The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell: A review

I fondly remember Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" from my long-ago high school literature class. According to Maggie O'Farrell, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, was the inspiration for Browning's poem. Alfonso's duchess, Lucrezia di Cosima de Medici, is the inspiration for O'Farrell's novel.

Lucrezia was a fifteen-year-old girl when her family gave her in marriage to Alfonso. Less than a year later she would be dead. According to her husband, she died of a fever, but it seems more likely that she died at the hand of a murderous husband.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Lucrezia's older sister had been the intended bride for Alfonso, but when she suffered an untimely death, Lucrezia, as the next sister in line, was substituted for her. Had it not been for that unfortunate circumstance, Lucrezia might have had a long and happy life. 

Of course, the official cause of death for Lucrezia is listed as tuberculosis, but her death seemed highly convenient for her ambitious husband and rumors have persisted for four hundred years that he, in fact, poisoned her. That is the basis of the story that O'Farrell tells us.

Early in her marriage, Lucrezia intuits that her husband means to kill her. This is the reality she is forced to live with and she is an observer as the plot plays out. She is trapped and unable to protect herself. We see it all through her eyes.

We get to know Lucrezia in her adolescence in Tuscany. She is a precocious girl living in her father's palace. She is not unaware of the contradictions of her position which, though giving her a life of ease, also in effect imprisons her. 

She has no real control over how her life is spent and must go where her all-powerful father sends her. And where he sends her is to be a wife to Alfonso because that will assure him (her father) even more power. The well-being of Lucrezia is of little concern. Where her father sends her is to her death.

Her one consolation in her new life is painting. She herself paints; it is something she learned in her parents' home and continues for a time in her husband's home. Her husband hires painters to paint her portrait and she is fascinated by their work. She begins to suspect that this portrait is actually meant to replace her, a suspicion that is made stronger when she hears her husband refer to her as his "first duchess"!

O'Farrell gives us a memorable portrait of a woman - a child really - trapped, and yet determined to live her life as best she can to its fullest. Lucrezia is a character that will likely stay with the reader. She will not be easily forgotten or relegated to the yellowed pages of history. Alfonso underestimated her. We would do well to recognize her for the strong woman she was. 


 
 

Comments

  1. Replies
    1. Indeed, and O'Farrell tells it with so much empathy. It's as if we are in Lucrezia's skin, experiencing what she experienced.

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  2. OMG, this sounds like such a sad story but, yet, it also sounds like one I must read. Yours is the first review I've read.

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    1. It is a sad story, a reminder of how little control women of that era had over their lives. They were pawns in a game of power played by men. O'Farrell gives us a brilliant picture of that culture.

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  3. Oh, the dastardly deed. The story makes for a good novel.

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    1. In the hands of Maggie O'Farrell, it certainly does!

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  4. Rough life for Lucrezia at 15. So she was poisoned for her money? Another interesting history from O'Farrell

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  5. I have this one here, and I'm eager to read it. Maggie O'Farrell is coming to Houston next Monday night. I can't wait to hear her read and speak.

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    1. She is a very talented writer. I have greatly enjoyed everything of hers that I've read. It's hard to pick a favorite - maybe this one or maybe "Hamnet."

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