Captivating story with a passionate protagonist – The Irish Times

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The portrait of marriage

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

ISBN-13: 978-1472223845

Editor: Tinder press

Guide price: £20

In Emma, ​​Jane Austen wrote that “a woman should not marry a man merely because he is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter”. We don’t consider the early 1800s a free time for women, but it’s positively libertine compared to the 1560s, where Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel is set. Her heroine, 16-year-old Lucrezia de’ Medici, would surely have been baffled by the concept of being “in demand”. Marriage decisions were the business of men, and daughters were commodities to be traded on the international market like ingots turned into flesh and blood.

Reading The Marriage Portrait, I was reminded of those contemporary crime thrillers about women in danger that skyrocket on the bestseller charts, usually with high conceptual conceits, only transplanted in the Renaissance era, with less alcohol and better handwriting. O’Farrell reverses a familiar structure, however, in her introductory note, where she tells us that, despite her youth, Lucrezia had died less than a year after her marriage to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. “The official cause of her death was given as ‘putrid fever’, but it was rumored that she had been murdered by her husband.”

It’s unusual for a novelist to tell us how the story ends before it even begins, but it’s a smart choice because when we first meet the pair, it seems Lucrezia may have found gold, as Alfonso seems both kind and caring towards his child bride. Yes, he expects a brood of children to advance his line and maintain his hold on the duchy, but there’s nothing strange about that. Even the fact that he marries her after the death of his previous fiancée, Lucrezia’s older sister, is not out of step with royal leanings. For centuries this was an accepted form of aristocratic marriage; as recently as 1893, George V married the destiny of his late brother, Mary of Teck, less than 18 months after the prince’s death.

Dragged away from Florence, Lucrezia is alone and homesick, but hopes that she and her husband will become a devoted couple. One of the most striking elements of this novel is the depiction of her own parents’ union, which is amorous, sensual, and anachronistically monogamous. It gave Lucrezia the gift of a happy childhood but the curse of an unrealistic notion of marriage, which becomes increasingly evident to her as Alfonso, having secured his prize, quickly loses interest in benevolence and is inconsiderate. towards her in the bedroom. When she dares to offer her thoughts on the political situation in Italy and the unrest within her family, sparked by religious differences, it is clear that he could not be more amazed if his horse had turned and started to talk to him. All aspirations for a loving and supportive partnership quickly slip from Lucrezia’s mind and she is confronted with the reality of her situation; she is a brood mare, nothing more, and her persistent inability to become pregnant puts her life at risk.

It is Lucrezia’s creativity, however, that dominates much of O’Farrell’s narrative. She is a skilled artist, painting small miniatures of animals and birds, and becoming more and more proficient over time. Even Alfonso is impressed by her talent, although of course this little take on independence is something that cannot be sanctioned, and she is soon deprived of her tools.

The title comes from a portrait the Duke commissioned his wife, for which she is forced to sit for hours while he dictates her pose and clothes, and the contrast between the inauthentic nature of the painter’s work and Lucrezia’s own skill is drawn well. As she gazes towards a huge easel, she is portrayed as a model wife who will no doubt fulfill her maternal duties, increasing the couple’s status as a symbol of unity and power. And yet, it is only in the tiny scraps of canvas on which Lucrezia fashions her renderings that honesty can be found.

After the success of Hamnet, O’Farrell seems to be embracing historical form, as it’s another gripping tale with a passionate and resourceful character at its heart. Just as one knew that Hamnet could not survive his own story, one is led to believe that Lucretius cannot survive hers, and yet in both cases the reader is intrigued and eager to know how the characters will come to an end. It’s a measure of O’Farrell’s skill that we continue to hope against hope that the resolution will be different from the one we expected all along.

John Boyne’s new novel, All the Broken Places, will be published by Doubleday this month

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