HHere is a novel inspired by a poem describing a painting representing a young woman who really lived. Art and artifice are intrinsic to it. In Maggie O’Farrell’s imagination of 16th century Italian court life, manners make the man, clothes make the woman, and an image is more enduring than a person.
In 1558, Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, was married to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. A year after entering her husband’s court in 1560, at just 16, she died. Poison was suspected. Several portraits of Lucrezia survive. Almost 300 years after his death, Robert Browning wrote My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue in which Duke Alfonso displays a portrait of his late wife and allows the reader to deduce that – madly jealous – he murdered her. Now O’Farrell has mixed historical facts, portraits and poetic fantasies and used them as the basis for a piece of fiction in which a simple tale, of a girl forced too young into a dynastic marriage, is layered and embellished. with fairy tale elements. and myth.
Fans of O’Farrell’s previous historical novel, Hamnet, may be confused by this one. Where Hamnet’s emotional punch (read it and weep) was fueled by its psychological and social realism, The Marriage Portrait is set in a world as fabulous as that of a millefleur tapestry and inhabited by beings as downright iconic as the embroidered ladies and their unicorns. There’s a virgin heroine whose floor-length red hair, coyly encased in a beaded net, hints at a rebellious energy. There is an evil, handsome and cruel duke. The sisters come in pairs – the maid (beautiful) and the cross, ugly. There’s an old nurse whose gruff manner hides a kind heart. There is the pure-hearted young man who might be able to offer help.
These figurines are surrounded by fabulous beasts. Lucrezia’s father keeps a menagerie in the cellars of his palace. When Lucrezia is a small child, she demonstrates her specialness by reaching the bars of a cage and stroking a tiger, unharmed. Later, but still at the nursery, she reveals another superpower, a skill in perspective drawing that impresses the artist Giorgio Vasari. She paints pictures of birds, dead or captive, avatars of herself imprisoned. When Duke Alfonso is kind, he gives her a white mule. When he scares, he talks about killing a boar, a sow and her calf. Lucrezia herself feels there is a beast within her that might one day “crawl into the light, blink, bristle, spread its filthy fists and open its jagged red mouth.”
These animals, like the fantastical creatures writhing through the “grotteschi” decorations of Italian Renaissance palaces, hint at the wild impulses restrained by courtly rituals and cumbersome robes. It’s a book about an image, and it’s also pictorial. There is a lot going on under and around the surface narration, in the same way that there are other stories unfolding in the backgrounds of Renaissance biblical scene paintings. Towards the end of the story, there is a banquet at the castle of Ferrara, when Lucretius first hears the singing of two castrati. As she listens, the narrative gaze moves around the table – illuminating a spaniel lapping up a dish, a woman wearing stuffed songbirds as ornaments in her hair, a man lasciviously handling a bowl of fruit. It could be a scene painted by Paolo Veronese.
O’Farrell’s prose, as fluid as ever, is more ornate than in previous books. She alternates passages in simple prose with others rich in musical cadences and richly adorned with images and increased vocabulary. A river ripples along its banks “with weary ocher tongues”. A dress speaks of a “glossolalia of its own”, rustling and creaking, becoming an orchestra, or the rigging of a ship. Through similes and allusions, more beasts enter the story, more complex emotions. Alfonso in the sexual act becomes an “aquatic monster…grabbing her with his webbed fingers, rubbing her with her scaly skin, the gills hidden in her throbbing, throbbing neck.”
The book opens the night before he plans to kill Lucrezia. By the end of the first paragraph, we know she knows. Short chapters recounting the events of the following hours alternate with much longer ones giving us the backstory from his childhood. The whole narrative is framed by his impending murder. When she believes Alfonso loves her, we are aware of the bitter irony. When she’s momentarily scared of him, we know she’s right. Horror stains the narrative, introduced by dreams and fantasies, and by the terrible screams that Lucrezia hears one night, coming from her husband’s bedroom in a crenellated tower of the sinister castle of Ferrara. This horror, however, is never quite felt. In a surprise ending, which suggests that O’Farrell doesn’t believe it herself, she lets us escape it.
As a child, I approached history through fiction written by early 20th century novelists. Favorites included Violet Needham (The Woods of Windri), Margaret Irwin (Royal Flush) and – most relevant here, in terms of subject – darkly gorgeous The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen, much admired by Graham Greene. Needham wrote for children. Irwin did not, but took a girl (Minette, the youngest child of Charles I) as the protagonist. Bowen was only 16 herself when she wrote The Viper: in 1906 she was repeatedly turned down by publishers shocked that such a young author was drawn to such unfeminine subjects. The wedding portrait belongs on the shelf alongside these classics. Finely written and vividly imagined, it’s far from simplistic, but there’s an engaging simplicity that makes it not quite feel like an adult novel. On the contrary, it is a very good book to be read, as the publishers said, by “children of all ages”.