Fortunately, this author is Maggie O’Farrell, one of the most exciting novelists alive. Two years ago, she published “Hamnet,” about William Shakespeare’s only son. The novel, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, created a devastating charge of tension and sorrow, despite the fact that almost nothing is known about little Hamnet except his death in 1596.
“The Marriage Portrait” exhumes a similarly fated youngster: Lucrezia, the daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Like Hamnet, Lucrezia has fallen into the footnotes of history. But she survives — “looking as if she were alive” — in Robert Browning’s grimly ironic poem, “My Last Duchess.”
The facts of this case are thin and sad. Lucrezia was born into the legendary Italian family in 1545. One of her sisters was supposed to marry Alfonso II d’Este, the future Duke of Ferrara, but she died before the ceremony. Like some Renaissance edition of “The Bachelor,” Lucrezia took her place. At the age of 16, before celebrating her first wedding anniversary, she was buried in her husband’s mausoleum.
The records suggest that Lucrezia probably died of tuberculosis, but rumors have persisted for more than 400 years that her ambitious husband poisoned her. O’Farrell creeps into this gloomy realm of intrigue with an inkwell full of blood and a stiletto for her pen.
The events of “The Marriage Portrait” come to us out of order, a structure that reflects Lucrezia’s dislocation and heightens our dread. In the opening paragraph, we find the young Duchess sitting with her husband at a long dining table in a dark, high-walled lodge deep in the forest. Lucrezia can’t help but notice that the building feels strangely empty of people — or witnesses. “It comes to her with a peculiar clarity,” O’Farrell writes, “that he intends to kill her.” The setting and the girl’s sudden premonition feel like something from Edgar Allan Poe. “The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.”
In that moment of clarifying terror, she becomes a curious observer of her own plight. “She turns her eyes on to her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and wonders what will happen next.” Such is the power of O’Farrell’s storytelling that we do too.
Over the next 300 pages, the novel sweeps back and forth, first filling out the remarkable circumstances of Lucrezia’s adolescence in Tuscany. O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station. Her father’s palace seems to shift in the light. “Sometimes,” O’Farrell writes, “it felt to her like the safest place in the world, a stone keep with a high garrison perimeter to enclose the Grand Duke’s children like a cabinet for glass figurines; at others it felt as oppressive as a prison.”
Transferred against her will to Alfonso’s household, she feels the same oppressive sense of containment — but with the added concern that her dead sister is haunting her and her new husband is planning her demise. But why?
O’Farrell’s manipulation of time and point of view keeps us vacillating between sympathy and skepticism. After all, Alfonso may be firm, even brutal with his subjects, but this is 16th-century Italy; his political and literal survival depends upon consistently projecting power. “To rule as he does, so well, so decisively,” a member of the court observes, “you need to be entirely heartless.” But in all his dealings with his teenage wife, is Alfonso not appropriately courtly and solicitous? Is there not something paranoid and delusional about Lucrezia’s obsession with “his pretense, his dissembling, his lying looks”?
“No, it is impossible,” she realizes in a happier moment. “She must be mistaken, he must love her after all, he must treasure and respect her, because no one would kiss someone like this, with passion and heat and mouth and the slash of a tongue-tip, would they?”
Turn a page of this novel, and the shadows cast upon the stone walls look ominous. Suddenly, it seems possible that with all his concern and reassurances, Alfonso is gaslighting his young wife — or, I suppose, candlelighting her. Bored out of her mind, her life feels equally dire and absurd. “What is a woman supposed to do when she suspects her husband of trying to murder her?” Lucrezia wonders, as though she were confronting the challenge of making dinner plans for a picky eater.
While she scurries around her husband’s castle, we can hear echoes of “Yellow Wall-Paper,” that late 19th-century classic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman about a young mother being driven mad by her husband’s overbearing concern. But in this case, it’s the pressure to become a mother that’s warping the household, ratcheting up pressure on Lucrezia to conceive an heir for an imperiled dukedom. How long can an enterprising young ruler wait for her to provide what’s needed? (The sex scenes, with “the heat, the labour, the noise of it,” convey all the romance of a barn raising.)
Lucrezia’s only respite comes from painting, a diversion she began in her parents’ house and continues, for a time, in Alfonso’s. She’s particularly interested in the painters her husband hires to create her portrait — until, that is, she begins to suspect that the portrait, with its shocking acuity, may be intended to replace her. It doesn’t help when Alfonso admires the finished painting and sighs, “There she is . . . my first duchess.” A slip of the tongue, surely, nothing more.
You may know the history, and you may think you know what’s coming, but don’t be so sure. O’Farrell and Lucrezia, with her “crystalline, righteous anger,” will always be one step ahead of you.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
On Oct. 15 at 3 p.m., Maggie O’Farrell will discuss “The Marriage Portrait” with Ron Charles at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington.
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