The narrative switches between Lucrezia's present jeopardy and her backstory, tracing her history from birth through a childhood in which she is marked out as unbiddable, clever and artistic, to an early arranged marriage. The author has a free hand with Lucrezia's fictional persona but draws on the facts of her situation: she is parted from her family and sent from Florence to Ferrara, a naieve and lonely teenager with a husband 11 years older whose political future depends on producing an heir. Lucrezia did not promptly get pregnant and in less then a year she was was dead. The cause of death given at the time was 'putrid fever', (modern historians consider this to have been a reference to pulmonary TB) but after her death it was rumoured that she had been poisoned - done away with by her husband.
Browning's poem,'My Last Duchess' a dramatic monologue in the voice of Alfonso draws on this chilling scenario and, as the title implies, Lucrezia was one in a series. Alfonso married three times and all three marriages were without issue. Browning's poem presents a sinister portrait of the Duke and focuses on his obsessive and unwarranted jealousy. Maggie O'Farrell's presentation of the character is terrifyingly changeable, a sociopath who is ice-cold and manipulative. To both versions of Alfonso, cruelty is simply a means to their own ends.
At her marriage, Lucrezia was caught between two powerful men: her father, Cosimo, Grand Duke of Tuscany and her would-be husband, and had no choice in the matter. Her father's power is brought home to the reader from the outset. In the basement of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, he keeps Big Cats: exotic beasts often collected by rulers or accepted as gifts betokening status and reflecting power and strength. (The street at the back of the palazzo is still called Via dei Leoni). Lucrezia, as a child, witnesses the arrival of a tiger and is desperate to see it. O'Farrell uses Lucrezia's visit to the tiger, in which she touches its fur without fearsome consequence, to show us her daring and to suggest that something of the creature's power lies within her character, despite her weak position in the hierarchy. At the same time, this strength at her core marks her as different from her siblings and the suggestion that she must have enchanted the beast demonstrates the wariness of others. The motif of the tiger is woven through the novel in connection with the power within Lucrezia that is her selfhood. O'Farrell also makes figurative use of the lions. She recounts that the interconnecting door between the tiger's and the lions' enclosures are accidentally left open and that the lions attack and kill the tiger. Later in the novel we meet Alfonso's right-hand man, Baldassare, who is unscrupulous, devious and brutal. O'Farrell gives him the first name Leonello and both Lucrezia and the reader instantly identify him as a dangerous enemy.
In a world where she and her sisters are not allowed to leave their rooms without permission, Lucrezia finds self expression through art. Fittingly, the author describes the colours, textures and detail around her with a painter's eye, bringing the Renaissance world vividly to life through close observation and imagery. We feel the touch of Lucrezia's ankle length hair that she can wear 'around herself like a shroud' and a candle makes 'a trembling circle of waxy light (that) pushes at the blackness'. In the gown she must wear for her marriage portrait with its huge skirt and ballooning sleeves 'her hands appear like the pale and ineffectual paws of a mouse, peeping out of frilled and ornate cuffs'.
As I hope you'll read and enjoy the novel, I won't comment on the conclusion of the narrative other than to say that the use of Lucrezia's paintings, executed on small pieces of wood and then overpainted with pictures of birds and beasts, provide an apt imagery. The final picture one is left with is not that of the marriage portrait, depicting Lucrezia as a powerless, jewelled, static status symbol. O'Farrell's final image of her protagonist has stayed with me and will continue to do so.