A couple of years ago, Maggie O’Farrell published a stunning, award-winning novel called “Hamnet.” In it she took inspiration from familiar stories — the towering tragedy “Hamlet” and the life of its author, William Shakespeare — and shifted the perspective, writing a moving and gorgeous book about the title character, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, and about the playwright’s wife. Almost nothing is known about her historically, but O’Farrell brought her to vibrant life.
O’Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland and lives in Edinburgh, has taken a similar tack in her new novel, “The Marriage Portrait.” This time the story is sparked by one of the best-known works by British poet Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess.” His poem is a charming, chilling monologue by a probable murderer, based on a historical figure of the Italian Renaissance, Alfonso II, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, who explains how an exquisite portrait of his late wife came to be painted.
O’Farrell changes the perspective on that sinister little masterpiece, bringing alive the painted duchess, Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, fifth child of the powerful Grand Duke of Tuscany. History tells us she married Alfonso in 1558 and, less than a year after moving into his household, was dead at the age of 16.
“The Marriage Portrait” begins by plunging the reader into the terror of Lucrezia’s last days. She and Alfonso have traveled from their palazzo in Ferrara to a remote fortress, where she is isolated from the court and even from her lady’s maid, the loyal Emilia.
As the pair sit down to dinner, O’Farrell writes, “it comes to her with peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.”
The novel’s timeline alternates between those desperate days in the fortress and Lucrezia’s life leading up to them. Born into a wealthy and powerful family, she grows up feeling like an outsider among them. Her mother, Eleanora, raises her children in aristocratic fashion — by giving birth and immediately handing them off to the wise Sofia, who heads the nursery staff and to whom Lucrezia feels closer than anyone.
Eleanora is so famed for her fertility that her nickname is “La Fecundissima” — she’ll bear 11 children in all — but she’s also made herself essential to the business of running her husband’s dukedom.
Lucrezia is something of a thorn in her mother’s side because, unlike her older sisters, who are biddable beauties dutifully preparing themselves for advantageous marriages, she’s restless and strong-willed. Life in the Medici palazzo may be luxurious, but it’s also confining — the duke’s children are literally never alone and almost never allowed outside its walls.
In one thrilling chapter, Lucrezia encounters a tiger that the duke has had captured and conveyed to a menagerie he maintains in the palazzo’s basement. To the rest of the family, the animal is a moment’s curiosity, but Lucrezia feels a deep empathy for the wild creature that finds itself inexplicably thrust into a dark cage.
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Lucrezia sneaks away to visit the tiger alone, daringly reaching between the bars to touch its fur. “To look into her eyes,” O’Farrell writes, “was to behold the visage of an incandescent, forbidden deity. Lucrezia and the tigress regarded each other, for a stretched moment, the child’s hand on the beast’s back, and time stopped for Lucrezia, the turning world stilled.”
That moment, and the tiger’s fate, will be elegantly echoed in the novel’s final chapters.
Lucrezia’s fate will be decided when her older sister Maria dies suddenly. Maria was betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, a marriage of two dynasties that was to be celebrated with a magnificent wedding. Maria is hardly cold in her coffin when Alfonso’s emissaries propose that Lucrezia would be an acceptable substitute.
Lucrezia is barely a teenager, a curious girl with a talent for art and a yearning to see the world beyond Florence. She has seen Alfonso only once, knows him not at all.
But none of that matters.
To Alfonso, and to her family, she is valuable only as a vessel for bearing children. If she doesn’t, her life is expendable.
The marriage is delayed somewhat by wars, affairs of state and Sofia’s machinations, but by the time she’s 15 Lucrezia is facing her wedding day. Her lush copper-colored hair, which has never been cut and, unbound, reaches her ankles, is elaborately arranged by a crew of maids. Then she is trussed into her dead sister’s astonishing wedding gown, a confection of golden organza and silk in every shade of blue.
“The bodice and sleeves are separate entities, draped over the credenza and the table. To Lucrezia, as she steps over the threshold, it looks as if a woman has been cut into four pieces and calmly arranged around the furniture.”
The first days of the marriage bring Lucrezia an unexpected sense of freedom. Alfonso charms her, bringing her first not to his palazzo but to a country house called a delizia, where she revels in being able to wander outdoors without a retinue. And he delays the consummation of the marriage until she feels ready, tenderly promising he’ll never hurt her.
But the honeymoon doesn’t last. There are rivals for his position, and his gallantry is erased by his eagerness for an heir. Every month that Lucrezia bleeds frustrates him more.
She comes to fear his best friend, the enigmatic Leonello Baldassare, and her only respite is a careful friendship with Maurizio and Jacopo, two young apprentices to the painter that Alfonso has commissioned to make her portrait.
As the novel’s two timelines draw together, O’Farrell builds intense suspense. As always, her prose is beautiful, her characters finely drawn, her story wonderfully surprising.
Browning’s Alfonso might have closed a curtain over the portrait of his duchess to declare her his possession, but O’Farrell rips that curtain away and gives her a life.
The Marriage Portrait
By Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 352 pages, $28