The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

This is not a novel for the faint hearted, but I feel enriched having read it and have a much greater sense of Italian aristocratic life during the Renaissance in terms of its splendour and opulence as well as its corruption, brutality and power. As in Hamnet when Maggie O’Farrell enabled us to experience Elizabethan Stratford and London in Shakespeare’s time, offering us an extraordinary insight into his family’s situation, she now takes the real life figure of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, and his treatment of his 15-year-old bride, the subject of the marriage portrait, who met an untimely death.

Extraordinarily, O’Farrell brings alive this character whom few of us would have considered. It probably helps to have some prior knowledge of Robert Browning’s short and well known dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’, as the author cleverly alludes to every line during the course of her novel, and the reader can quickly access a copy of the poem online or in print, but it is not a prerequisite to its enjoyment. We are given a vivid account of the life of this young woman as the daughter of a member of the Florentine nobility, brought up in the protective environment of a grand palazzo but seen as marriage fodder, and her experiences as a young bride during her first year of marriage. Richly textured, sensual, vivid, often shocking, we almost inhabit Lucrezia’s body and soul as she seeks fulfilment in her own artistic life while trying to find allies in the world into which she has been plunged. As she struggles to survive, overwhelmed by a terrible sense of impending doom in the presence of her husband, we see that domestic abuse is nothing new.

This is a narrative full of intrigue and strong characterisation, and I found O’Farrell’s use of imagery to be outstanding. We are also shown extraordinary courage, loyalty, and love, both spoken and unspoken, often in unexpected places. The conclusion of this exciting, colourful and all-absorbing novel is both clever and surprising. It’s a book that I couldn’t put down and won’t forget.

[Reviewed by a library member. We have a seven books by Maggie O’Farrell in the library including The Marriage Portrait]