m pleased to have got this far. I think too that the book will be OK. It should be fairly easy to read—with lots of stories—but not hopelessly light. There is a message too—on the need for reform in journals. I don’t think, however, that it will ever be read by many people who don’t already read medical journals.

Dear Signora Elida,

Thank you very much for looking after me and my guests so wonderfully and graciously while I have been in Venice. It’s always been a pleasure to see your face at the window.

It’s been a great privilege for me to stay in such a beautiful palazzo in the world’s most beautiful city. My time here will always be special for me.

I have managed to almost finish my book, and I will send you a signed copy when it is published.

I know that you think that it is pathetic that a professor and a writer can speak hardly a word of Italian, and I agree. What sort of professor can I be? Perhaps a fake one.

I hope that you will allow me to come and say hallo to you again quickly when I’m in Venice.

Thank you once again for being so kind.

Best wishes (or the Italian equivalent)

Cara Signora Elida,

La ringrazio molto di essersi occupata di me e dei miei ospiti finchè ero a Venezia con tanta grazia e gentilezza. E’ sempre stato un piacere vedere il Suo viso alla finestra.

 E’ stato per me un grande privilegio poter stare in un palazzo tanto bello nella città più bella del mondo. Il tempo che ho passato qui sarà indimenticabile.

Sono quasi riuscito a finire il mio libro, e gliene manderò una copia firmata appena verrà pubblicato.

So che Lei pensa che sia strano che un professore e uno scrittore non riesca a parlare nemmeno una parola di italiano, e io sono d’accordo. Che tipo di professore posso essere? Forse uno finto.

Certamente La verrò a salutare durante altre mie visite a Venezia.

Ancora una volta grazie per essere stata così genetile.

Cari saluti

Dear Finola,

It would be good to meet around Easter. I could even come to Cambridge if you want (I want to see the Turners in the Fitzwilliam; Richard Peto, who takes a beating in the book, tells me they are wonderful.)

My choice would be to send you the whole book rather than individual chapters. I’ll hope to manage revising more than one chapter a week. If Trollope could write 1500 words every morning before going to work, why can’t I revise more than a chapter a week?

I’ve revised the shape of the book and divided it into sections. I’m attaching the new outline. I may do another whole chapter on whether medical journals should be political.



One of the two courtyards of my palazzo, Palazza Van Axel

Venice Diary: Day 43: Sunday 23 March 2003

Dear Drummond,

I now have only six nights left in Venice. The sun has continued to shine every day, which I think is most unusual. Weather.com suggests that it will start raining as I leave. Some ungrateful part of me feels a little cheated: I won’t know Venice as I want to know it if I know it only in the sun. It’s the same with people.

I do have a greater sense of unreality since the war began. I sit hearing listening to Bach, smelling my hyacinths, looking up at the back of Christ, and whittering away in my book while hell is unleashed in Iraq and people the world over march in the streets.

I have two reasons for writing.

Firstly, I cannot for the life of me find the St Bernard poem that you read out. Can you give me a title, an author, a page number–something? I thought it was called “One of our St Bernard’s is missing,” but it doesn’t seem to be.

Secondly, I’ve found that two of Auden’s poems have swum into my head, and I wanted to share them with you. I’m sure that you’ll know them both, but both are very timely. The short one I’ll paste here, the longer one I’ll attach.

Are you in Australia now? You travel too much, an old dog said.

Something that has given me a little reality has been reading Stupid White Men. Have you read it? It’s well worth reading and very easily read. Mind you, what with reading Emma and The Stones of Venice I find all prose that isn’t 19th century a disappointment.


A stroll before lunch. The sun is so bright that it looks as if it should be hot, but it isn’t. It’s just warm enough to sit in the sun, only with a little discomfort. The streets are quiet. The Venetians are having their lunch, and the tourists seems to be lost without exception. As I cross a bridge close to the palazzo there are three couples, all with maps, all turning their heads this way and that. One woman is trying to orientate herself by the sun. I know the problem: they are thinking in rectangles and right angles, which will always get you lost in Venice. Finding your way round is like turning on skis: you must do something that feels unnatural. I have never learnt to ski.

I keep thinking about all the photographs that are taken of Venice. I must appear in five pictures a day. If I were to be lost or commit a murder then a cunning policeman would probably be able to work out my movements for every day I’ve been here.

          Why do people want to take so many pictures? Because Venice is so beautiful, because in some way they’d like to capture it, have a part of it. They want to go home and show Venice to their daughter in law in Minehead. Will she be enchanted? Will it save her the trouble of coming? Will it make them grander—mini-doges of Venice (a bit like me talking about my palazzo)?

          I’m prejudiced on all this. I don’t take photographs. I have memories, and I have words. The memories and the words are me in Venice in a way that I think only the very best photographs, those that require remarkable skill and technical ability can be. The photographs come between you and Venice. The memories and the words bring you closer. The extreme is the person so busy taking photographs that he sees all of Venice through a lens: he could be at home watching television.

In the evening I feel feverish, a touch ill. My appetite is reduced but not abolished. I write three letters instead of my book.

Uncle Vanya: hurrah for forests, boo to professors

Uncle Vanya has everything you hope for and expect from Chekhov: people dying of boredom in the empty Russia countryside, drinking themselves to death, falling in love with people who don’t love them, talking and philosophising too much, and contemplating murder and suicide. But watching the BBC film of a lockdown theatrical production of the play (with no audience) I saw many other wonder full moments flash by, just as happens when you I watch Shakespeare. The poetry and thoughts come so fast that I almost want the actors to stop. A better response is to see other productions of the play (you can never see enough Hamlets) and read through the text. I have found a translation of Uncle Vanya online and copied out here the speeches that particularly appealed.

The core story is of a professor being forced by poverty to go and live in the country on the estate of his first wife. The people on the estate, including Vanya, have worked for years to support the professor in his “great works.” Income from the estate has fallen, forcing the professor to leave the city. The professor is a pompous ass and imposes his absurd lifestyle on the people of the estate. The play starts with everybody’s temper fraying and ends with the people of the estate returning to the grind after the professor has left.

One of major themes of the play is how the countryside is exploited to support the vacuous life of the city. Another was how the rich live off the poor, and the play was first produced in 1898, 19 years before the revolution. But two themes that fascinated me were the necessity of living in harmony with nature and of recognising our duty to those who come after us, at the same time hoping that those who come later will have a greater understanding of life than us. Chekhov would never have known of climate change, but he saw it coming.

Dr Astrov is the local doctor who cares for the forests and future generations but also speaks of the discomfort of being a doctor. He drinks too much.

I’ve picked out quotes that appealed to me below, and the very best speech came at the very end of the play from Sonya, the young woman who loves the doctor, who, of course, doesn’t love her. The speech was very beautifully delivered by Aimee Lou Wood, an actor I’ve never come across before.

As an editor at a medical journal for a quarter of a century, I was amused by Vanya pointing out that the professor had for more than 30 years “written papers than no one understands, published in journals that no one reads.”

The professor said Vanya, “ought to write his autobiography; he would make a really splendid subject for a book! Imagine it, the life of a retired professor, as stale as a piece of hardtack, tortured by gout, headaches, and rheumatism, his liver bursting with jealousy and envy, living on the estate of his first wife, although he hates it, because he can’t afford to live in town.”

The professor himself says: “I have spent my life working in the interests of learning. I am used to my library and the lecture hall and to the esteem and admiration of my colleagues. Now I suddenly find myself plunged in this wilderness, condemned to see the same stupid people from morning till night and listen to their futile conversation. I want to live; I long for success and fame and the stir of the world, and here I am in exile! Oh, it is dreadful to spend every moment grieving for the lost past, to see the success of others and sit here with nothing to do but to fear death.”

Dr Astrov asks: “Why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground

Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wild life is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day.

I see irony in your look; you don’t take what I am saying seriously, and — and — after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass village forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young trees set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I’ll have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride.”

Sonya, who loves Astrov (without him recognising it), says of him:

“It is not a question of medicine and forests, my dear, he is a man of genius. Do you know what that means? It means he is brave, profound, and has great vision. He plants a tree and his mind travels a thousand years into the future, and he sees visions of the happiness of the human race. People like him are rare and should be cherished.”

Showing a map of the area to the professor’s wife, Astrov says: “Look there! That is a map of our district as it was fifty years ago. The green tints, both dark and light, represent forests. Half the map, as you see, is covered with it. Where the green is striped with red the forests were inhabited by elk and wild goats. Here on this lake, lived great flocks of swans and geese and ducks; as the peasants say, there was a power of birds of every kind. Thick as clouds in the sky.

Beside the hamlets and villages, you see, I have dotted down here and there the various settlements, farms, hermit’s caves, and water-mills. This country carried a great many cattle and horses, as you can see by the quantity of blue paint. For instance, see how thickly it lies in this part; there were great herds of them here, and every house had three horses.

Now, look lower down. This is the district as it was twenty-five years ago. Only a third of the map is green now with forests. There are still some elk, but there are no goats left. The blue paint is lighter, and so on, and so on.

Now we come to the third part; our country as it appears today. We still see spots of green, but not much. The elk, the swans, the wood-grouse have disappeared. It is, on the whole, the picture of a regular and slow decline which it will evidently only take about ten or fifteen more years to complete.

You may perhaps object that it is the march of progress, that the old order must give place to the new, and you might be right if roads and railways had been run through these ruined woods, or if factories and schools had taken their place. The people then would have become better educated and healthier and richer, but as it is, we have nothing of the sort. We have the same swamps and mosquitoes; the same disease and want; the typhoid, the diphtheria, the burning villages.

We are confronted by the degradation of our country, brought on by the fierce struggle for existence of the human race. It is the consequence of the ignorance and unconsciousness of starving, shivering, sick humanity that, to save its children, instinctively snatches at everything that can warm it and still its hunger. So it destroys everything it can lay its hands on, without a thought for the morrow. And almost everything has gone, and nothing has been created to take its place.

It may be that in one or two hundred years posterity, which will despise us for our blind and stupid lives, will find some road to happiness; but we — you and I — have but one hope, the hope that we may be visited by visions, perhaps by pleasant ones, as we lie resting in our graves.

At the end of the play after the professor has gone and Vanya is despairing of his wasted ife and the empty years ahead of him, Sonya says to Vanya:

“What can we do? We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us.

Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, you and I shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile — and — we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith.

We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven all shining with diamonds. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress.

I have faith; I have faith. My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. We shall rest!

Venice Diary: Day 38: Monday 17 March 2003

I’m in a strange but interesting mental state as I sit here in my palazzo in the dark listening to Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m in the most beautiful city in the world, but the drums of war are beating loudly, something that might be Spanish flu (which, remember, killed 20 million in 1918) is sweeping across the world, the vote on the GP contract (hardly to put in a sentence with war and Spanish flu) is in disarray, and I’m alone—Brian and Beth having left this morning, at 8.30 on a vaporetto from Ca D’Oro.

          Within the next day or two the Americans—with the British scampering along behind—will start bombing Iraq. They will do so without support from the United Nations and in the face of world opinion—and, in the case of Britain, opinion within the country. It could be a quick war that leads to the ghastly regimen of Saddam Hussein being replaced. Or—perhaps more likely—it could be a messy war that destabilises the Middle East. Worse (for me) it might precipitate some sort of attack on Britain.

          Why—friends from Italy, the US, Austria, and Norway—ask me has Blair gone along with this? I don’t have a convincing answer. “Somehow,” I answer, “British prime ministers just have to go along with American presidents. It’s a dependency. Perhaps economic, perhaps to do with security. I don’t know.”

          Now Robin Cook has resigned from the cabinet. When the war starts Clare Short will do the same. Junior ministers will also jump ship. The government will begin to unravel. Huge numbers of Labour MPs will vote against the war. “Labour party people didn’t become MPs to bomb third world children,” says Boris Johnson, Tory MP and editor of the Spectator—almost, presumably inadvertently, implying that he did.

          Blair looks desperate, a good man gone wrong? All political careers end in failure, said Enoch Powell. Will this be the end of him? Perhaps.

          Meanwhile, I’m in St Marks on a most beautiful day. I’m admiring the second century horses, bought from the hippodrome in Constantinople when it was sacked in 1204. These horses—so perky and so real—have seen nearly a 100 human generations come and go. They’ve survived a thousand wars, more than a hundred million deaths. They were 1200 years old at the time of the battle of Lepanto, the last sea battle to be fought with galleys. What do they care about a silly war in Iraq.

          I’m unequal to the task of describing St Marks, but Ruskin had a damn good go: “…there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away;—a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure heap, it seems, partly of gold and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory,—sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and in the midst of it the solemn forms of angels, sceptred, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside them,—interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it faded back among the branches of Eden when first its gates were angel-guarded long ago.” He goes on, but I thought that one sentence would be enough.

Discovering (and rediscovering) a hidden part of London, including the workhouse where Charlie Chaplin lived

London, like all cities but especially ancient ones, is filled with hidden delights. Many of these delights are invisible to car drivers and can be found only by those who walk cities.

Yesterday I wandered into Renfrew Road in Lambeth and saw what was once Lambeth Magistrate’s Court, where my father worked for perhaps 20 years. A neogothic building built in 1869, it’s in good condition. I walked closer, looked through the iron gates into the courtyard and saw a reclining golden Buddha. The building, I discover, is now the Jamyang Buddhist Centre. My father, a gentle man, would like that.

The courtyard is now a café and looks inviting. I will come back once the café can open again after the lockdown. Above the tables and plants in the courtyard loom the small windows with bars across them, reminding us of the original function of the building. Wikipedia says the court is “the earliest surviving example of a Criminal Magistrates Court in the Metropolitan area”. I have a memory of my father being declared a hero when he climbed onto the roof to capture an escaping prisoner.

I remember as well that I visited the court when I was a teenager and was horrified by a man being convicted of stealing a milk bottle. It seemed as Victorian as the building. I’d gone expecting to see villains, but instead I saw a parade of sad and mad people being processed. “This can’t,” I thought, “be the best way to respond to these people’s needs.”

The court ceased to be a magistrate’s court in perhaps the early 70s and became a high-security court for prisoners like IRA paramilitaries. Looking at the building now I can see that it might be easy to secure. My father moved to a new building, Camberwell Magistrate’s Court. I remember him describing how the excitement of the new building went to the head of the chef, who began to present his menu in French. One of the most popular dishes was rhubarb au crumble.

After looking at the court, I walk round the corner and find myself confronted by another old building. It is, I discover, the Cinema Museum, which is housed in what is called the Master’s House. What was this building? Why did it need a master? My first guess is a workhouse, and I discover later from Wikipedia that I was right. The original workhouse opened in 1726, but the foundation stone of this building was laid in 1871. It’s too new to have housed Oliver Twist, but it did house Charlie Chaplin when he was 7, making it an appropriate building for the Cinema Museum.

I walk round to the back of the building and see a tall tower, perhaps a 100 feet high. This, I discover later, was the water tower of the workhouse. It seems too big. Why would a workhouse need such a huge tower? Perhaps it supplied other buildings. It now seems to be flats, with an extraordinary penthouse on the top. “It looks like something out of Grand Designs,” says Chicken when she joins me later. (Grand Designs is a television programme that tells the stories of adventurous, even deluded, people who create extraordinary buildings, sometimes new ones but often old ones developed.) I learn later that Chicken was right: the tower did feature in Grand Designs.

Venice Diary: Days 35 and 37: Friday 14 March and Saturday 15 March 2003

I’m feeling sad, albeit in a mildly delicious way. (Is it permissible to put mildly and delicious together? Isn’t that like weakly ecstatic or even shallowly deep? Still, it’s my diary.)

          I’m sad mainly because Lin has gone. But I’m also sad that I have only 16 more nights in Venice, sad that the cold has gone (an odd one this, but I think I’m sad that “my first days in Venice”—distinguished by cold– are gone), sad that I finished my book, Stone Virgin, this morning (even though it wasn’t that great), sad that Venice will go on without me, sad that days like these may never return.

Saturday 15 March

Today all sadness has gone. It’s another beautiful day. I started reading Emma and know I will love it—simpler, sharper, and sweeter than Trollope and so wildly, not mildly, delicious.

My morning walk:

Trollope warns us against pride in “The Last Chronicle of Barset”

Trollope thought The Last Chronicle of Barset his best novel, and those of us (and we are many, if old) that have loved and reread the six Barsetshire novels share Trollope’s sadness as he ends the book and leaves the county for the last time: “To me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.” Readers feel the same.

I have read all the six novels once and three of them twice. The first time I read them I read them in order and felt that each one was even better than the one before. That meant I thought The Last Chronicle of Barset the best. I’m not sure each one is better than the one before, which seems statistically unlikely, or whether we enjoy them more because characters we like recur and because we become steadily more familiar with them and the whole feel of Barsetshire. This familiarity is probably the reason for the existence and popularity of soap operas.

Trollope did not, I’m sure, start his books with themes, but inevitably themes arise—or can be spotted by enthusiasts whether they are there or not. Wikipedia sees three themes in the novel: power, pride, and feminism.

Before I looked at Wikipedia I saw the theme of pride. The three strongest characters in the book are all cursed and brought low by pride.

Mr Crawley, the perpetual curate, who is at the centre of the book, is humble and proud at the same time. He almost revels in his poverty, yet he is proud of his learning, which makes him superior to his rich friend, the dean, whom he was at college with. Crawley is described by one of the other characters as “he’s not like anybody else that ever was born, saint or sinner, parson or layman. I never heard of such a man in all my experience. Though he knew where he got the cheque as well as I know it now, he wouldn’t say so, because the dean had said it wasn’t so. Somebody ought to write a book about it,—indeed they ought.”

Somebody did write a book about it. Crawley is charged with having stolen a cheque. Everybody who knows him well knows that he can’t have done it, but the question of where he may have got it from is the mystery of the book. Crawley’s wife, a sympathetic woman whom we, the readers, respect (wondering at the same time how she could stick by Crawley but also knowing she had no choice), knows that he is so muddled in his head that he may have got it from anywhere. Crawley would rather think himself a criminal than a madman, but most think him mad to a degree; and almost everybody is scared of him. People know that if they try to help him he will dismiss them in a way that will feel uncomfortable. “The suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its daïs to receive pity and kindness. A consciousness of undeserved woe produces a grandeur of its own, with which the high-souled sufferer will not easily part.”

Crawley clashes with Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s wife and one of Trollope’s most famous creations. The bishop is weak, hopelessly weak, and is a bishop only because his wife has propelled him. She runs the diocese and loves a fight. Trollope writes: “I know a man,—an excellent fellow, who, being himself a strong politician, constantly expresses a belief that all politicians opposed to him are thieves, child-murderers, parricides, lovers of incest, demons upon the earth. He is a strong partisan, but not, I think, so strong as Mrs. Proudie.” Most people in the book hate Mrs Proudie.

The battle between the high church people, many of them fonder of port and foxes than the Bible, and the uncomfortably zealous low church people is a theme that runs through all the Barchester novels. Mrs Proudie, who is proudly low church, wants Crawley cast side even before he is convicted and comes into conflict with him—but he knows church law better than her. The battle between them with the bishop caught in the crossfire is one of the great scenes of the novel.

The third character harmed by her pride is Lily Dale, one of the Trollope’s most lovable characters. She is clever, witty, warm, and pretty, but she makes when young the easy (and familiar) mistake of falling in love with a cad. Her pride will not allow her to acknowledge and surmount her mistake.

Trollope is not concerned to warn us against the sin of pride. He wants simply to introduce us to people who feel real, tell us a tale, and lightly make some observations on life and people as he does so. He succeeds magnificently—but also warns us against pride.

As usual, I took many quotes from the book:

It would be wrong to say that love produces quarrels; but love does produce those intimate relations of which quarrelling is too often one of the consequences,—one of the consequences which frequently seem to be so natural, and sometimes seem to be unavoidable….They come very easily, these quarrels, but the quittance from them is sometimes terribly difficult.

Money is worth thinking of, but it is not worth very much thought.

It is hard to conceive that the old, whose thoughts have been all thought out, should ever love to live alone. Solitude is surely for the young, who have time before them for the execution of schemes, and who can, therefore, take delight in thinking.

It is very hard sometimes to know how intensely we are loved, and of what value our presence is to those who love us!

But with all of us, in the opinion which we form of those around us, we take unconsciously the opinion of others. A woman is handsome because the world says so. Music is charming to us because it charms others. We drink our wines with other men’s palates, and look at our pictures with other men’s eyes.

He was gifted with the great power of holding his tongue,

A lover who was less noble in his manhood than the false picture which that untrue memory was ever painting for her.

“Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him/Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.” It is the same story. Great power reduced to impotence, great glory to misery, by the hand of Fate,—Necessity, as the Greeks called her; the goddess that will not be shunned!

The cross-grainedness of men is so great that things will often be forced to go wrong, even when they have the strongest possible natural tendency of their own to go right.

Those who are high in station strike us more by their joys and sorrows than do the poor and lowly. Were some young duke’s wife, wedded but the other day, to die, all England would put on some show of mourning,—nay, would feel some true gleam of pity; but nobody cares for the widowed brickmaker seated with his starving infant on his cold hearth. [I think of Princess Diana]

Why should any one weep for those who go away full of years,—and full of hope?”

We are, most of us, apt to love Raphael’s madonnas better than Rembrandt’s matrons. But, though we do so, we know that Rembrandt’s matrons existed; but we have a strong belief that no such woman as Raphael painted ever did exist. In that he painted, as he may be surmised to have done, for pious purposes,—at least for Church purposes,—Raphael was justified; but had he painted so for family portraiture he would have been false.