HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksA lady revived: Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait

A lady revived: Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait

Maggie O’ Farrell’s novel The Marriage Portrait, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023, is inspired by Robert Browning’s popular poem, My Last Duchess. The Victorian English poet in turn is said to have been inspired by a Renaissance portrait of Lucrezia de’ Medici, made in 1560 and attributed to Agnolo Bronzino or Alessandro Allori.

The portrait of Lucrezia de’ Medici now at the North Carolina Museum of Art (Alessandro Allori/Wikipedia)

The book takes us back to Renaissance Italy where 15-year-old Lucrezia, recently married to Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, becomes aware that her life is in danger as her husband intends to kill her for failing to bear an heir.

Historical fiction is a tricky genre. Readers can quickly tell if they are being transported to the past or if the author is floundering with stilted dialogues and merely presenting an interplay of characters in costumes. There are always questions about historical accuracy and research. O’Farrell’s novel, which succeeds magnificently in bringing Renaissance Italy alive, doesn’t disappoint in any of these areas. The art, clothing, and characters’ surroundings are recreated with acute attention to detail. The prose takes the reader right into the grand palazzo in Florence where Lucrezia was brought up and paints an amazing picture even of the Italian frescoes of the period.

448pp, Rs799; Hachette India
448pp, Rs799; Hachette India

The author grabs our attention from the very first page with a historical note stating that Lucrezia de’ Medici died less than a year after her wedding. The official reason was putrid fever but it was widely rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.

The novel starts with Lucrezia and Alfonso in a hunting lodge far away from Ferrara. The tension in the room is palpable as Lucrezia is aware of her husband’s intention. Then, unexpectedly, the following chapter goes back in time. As the book progresses, the narrative constantly switches between the present and the past with the digressions presenting Lucrezia’s Florentine childhood, her marriage contract with Alfonso, and the eventual end, of which the reader is already aware.

As a child, Lucrezia is always caught up in her imagination. Her elder sister Maria, was the one set to marry Alfonso but her unexpected death sees Lucrezia being offered as the substitute bride in order to maintain the relationship between two provinces. O’ Farrell is a virtuoso when it comes to constructing characters. Not only do we deeply understand Lucrezia herself but Alfonso’s character too. The man behind the handsome face and noble manner is revealed through the course of the novel.

While The Marriage Portrait focuses on the position of aristocratic women — Lucrezia’s family sees her as the means to their future survival — it also asks the reader to think about how, even in contemporary times, women are policed and their worth is often tied to their fertility.

As a child in Florence’s grandest palazzo, Lucrezia was fiercely guarded by her father’s soldiers and her mother’s ladies-in-waiting. As a 15-year-old unable to provide the Duke with an heir, her life is in danger.

“But she knows that had it not been Alfonso it would have been someone else — a prince, another duke, a nobleman from Germany or France, a second cousin from Spain. Her father would have found her an advantageous match because that is, after all, what she has been brought up for: to be married, to be used as a link in his chains of power, to produce heirs for men like Alfonso.” She is shackled by the weight of judgments at court and by social and religious rules that pronounce it her duty to procreate and carry the line forward.

Author Maggie O’Farrell (Courtesy Hachette India)
Author Maggie O’Farrell (Courtesy Hachette India)

In Browning’s dramatic monologue narrated in the voice of the Duke of Ferrara, it is gradually revealed to a visitor (and the reader) that the Duke had ordered the death of his young wife.

Maggie O’ Farrell presents the viewpoint of the woman, who is merely a painting on the wall in the Victorian poet’s work, and an absent figure in Browning’s poem. In doing this, she exposes not just the monstrous masculinity of Renaissance Italy, she also replaces the male gaze of both, the speaker of My Last Duchess and the Victorian poet who authored it, with the voice of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici herself. O’ Farrell breathes life into Lucrezia in much the same way Jean Rhys brought Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic to life in The Wide Sargasso Sea. In doing so, she has created a rich novel, itself a contemporary manifestation of a serial ekphrastic impulse over hundreds of years, that presents the original poem and the art on which it is based, in a new light. It also makes the reader wonder how far the contemporary woman has come from similar concerns of sexuality and fertility that caused the death of Lucrezia.

Hritik Verma is an independent reviewer. He blogs at allayingart.wordpress.com. He is @Hritik38233434 on Twitter and @allayingart on Instagram

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