The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell - review by Sarah Crown

Sarah Crown

The Painted Lady Revealed

The Marriage Portrait


Tinder Press 448pp £25

There is a scene at the opening of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel in which the tone for the tale is set. Seven-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici – destined to be married at thirteen to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and to die just three years later – follows her father, the Duke of Florence, down into the cellar of his palazzo, in which his collection of exotic creatures is housed. Lucrezia has angled for the visit: word has it that her father has acquired a tigress, and she yearns to see it. Late one night, the duke leads his children down narrow staircases and through heavy doors into a rank, seething menagerie where wild animals of all kinds – apes, wolves, a manacled bear, ‘two lions pacing, circling each other’ – are penned. In the last cage, they’re told, is the tigress, but she’s hiding in the shadows. Lucrezia’s father and siblings move on, but she herself hangs back, hoping. Suddenly, the animal is beside her, the marks on her fur ‘a bold, dark lace’, her motion liquid ‘like honey dropping from a spoon’. Lucrezia reaches through the bars to touch the creature’s flank and feels inside herself the tigress’s loneliness and longing. ‘Was there no hope? the tigress seemed to be asking her. Will I always remain here? Will I never return home?’ Lucrezia is spotted and snatched away, hand still outstretched. Later, she learns that the door between the tigress’s cage and the lions’ was left open, and the tigress was mauled to death.

The episode is short, strange and dreamlike, a curiosity that appears initially to sit to one side of the broader narrative. But as the pages turn and the atmosphere thickens and darkens, we see that it cuts to the heart of the novel, foreshadowing not only its themes and recurrent images – the sense of entrapment and vulnerability, the lack of autonomy, the oppressive interior spaces, the flashes of jewel-bright colour cutting through the murk – but also the events it describes. In The Marriage Portrait, O’Farrell has fictionalised the brief, bitter life of Lucrezia de’ Medici, from her birth in Florence and her formal, circumscribed upbringing at her father’s court to her enforced marriage to the powerful Alfonso, a marriage that appears at first to offer freedom, but is slowly revealed to be an appalling trap.

Lucrezia’s life has, until now, been wholly obscured by the questions surrounding her death, which may or may not have been at the hands of her husband. O’Farrell isn’t the first author to be drawn to the subject: Robert Browning deployed it in his dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’, in which he gives voice to Alfonso, who condemns Lucrezia’s conduct and hints at her murder. While the poem implies Alfonso’s guilt, it doesn’t, however, do Lucrezia herself any favours; having been silenced (perhaps) by her husband, she’s silenced again in the poem, where it is Alfonso who defines her. In The Marriage Portrait, which has at its centre the painting of the fictional portrait of Lucrezia in Browning’s poem, O’Farrell seeks to redress the balance: to rescue Lucrezia from the men who have silenced her and to restore her to life.

In doing so, O’Farrell invites us to draw a direct comparison with her last novel, Hamnet, which performed a similar act of resurrection for Shakespeare’s wife and son. Given the plaudits and prizes which Hamnet garnered, this is a gamble. But O’Farrell is at the top of her game here and she knows it: her depiction of 16th-century Italy, and the sixteen-year-old girl trapped within it, is brightly vivid, utterly compelling and almost preternaturally assured. The narration is pitch-perfect: she cannily avoids being dragged off course into the era’s murky politics, sticking closely instead to Lucrezia’s girl’s-eye view of the world, a view that is steeped in food, fabric and the slices of Italian cities that can be glimpsed from high windows, though O’Farrell provides only as much detail as is available to a young girl who never leaves her apartment and is more interested in art and animals than in matters of court. O’Farrell’s writing feels of the present in terms of style. Mannered speech and archaisms are entirely absent; she pays deference to her setting through her descriptions instead, which are as rich, gorgeous and thickly imagistic as any Renaissance painting. Lucrezia, meanwhile, grows beneath our gaze from an awkward, intelligent girl into a young woman whose life is entirely controlled by others but who retains, even in a marriage that rapidly devolves into a horrifying exercise in coercive control, a determination to retain ‘some vital part of her’ that ‘will not bend, will never yield’.

For while Hamnet was a novel infused with love, The Marriage Portrait is beset with menace; it poses questions about female autonomy and gaslighting that call to mind ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (which O’Farrell references directly in her description of the pattern on Lucrezia’s dress). And while Hamnet was a story about domestic country life, The Marriage Portrait is occupied with courts and cities, barred doors and fortified buildings, the highest echelons of society. The tonal and textural differences between the two novels are marked. But both tangle, in the end, with issues of authority: of which stories are told, and how, and by whom. By giving us a version of Lucrezia de’ Medici’s life, O’Farrell advances the position that she set out in Hamnet: that lives other than those of great men are rich with experience and meaning, that they deserve to be recognised and that they matter.

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