Reviewed by Harriet
I came to The Marriage Portrait primed, in a sense, as I was already familiar with the story of the marriage between Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia di Medici, his sixteen-year-old bride, widely rumoured to have been murdered by her husband. I knew about this because of Browning’s celebrated poem, ‘My Last Duchess’ which, though no names are mentioned, is generally accepted to be based on this marriage and the supposed murder. O’Farrell refers obliquely to the poem through various details; among them, the white mule presented to Lucrezia by Alfonso, the fresco of dolphins on the ceiling, the curtain Alfonso keep drawn over his dead wife’s portrait. But she takes these bare bones and creates a narrative that is both as richly decorated and embroidered as the sixteenth-century court life in which these people lived and died, and a bleak and moving a story of a young girls entrapment into, and within, a dominating and manipulative marriage.
Time shifts back and forth within the narrative, but it begins almost at the end. The duke has taken Lucrezia to his Castello, in fact an almost impregnable fortress, where servants are few and even Lucrezia’s much loved personal maid has not accompanied her mistress. And Lucrezia is in no doubt of the reason for this:
It comes to her with a peculiar clarity that he intends to kill her. The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.
She’s seen enough during her short marriage to know he is capable of this: brutal and uncaring, he has forced his sister to watch the strangulation of her soldier lover because her affair ‘threatens our status and reputation’. As for Lucrezia, she has failed to produce the male heir, the ‘means of survival’ for the family, for which she has been acquired by this man. She has already been subjected to virtual imprisonment, deprived of all her pleasures and interests, forced to eat a special, unattractive diet, all on the advice of a doctor who believes these methods will cause her to conceive. But, as Lucrezia learns one day, Alfonso has never succeeded in impregnating anyone: the fault is clearly with him, not his wives or mistresses.
All these details emerge slowly over the course of a long, absorbing narrative. Along the way the reader learns about Lucrezia’s short life. The fifth child of the Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici and his strong-minded Spanish wife Eleanora, she has been more or less ignored within the family. Less beautiful than her two elder sisters, less forceful than her brothers, she is sensitive, curious, and artistic. As a seven-year-old child she has learned that her father has acquired a tiger to add to the menagerie in the basement of his Florentine chateau and manages to confront the animal, ranging around in his cage. ‘Was there no hope? the tigress seemed to be asking her. Will I always remain here? Will I never return home?’ It’s an image that reverberates through the novel, as indeed does the tiger’s violent death.
Everything here is seen through the eyes of the growing girl. The intensive education in which she participates – Cosimo was a strong believer in the intellectual development of both sexes – the drawing and painting classes she loves, during one of which her own work is viewed favourably by the great artist and historian Giorgio Vasari – her betrothal at the age of thirteen, when she is forced to substitute for her older sister Maria, suddenly dead on the eve of her own projected marriage to Alfonso – the painting of her own marriage portrait, ostensibly carried out by the celebrated artist the Duke has hired, but in fact almost entirely done by his skilled and friendly assistants. Friendship is sadly lacking in Lucrezia’s young life: the only real love she has ever received has been from her old nurse Sofia, and from the loyal maid who sticks with her through thick and thin.
The courts, the fine houses, the grandeur, pomp and ceremony, the gorgeousness of embroidered, bejewelled clothes and decorations, the richness and profusion of the food and drink, all serve to highlight what is at the core of this immersive novel. Lucrezia is appreciated at first by the Duke, but only because he sees her as a machine to produce an heir. Her sweetness, her innocence, and her considerable artistic talent, are as nothing to him when he realises she is going to disappoint his hopes. So yes, in the end, this is a story of the powerlessness of young women at this period, their diminishment to mere machines for childbearing, to be cast aside when they fail in their function. O’Farrell has absorbed much from the Browning poem, but of course has also invented much, so the poem illuminates the novel and the novel illuminates the poem. And the whole thing glows.
Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books.
Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait (Tinder Press, 2022). 978-1472223845, 448pp., hardback.
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