Friday 26 May 2023

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell, reviewed by Judith Allnatt.

Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2023, the novel opens with a gripping scenario. Sixteen year-old Lucrezia,  bride of less than a year, is taken to a hunting lodge deep in the country by her husband Alfonso 11 d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, and while they dine together she realises that he plans to kill her. I was instantly hooked, not only by the classic 'woman in jeopardy' situation but by the fairy-tale resonance of the setting. The high walled, star-shaped fortress in a wintry forest made me think of both Rapunzel and the Sleeping Beauty. Set in the mid sixteenth century in the Duchy of Ferrara, the world described has both strangeness and a fairy-tale familiarity: there are white ponies, cloaks and squirrel-lined gloves, wax seals, daggers and sleeping draughts. Furthermore, as the story unfolds, fairy tale elements of manipulation by an older generation, imprisonment, love and attempts at rescue are crucial parts of the story.


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. 

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