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.
The marriage portrait
London: Tinder Press, 2022