Maggie O'Farrell has won the Women's Prize for Fiction with her “exceptional” novel Hamnet (Tinder Press), inspired by the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son.
She was announced the winner by chair of judges Martha Lane Fox at a digital awards ceremony in London on Wednesday night (9th September), also marking the award's 25th anniversary. Meanwhile fellow judge Paula Hawkins presented the author with the £30,000 prize and the "Bessie", a limited-edition bronze figurine, in her home town of Edinburgh.
The novel, O'Farrell's eighth, is set in 1596 and tells the story of Shakespeare's wife Agnes Hathaway, of his lost son, of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief, and of the power of creativity. Lane Fox called the novel an "exceptional" winner. "Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring,” she said.
O'Farrell said it was "just amazing" to win the prize, explaining: "The shortlist was so extraordinary it never occurred to me. I feel like I want to run out into the garden and howl at the moon - I apologise to all the women of Edinburgh, there are no wolves, it is just me".
Thanking her long-term editor Mary-Anne Harrington and agent Victoria Hobbs, whose "encouragement and inspiration has meant so much to me", as well as her "amazing" publicist Georgina Moore, and Hamnet's book designer Yeti Lambregts, she also paid tribute to the Women's Prize itself, saying: "Looking at the roster of 25 winners [over the prize's history], I see so many books that have sustained and inspired me throughout my whole career."
Publishing Hamnet on 31st March, at the start of lockdown, had given her a new perspective on her own book, she added. "Usually when you finish a book your relationship with it is closed, but in the last six months my relationship [to Hamnet] has altered: I feel close to the experience of my characters because the Elizabethans were constantly terrified of this disease [the bubonic plague which kills Hamnet] and many others. They would have constantly been in lockdown throughout their lives."
Tinder publisher Harrington told The Bookseller that a 25,000 reprint of the hardback had begun this morning (Thursday 10th September). She said: "I count myself incredibly lucky to have worked with Maggie across all of her books – for over 20 years now – and we couldn’t be prouder, at Tinder Press and at Headline – of our enduring relationship with her. Hamnet is a novel of extraordinary originality and verve, a book that places the story of a woman usually confined to the margins of her husband’s story centre stage, and a story that feels both incredibly timely and of the moment, but with the power to endure. Publishing this novel – which Maggie has wanted to write for her whole career – in the teeth of lockdown was a nervewracking experience, but the endlessly inventive team at Headline and Georgina Moore at Midas PR rose to this challenge brilliantly, rebuilding a detailed campaign from scratch in a matter of days, and the success of the novel has been a huge testament to their hard work and to the amazing support of so many booksellers who would apparently stop at nothing to keep selling this book."
Bea Carvalho, fiction buyer at Women’s Prize retail partner Waterstones, said: “We are thrilled that the Women’s Prize judges have chosen Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful and heartbreaking Hamnet as the prize’s 25th winner. The last year has seen some stunning fiction by women writers, and Hamnet stands out as a work of immense elegance and emotional heft. We are delighted that we will be able to share it with so many more customers as a result of this well-deserved win.”
O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times number one bestselling memoir I am, I am, I am (Tinder Press) and eight novels including 2005 Somerset Maugham Award-winner The Distance Between Us (Tinder Press) and 2010 Costa Novel Award-winner The Hand that First Held Mine (Tinder Press). Tinder Press has just repackaged all O'Farrell's backlist, giving her debut After You'd Gone a new introduction from author Barbara Trapido, who "discovered" O'Farrell on an Arvon course.
Hamnet has sold 14,966 units for just under £261,000 through Nielsen BookScan since June, when sales figures became available again.
It was chosen from a shortlist featuring Dominicana by Angie Cruz (John Murray), Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton), A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (Mantle), The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate) and Weather by Jenny Offill (Granta).
To celebrate the prize’s 25th anniversary, in November readers will crown the “Winner of Winners”, chosen from the 25 winning novels since the prize’s inception in a public vote.