The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

There’s usually lots that peeves me about historical fiction (actually, I covered the majority of it here). But when historical fiction is done well, it can be absolutely captivating, and I frequently find myself more engrossed in these stories than if I were reading something contemporary, perhaps because I become absorbed in the imagined time and place. And that certainly applies to Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, The Marriage Portrait.

The story is set in 16th century Florence, and focuses on Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke. She is regarded by her family as untameable, and is largely left to her own devices (drawing, listening at doors, and sneaking into her father’s menagerie to observe the animals). However, when her older sister, Maria, dies on the eve of her wedding to Alfonso, the ruler of Ferrara, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight – the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.

Only thirteen, Lucrezia enters an unfamiliar court where she is not universally welcomed. As she sits for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, it becomes clear that she has one duty – to provide the heir who will secure the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance.

The story opens dramatically, with Lucrezia one year into her marriage and convinced that Alfonso is intent on killing her because she has failed to fall pregnant. The narrative then rewinds to show how Lucrezia reached that point.

The Marriage Portrait has been fairly heavily criticised by the big-time reviewers for being overwritten and dominated by one-dimensional characters. I say pooh to that. I’m the first to turn away from flowery writing, but in this case, every sentence felt appropriately lush – particularly the descriptions of fabrics and dresses which become symbolic of the power balance in the story. The wedding dress, initially intended for Maria, is described as a ‘fortress of silk‘ and you feel it as you’re reading –

…the gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, but she cannot.

Of course, the narrative is driven by sex, and the wedding night for naive Lucrezia is as awful as you would expect –

He says again that he will not hurt her, she must not be scared, he will not hurt her, he will not, he promises, the words whispered in his new rasping voice. And then he hurts her anyway. The pain is startling, and curious in its specificity.

Props to O’Farrell who managed to describe the wedding night without relying on bad imagery and instead used words that I think would have fitted Lucrezia’s experience – ‘burning, invading, unwelcome’ and that ‘…the heat, the labour, the noise of it, is appalling‘.

And then there are the references to art, used carefully by O’Farrell to both woo and punish Lucrezia. As she labours over a piece of embroidery, Lucrezia’s thoughts on her work make a neat parallel with her role as duchess –

She has always had a secret liking for this part of the embroidery, the ‘wrong’ side, congested with knots, striations of silk and twists of thread. How much more interesting it is, with its frank display of the labour needed to attain the perfection of the finished piece.

You’ll know within the first few pages whether this is a book for you or not. I allowed myself to plunge right into O’Farrell’s Florence and I was quite happy there for 355 pages.

4/5 Loved it.

Lucrezia tastes a peach for the first time and exclaims, “It’s like eating sunshine.”

There are numerous mentions of ‘milk puddings and ices’ in this story, so I’ve paired it with a simple peach sorbet.

11 responses

  1. I’ve not read this and am unlikely to (unless I borrow it from the library) because past experiences tell me that o’farrell is not the author for me. Her stuff is to overblown and flowery / overwritten for me. But you have almost tempted me with the quotes you’ve selected 🤷🏻‍♀️

    • I’ve only read one other of hers (Instructions for a Heatwave) and honestly, it didn’t do much for me. I read this one because so many people have pressed it on me. I’ll likely read Hamnet now, although will wait a few months until the afterglow of Portrait dies down 🙂

  2. I did enjoy this though not as much as Hamnet, because there were a few times when I felt it did go overboard on the lushisness. The section about the wedding was superb though, you really felt how much she was just being used as n object. And I loved the scene where she encountered the tigress. Brilliance.

  3. I’m finding the comments here as interesting as the review. I read something of O’Farrell’s a while ago and found it underwhelming, but I bought Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait for much the same reasons as you.
    And time and again, I’ve left them there on the shelf because … well,. I have my doubts.

  4. I actually preferred Hamnet to this, which was AMAZING! O’Farrell seems to be getting more into earlier historical settings than she was before. I’m kind of digging it, to be honest. Hard to wait to see what she’ll come up with next.

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