Maggie O’Farrell, The marriage portrait (#BookReview)

I have mentioned Author’s Notes a few times recently, because I have read a few works of historical fiction. Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, The marriage portrait, is another historical novel and so here I am again talking Author’s Notes. The marriage portrait, as you probably already know, is based on the life of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who lived from 1545 to 1561. Her death was ascribed at the time to “putrid fever” (or pulmonary tuberculosis). However, very soon after she died, rumours started that she had been poisoned by order of her husband, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. That suspicion inspired English poet Robert Browning to write his dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess“. It was this poem and a portrait of Lucrezia that inspired the novel.

O’Farrell writes in her Author’s Note that “I have tried to use what little is known about her short life but I have made a few alterations, in the name of fiction” and goes on to explain some of those alternations and why she made them. I have always argued that historical fiction is just that, fiction. We should not read it as history, that is, we should not rely on it for the facts. However, good historical fiction will provide some truths, and we do find some in O’Farrell’s novel.

The marriage portrait is told in two alternating chronological strands, one starting with Lucrezia’s conception in 1544, and the other a day or so before her death in 1561. In these two strands we are given the whole of Lucrezia’s life. We see her growing up as a resourceful, intelligent but needy middle child in a large family where she felt different from her younger and older siblings. Presumably this is O’Farrell’s invention to enhance her isolation. And we see the last year of her marriage: its deterioration as she fails to bear an heir (to a man who went on to marry twice more without issue) and her realisation that he means to kill her. Not surprisingly, we quickly become engaged in Lucrezia and her plight. O’Farrell knows how to tug our heart strings.

“The ladies . . . are forced to follow the whims …” (Boccaccio)

When I read novels, I believe in reading everything, which here included some matter before the story starts. First is a small paragraph headed Historical Note, telling us of Lucrezia’s death and the rumours concerning it. This is followed by two epigraphs, one from Browning’s poem referring to the portrait, and one from Boccaccio’s The decameron which commences with “The ladies . . . are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands …” Hence some of the aforementioned truths.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the novel but, overall, I found it a readable and immersive story about what was a brutal time period, particularly for women and the serving classes. (I use “serving” rather than “servant” to encompass a wider group of people.) There’s nothing particularly new here, but O’Farrell shows very clearly how women and the serving classes were pawns in the political power plays of the time, with little or nothing to protect them except, sometimes, luck – or the courage of another.

There is more, though, to the novel, than politics and power, gender and class. O’Farrell also looks at that aspect of Renaissance life that we all love, art and artists. Admittedly, politics and class have a hand here too, but Lucrezia herself (the fictional one, anyhow) is depicted as a skilled artist, and her work, materials and technique are described in loving detail. It is through her art that Lucrezia most often can assert herself, albeit that assertion must be hidden from others.

I could argue, too, that the novel suggests the way politics and power can destroy love, loyalty and affection between, in this case, marriage partners and siblings. This could be a modern reading of the situation, but I’m not completely averse to us “moderns” understanding the past through our own lens.

As for the writing itself, it’s gorgeously lush, though verges on the overdone at times. Cosimo’s tigress is described as moving “like honey dropping from a spoon”; she doesn’t “so much pace as pour herself, as if her very essence was molten, simmering, like the ooze from a volcano”. Lucrezia’s husband Alfonso is depicted as “an aquatic creature, half man, half fish, crawling up out of the shores of a river, silvered tail glistening in moonlight”. However, despite this, the rich, descriptive writing seemed appropriate for the opulence of the period. And, there is some more restrained, to-the-point writing, such as this introduction of the man whom those versed in historical fiction will recognise as the likely villain:

The man emerges, shoulder first from the branches, the papers still clutched in his hand. He makes his way through the garden but, unlike Alfonso, he doesn’t pick his way along the paths: he walks through the flowerbeds as if they aren’t there, striding over the low green hedges, through the blooms, scattering bees and petals in his wake. Here is a man, Lucrezia thinks, as she eyes his progress, who waits on no one, who lets nothing get in his way.

His name is Leonello, and Lucrezia recognises him for what he is.

O’Farrell is an experienced writer, so the novel is carefully plotted and structured. I enjoyed her use of parallels to foreshadow later actions. The strangling of the guard Contrari, for example, heralds a later strangling, and our tigress is described by Lucrezia as “a creature captured against its will, a creature whose desires have all been disregarded”, which mirrors her own experience later.

The marriage portrait is not a subtle novel, and it does play somewhat with the historical record, as discussed in the Author’s Note. It’s also excruciatingly brutal at times. But, I did become engrossed in the era and invested in Lucrezia’s plight. A moving read. 

Note: This book was my reading group’s April selection, but due to a COVID-risk I did not attend the meeting.

Maggie O’Farrell
The marriage portrait
London: Tinder Press, 2022
eISBN: 9781472223869

19 thoughts on “Maggie O’Farrell, The marriage portrait (#BookReview)

  1. I loved your review—though I haven’t read the book yet. I hope that your book group relayed their impressions to you too. The connection to the poem, The Last Duchess, is intriguing.

  2. Those quotes about people moving like honey dripping from a spoon would put me off from this author. I hate it when people choose poetry over a description that actually makes sense because now I can’t picture the character at all AND I’m frustrated! The other one that bothers me is characters that smell like a combo of scents that no one encounters, nor are they ready to pick out. “He smelled like white pine and dew in a field of wild flowers.” Whaaat, no he did not.

  3. I enjoyed the “opulence” of the writing.
    As I said in my own review (Oct. 25, 2022) I liked O’Farrell’s invention of Lucrezia’s parents’ marriage as a love match because it sets up her bewilderment in her own marriage in such stark terms.

    • Thanks Jeanne. I’ll read your review.

      I agree re Lucrezia’s parents, but a question I would have asked had I gone to reading group was, what would have happened if Eleanora had not produced heirs (had not been La Fecundissima)? I did look up a bit about them and it sounds as though it might in fact have been a love match, to the degree it could be in those days. Cosimo’s wife choice had some complexities but he chose her over her older sister when another potential wife didn’t happen. And Eleanora was happy with the choice. At least that’s what Wikipedia suggests from the records. So, maybe my question would have been too cynical.

    • PS I don’t see a Search Box on your blog, and Maggie O’Farrell isn’t in your Categories list – or, am I missing something? Anyhow, I’ll go looking for October in your Archives list.

      • I need to work on “categories” and “tags.” Glad you found the post (I don’t always want to leave a link in another blogger’s comments).

        • You do! I find it useful.

          But yes, I don’t tend to leave links on other bloggers’ posts either, but I wouldn’t have minded if you did!

          (Sorry about the half finished comment. I was on my phone and my fingers slipped.)

  4. I agree with you about historical fiction, that it should not be read as fact. But although I devoured Jean Plaidy in my teenage years, I grew out of what were basically relationship novels dressed up in historical finery and these days I want more from HistFic than *yawn* power, gender and class. We are awash with novels about power, gender and class and very rarely, it seems to me, is there anything different about them except their settings. So many of them are starring *amazing*, *feisty* women determined to rise above their oppression that it’s a cliché.
    HistFic can be a brilliant story of character, as in Wolf Hall. It can shine a light on as aspect of life that we rarely consider, as in A Terrible Kindness. It can offer insights into how ambition impacts on father-son relationships as in An Ungrateful Instrument, and most wonderfully for us here in Australia, it can tell the stories of our geographical neighbourhood as in Typhoon Kingdom or The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost. If only there were more of these!
    Art and artists can tip a novel over into one I want to read, and I bought this one. But, proving that I am susceptible to hype, I also bought Hamnet, and I’ve never got round to reading that either. A year or so more on the TBR and I’ll probably release this one into the wild…
    So I’m grateful to you for this review. It consolidates my suspicions.

    • Agree with all you say here, Lisa, really, but see my response to kimbofo. I’m not sorry I read it, but I’d prefer to have read a new author to the group than one we did so recently. I did learn some things from it.

  5. I’m glad you pointed out the flowery language because that was my major beef with Hamnet, which I wanted to fling across the room. She’s a beloved author, especially in the UK, but she’s not for me. Like Lisa’s comment above, thanks for reviewing this one as it has confirmed my suspicions that I should not bother reading it…

    • I didn’t find Hamnet quite so flowery, kimbofo, but it did stand out here. This is probably one I wouldn’t have read if not for reading group, but I’m not sorry because I did learn something.

    • Just so you know, her language only got this flowery with Hamnet. Most of her earlier works aren’t anywhere near as poetic. Obviously, that’s probably because her previous novels are either contemporary fiction or just slightly historical fiction (like mid- to early-20th century). I’ve read them all, so…

  6. Pingback: The Fire and the Rose (2023), by Robyn Cadwallader | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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