Source: Review copy
Publication: 30 August 2022 from Tinder Press
My thanks to Tinder Press for an advance copy for review
‘Someone swore that, as a little girl, he once saw you touch a tiger. And that the tiger didn’t harm you, it let you stroke it. It was always said that you had charmed the beast.’
Winter, 1561. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso. As they sit down to dinner it occurs to Lucrezia that Alfonso has a sinister purpose in bringing her here. He intends to kill her.
Lucrezia is sixteen years old, and has led a sheltered life locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo. Here, in this remote villa, she is entirely at the mercy of her increasingly erratic husband.
What is Lucrezia to do with this sudden knowledge? What chance does she have against Alfonso, ruler of a province, and a trained soldier? How can she ensure her survival.
The Marriage Portrait is an unforgettable reimagining of the life of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.
This is the story of 16 year old Lucrezia, the third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, who is suddenly propelled into marriage to a man she has never met after her older sister, Maria dies on the eve of her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, about to become Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia who is the wayward sister, having little interest in boys and even less in jewels or clothes, preferring to spend time with her painting and enjoying the delights of nature. She especially loves animals and is in awe of her father’s newest acquisition to his menagerie.
But her father, Cosimo believes in creating diplomatically advantageous marriages for his daughters to bolster his position and ensure his lands are secure from hostile invaders or usurpers. So when Maria dies and Alfonso d’Este requests the hand of Lucrezia in marriage instead, he is quick to agree.
Lucrezia’s story is immortalised in Robert Browning’s famous poem, My Last Duchess set in 1564 and is based on the real-life Duke Alfonso II who ruled Ferrara, Italy in the latter half of the 16th century. In the poem, he’s talking about his first wife Lucrezia de’ Medici, 3 years after she died under suspicious circumstances shortly after marrying the Duke.
I was really interested to see what story Maggie O’Farrell would lay behind this famous portrait and I was not disappointed. She writes with such skill and empathy that it is impossible not to fall for this fabulous character who is both naïve and tenacious as she comes to terms with realising that the man she married is interested in only one thing from her.
The novel opens in the winter of 1561. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, has been unexpectedly taken to a country villa, which more resembles a fortress than a place of rest and recuperation, by her husband, Alfonso. None of their usual entourage is in attendance and Lucrezia does not even have a maid with her. As they sit down to dinner it dawns on Lucrezia that Alfonso has created the perfect conditions for getting rid of her with no witnesses.
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel moves backwards in time to show us Lucrezia as a young child in the sheltered environment of the Medici Palace in Florence and overshadowed by the more conventional beauty of her sisters.
We learn about her childhood, and how her life was so suddenly altered by early marriage. Her only example was that of her parents who had very much a loving marriage of equals when it came to ideas and affairs of state, but for Lucrezia no such potential for growth exists in her marriage to Alfonso. He is a man of two sides; sometimes loving and tender, seeing his wife in a way that both pleases and surprises her while at the same time shutting her out of all his concerns and any matters of court.
O’Farrell’s prose is lively, engaging and enchanting. Her Lucrezia springs off the page like a delighted faun seeing the world for the first time, delighting in nature and with no idea that the woods are full of huntsmen with rifles.
As Lucrezia takes her place at the Court and is at all times accompanied by Alfonso’s sisters, we see this wild faun become tamed and increasingly feeling caged as she is constrained by her husband’s insistence on adherence to his customs of manners. And when she is called upon by him to sit for her marriage portrait – to be painted by the impressive artist Bronzino, we feel the shivers of a woman realising that she is the subject of coercive control. We care about what happens to Lucrezia and that’s because O’Farrell has brought a fully realised woman onto the page and into our hearts.
Verdict: Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is rich and full of empathy for Lucrezia. She paints a wonderful picture of a young woman out of her time, constrained at every turn and unable to grow her considerable potential. This book is a dream to read and is a book to lose yourself in. My time flew by and I could read it all again, so much did I enjoy it. A hugely enjoyable, fascinating and immersive read.
Maggie O’Farrell, FRSOL, is the author of HAMNET, Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, and the memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, both Sunday Times no. 1 bestsellers. Her novels include AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE., and THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT. She is also the author of two books for children, WHERE SNOW ANGELS GO and THE BOY WHO LOST HIS SPARK. She lives in Edinburgh.