Book Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – a tense and evocative story from the Italian Renaissance

This novel is inspired by the Robert Browning poem ‘My Last Duchess’ as well as the historical figure of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, who met an untimely death at the age of sixteen, supposedly murdered by her husband. I hadn’t known anything of the real duchess, but remember reading the poem in English Lit classes at uni and not realising it at the time that the duchess described had died so young.

It’s a shocking story in anybody’s book – Browning’s Dramatic Lyrics or this one, and so I demurred while The Marriage Portrait sat on my bedside table, distracting myself with every other book until, with nothing much else to read I finally picked it up. I shouldn’t have worried, having enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s books enormously in the past and it was only a page or two before I was engrossed in the story, as well as in awe at the writing.

Lucrezia is a difficult child, the least favourite it seems in her family, and as she grows she seems a thin little thing, quite unlike her lively, dark-haired older sisters. She’s smart though, sitting in a corner where the children are taught their lessons, but learning much faster the Latin and Greek, the history and geography than her siblings. Her real talent is art, although she could be a master spy the way she sneaks around the palace, listening at doors.

When her older sister Maria suddenly dies before her wedding can take place, Lucrezia is promised to Maria’s fiancé instead, to unite the grand houses of Medici and Ferrara, even though Lucrezia is only thirteen. She’s a spirited child, who likes her freedom, but also cherishes the safety of her home – her life has been a sheltered one. So at the time of her wedding a couple of years later, she is ill prepared to be the docile wife of a powerful ruler.

The gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, but she cannot.

O’Farrell makes Lucrezia interesting, believable and vividly real, a complex character, as is her new husband Alfonso, who is on the surface so charming and solicitous, but also desperate for the heir that will secure his position. The book begins with Alfonso whisking Lucrezia off to a hunting lodge, away from the prying eyes of his palace, and where Lucrezia feels he is to do away with her. She has seen this other side to him before – the merciless capacity for violence, the lack of forgiveness. Will Lucrezia succumb and give in or will she fight back for her survival?

Sixteenth century Italy is brought to life – a time of a flowering of the arts which are lushly shown here in paintings, architecture and music. The intense richness of the language, vividly present tense, mirrors the gorgeousness of this Renaissance world. Yet this is also a time when well-born young women are just pawns on the chessboard of power to be married off by their fathers. Like Lucrezia they may have little idea of the politics around them or what will be expected of them.

This makes the novel a tense and gripping read as the story bounces between the hunting-lodge present where the moments tick away until Alfonso will act against his duchess, and the back-story that fills in Lucrezia’s life and how she has come to be in this predicament. It all seems so much more vivid because of the way O’Farrell writes – the intensity of Lucrezia’s feelings, the undercurrents that pass between characters, as well as the sensory details – the feel of fabric on skin, Lucrezia’s painterly eye that sees every colour and shade, the shock of seeing mountains for the first time, the descriptions of the music Alfonso gets lost in.

The Marriage Plot is a book that delivers on every level, giving you a glimpse into the past, an edge-of-the-seat story, as well as gorgeous writing. It isn’t surprising it’s been selected for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longest – I’ll be eager to see if it makes the shortlist, announced on 26 April. It will also be interesting to see what O’Farrell comes up with next. This book gets a full five stars from me.

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