The Marriage Portrait opens with the following ‘Historical Note’:
“In 1560, fifteen-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici left Florence to begin her married life with Alfonso II d’Este Duke of Ferrara.
Less than a year later, she would be dead.
The official cause of death was given as ‘putrid fever’, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband”.
This note is followed by a quote from Robert Browning’s chilling poem “My Last Duchess‘. Although only a few lines from the poem are quoted, together with the introduction on the hardback edition’s cover they are sufficient breadcrumbs for the reader to have a clear understanding of the novel they are about to read, one in which the finale has, apparently, already been spoiled for them by the author themselves. So either these clues are actively misleading, or this is a novel where the interest lies not in what happens, but how it comes to happen.
Most reviews of this novel mention these items of context, but ignore the quote from Boccaccio’s Decameron that comes immediately after the Browning:
“The ladies…are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers., mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms, where they sit in apparent idleness, wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite, and reflecting on various matters…”
This quotation manages our expectations effectively – as well as a murder story, (if not a mystery) this is also going to be about a world where young aristocratic women are traded like livestock between the houses of their parents and their prospective husbands, with the clear expectation that their role is solely to produce offspring. They will have little individual liberty, and while they will want for nothing in the way of material things, freedom will be unattainable. Sex will be a matter of duty with the sole aim of procreation, practiced in Lucrezia’s case under the advice of a doctor with strange ideas about fertility and conception. (“No excitement, no dancing, no music, no creative endeavours, no reading, except for religious texts”). Uxoricide is a very real threat if they misbehave or fail to produce any offspring.
The novel is narrated by Lucrezia and opens one year into her already strained marriage. She has a sudden realisation that her husband intends to kill her. While this feels implausible from a historical perspective – Alfonso would have abandoned any attempt to conceive after just a year as well as risked conflict with the powerful Medici dynasty, when sudden death was a fact of life for all medieval people, irrespective of their status (Lucrezia’s sister dies suddenly from a chill early in the novel) – but we are not invited to question this conclusion. Lucrezia is treated as her husband’s disposable possession and we are invited to think it entirely possible that he would kill her if she did not meet his requirements. Much of the rest of the novel is told in flashback showing us her pampered but constrained childhood and the early days of her marriage.
O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet was one of the best things I have read in a very long time, so my expectations for The Marriage Portrait were very high. The hardback edition is beautifully illustrated with a brightly coloured jungle scene full of birds, flowers and snakes. The tiger that plays an important symbolic role in Lucrezia’s childhood tiptoes off the side of the page, and the inside is illustrated with another wonderfully real and dangerous snake. O’Farrell’s prose is sumptuous and she handles the suspense and atmosphere of Renaissance Italy with authority.
But the Guardian’s review expressed some serious and (partially) valid concerns that need to be addressed:
“high production values cannot disguise the fact that this is melodrama reworked to appeal to a progressive 21st-century audience. The book’s evil deeds are committed by evil people because they are evil. No one acts unpredictably or without foreshadowing….I couldn’t help marvelling at how a novel that’s so richly descriptive could feel so limited in its range of expressiveness.”
This review is not an outlier – a number of critics has similar reservations about the novel’s structure and plausibility. Let’s look at these comments:
“Melodrama” – “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions”? I’ve got to concede that some characters were two-dimensional, particularly the evil Duke Alfonso, who switches quickly from being an attentive husband to being a brutal tyrant, and who has his chief of guards strangled to death for having an affair with his (the Duke’s) sister. There’s no real attempt to understand Alfonso’s motivation, the difficulty of ruling over a troubled country threatened on all sides by enemies, menaced from within by assassins, and all the time under pressure to produce an heir when he feels much more comfortable in the company of his male friends. No I’m not hinting he is presented as gay – he’s not really presented at all, other than a sinister villain. But there are many other characters with a lot more depth to them, not least the painter brought in to produce the marriage portrait that gives the novel its title, and his fascinating crew of assistants, including one, Jacopo, who everyone assumes is mute but just stays silent because no one speaks his native dialect. Alfonso’s sisters – Elisabetta and Nunciata – are admittedly straight out of Cinderella, but other secondary characters including Lucrezia’s caring maids are brought to life more fully.
“Reworked to appeal to a progressive 21st-century audience”? This charge is unconvincing. Audiences from most centuries would surely support the young woman sold into marriage and suffering an early death over her husband. This is not a politically correct novel. Renaissance people are convincingly imagined and their different ways of looking at the world are recognised and acknowledged. At the same time they are still people with fears and ambitions like our own.
“No-one acts unpredictably or without foreshadowing”? If foreshadowing is done in a heavy-handed way I completely accept it can be irritating. But I didn’t feel that was the case here, It’s hard to accuse a novelist of foreshadowing (which isn’t automatically a bad thing – we need to understand why people make the choices they make and do the things they do) when we have been told the novel’s outcome on the opening page. Yes we know the likely outcome from the start. This is not a novel of many plot twists or surprises, but it never pretends or aspires to be.
“Limited in its range of expressiveness”? I’m not entirely sure what this means to be honest, but if the critic is suggesting that O’Farrell’s writing is in any way dull or repetitive then that is absolutely not the case. This was an enjoyable read. At moments it is slightly over-written, but arguably this was necessary to describe the opulent of aristocratic renaissance life. Here for example we experience Lucrezia’s discomfort in her fantastical wedding dress:
“The gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, but she cannot.”
Any suspense in the novel was admittedly deflated by the author’s spoiler – I think we would have ben a lot more engaged as readers if we were left wondering what happens to Lucrezia – but this gives the novel’s surprise ending an even greater impact. The novel is lushly illustrated throughout with vivid imagery. We have already met the tiger that seems to prowl through the novel’s pages, but there is also for example the use of embroidery as a metaphor for Lucrezia’s ability to see beyond the world as it is presented to her:
“She has always had a secret liking for this part of the embroidery, the ‘wrong’ side, congested with knots, striations of silk and twists of thread. How much more interesting it is, with its frank display of the labour needed to attain the perfection of the finished piece.”
I’d also like to acknowledge what I think O’Farrell is trying to do here and in Hamnet: to give a voice to women who while not forgotten by history, have not been able to tell us their version of events. We know very little about Anne Hathaway other than in relation to the works of her husband, and we know even less about Lucrezia de Medici other than the rumours about her death. She – and the class of brave women she represents – are brought to life in the Marriage Portrait. This is much more than the conventional novelisation of historical events, it is a vivid recreation of those events through the eyes of its participants.