April 2024 Open Book Group – The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici (1545 – 1561) was a member of the House of Medici. She was the daughter of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Eleanora di Toledo. In 1558, when she was 13, she married Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio. He was 25.

She died two years later in 1561, aged 16. It was widely suspected that she was poisoned on the orders of her husband. It is now thought more likely that the Duchess died of tuberculosis. The suspicion of poisoning inspired the English poet Robert Browning to create a dramatic monologue in verse My Last Duchess (1842).

The Marriage Portrait is Maggie O’Farrell’s follow-up novel to her award-winning Hamnet. She describes the world of Renaissance Italy and gives a fictional portrait of Lucrezia de Medici’s short and troubled life.

The novel opens with Lucrezia sitting with her husband at a hunting lodge, several miles from his main castle. She is convinced he is going to kill her that night. Having set the scene short chapters recount the events of the following hours. These alternate, with longer ones describing the backstory from Lucrezia’s childhood to the early days of her marriage. The days when she thought Alfonso loved her.

We learn that she has not fulfilled her duty after marrying Alfonso. She has not provided the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferrarese dynasty. Unless she can produce an heir the d’Este line will end with Alfonso.

O’Farrell captures the sophistication and wealth of Italy. The novel explores power relations between men and women sanctified by the aristocratic hierarchy. Girls born into powerful Renaissance families were trapped. They were pawns for marriages to solidify political power and to produce heirs. Domestic violence was sanctified. In real life, the husbands of her sister and cousin killed them. Her brother killed his wife.

O’Farrell defies history and gives the reader a happy ending, at least for Lucrezia.

A dozen people gathered for our monthly meeting. O’Farrell’s writing is consistently of high quality. She invoked the sumptuous atmosphere of

Renaissance Italy. The buildup of tension towards an explosion of domestic violence was well executed. One member did feel the romantic scenes were not as well written. She found them rather “Mills and Boon”. Overall, we were disappointed with O’Farrell’s interpretation of Lucrezia’s story. The Marriage Portrait lacked the emotional punch of Hamnet. Her twist in the end, while inventive was not credible. Emilia, the maid, is killed by Afonso’s henchman. He has mistaken her for Lucrezia. Lucrezia escapes with the artist’s assistant to a new life in Venice. Many of us thought this was far-fetched.

O’Farrell presented Lucrezia with the sensibilities of a modern 20th-century woman, seeking to fight for her voice and independence as a woman. She argued that Lucrezia was a child when she married Alfonso. However, concepts of childhood and adolescence are a modern ideal. It was an inaccurate reflection of women born into 16-century aristocracy. Women in this period would have understood their role as pawns in political marriages. Pressure to produce an heir was part of the bargain.

We discussed the historical fiction genre. We opined that when authors added their imagination to historical figures the best novels were those where we gained insights into the protagonist’s psyche. In The Marriage Portrait O’Farrell’s portrayal of Lucrezia was very remote from the women are her period. O’Farrell’s imagination did not enhance our understanding of 16th-century Lucrezia. We compared this to the last historical fiction book we read – The Magician by Colin Toibin (OBG Feb 2024). We considered The Magician to be a superior book. Toibin used his imagination to explore Thomas Mann’s creative genius. This added to our understanding of Thomas Mann.

O’Farrell successfully drew out the threat of domestic violence that accompanied many planned aristocratic marriages. While not condoning his actions, one member did feel compassion for Alfonso. Historians contend he was infertile and possibly a gay man. The pressure to produce an heir would have weighed heavily on him.

Maggie O’Farrell can always be relied on for an absorbing read. However, we thought The Marriage Portrait was not one of her best novels.

 

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