The Marriage Portrait 
by Maggie O’Farrell.
Tinder, 438 pp., £25, August, 978 1 4722 2384 5
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‘Portrait of Lucrezia Duchess of Ferrara’, Bronzino (c.1560).

Bronzino’s portrait of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara (c.1560), shows a teenage girl you can read in two ways. In one light, the jewels encircling her head and neck look weighty, unpleasant; her hair is coiffed in tight, tiny curls that seem to pull at her skin; the high ruff she wears must scratch and rub; she looks unsure, out of place, a small pale face swallowed up by a dark background, the shadow of a vein pulsing at her temple. Then, in another light, she looks as she is supposed to: a noblewoman with a high forehead, in the setting she was born for, wearing the kind of clothing and jewellery to which she was accustomed, and if not proud then at least stoical, content, not given to contemplating other possible ways of being.

In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell imagines the first Lucrezia. Her protagonist, conceived while her mother’s mind is wandering rather than focusing on her marital duty, is a difficult child. She ‘roars and writhes’ and throws off her swaddling-clothes; she refuses to play with dolls; there is no portrait of her as a child, though each of her siblings has one, because she can’t sit still. Arrayed, at fifteen, in the vast blue and gold wedding gown in which she is to marry Duke Alfonso, nothing feels right: its cuffs ‘chafe the skin of her wrists’, the stiff ‘collar hooking and nibbling at her nape’; her diadem is too tight, ‘pressing on her skull’. Like Agnes Hathaway, the heroine of O’Farrell’s previous novel Hamnet (2020), with her pet kestrel, her bees, her ‘wet and filthy’ skirts, Lucrezia has more of an affinity with animals than with people. When her father, Cosimo de’ Medici, duke of Florence, sends for a tigress from Bengal to add to his palace menagerie, she reaches out to touch the animal through the bars of its cage. Isabella, her spoilt elder sister, who likes jewels and court fashions and doesn’t listen in class, dismisses it as a boring, sleepy pet. ‘Wake up! Come on, pussycat, come on!’

Fashioning Lucrezia into marriage material means trying to contain her. The palazzo in Florence where the Medici children grow up is a crenellated ‘stone keep’, enclosing the duke’s heirs like ‘a cabinet for glass figurines’. Lucrezia learns to sneak around at night, finding secret passageways, eavesdropping at doors. When she and Alfonso relocate to his family’s fortified castello in Ferrara, a towering edifice protected by a drawbridge and spiked portcullis, she retains the habit, picking up information that would otherwise be kept from her. (At her arrival banquet, a palace functionary reels off the names of all the ‘exits and entrances in Ferrara’s city walls’, none of which she is permitted to use herself.) The isolated fortezza near Bondeno, west of Ferrara, to which Alfonso smuggles her when it becomes clear she will never bear him an heir, is a cold, dark, star-shaped structure, situated at a bend of the Po river where even the water looks predatory (‘It pulls along with it, snared in its current, leaves, twigs, the swollen bellies of small and drowned mammals’). In each location, the spaces occupied by powerful men are sacred, sealed off, while Lucrezia’s are there to be breached. A private staircase to her bedroom allows her husband ‘access and ingress’ to make his dreaded nightly visitations. ‘Alfonso’s apartment is directly below yours,’ her new sister-in-law, Elisabetta, tells her brightly. ‘I’m sure he will be up to see you soon.’

The fate of the real Lucrezia, the outcome of her marriage to the impatient ruler of Ferrara, eleven years her senior, are facts of literary history, if not history proper. ‘I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together,’ Browning’s Alfonso explains in ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842), a poem whose narrative turns on the persistent rumours, after Lucrezia’s death at the age of sixteen – allegedly of ‘putrid fever’ – that she had been poisoned by her husband. O’Farrell knows that we know this story, and that in all likelihood this is the only thing we know (or think we know) about Lucrezia’s short life; so, in recognition, her novel opens with the moment that Lucrezia first knows it too. As she sits for dinner in the fortezza, shortly after their arrival, the realisation of what her husband is up to strikes all at once: ‘It comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.’ Why else bring her to this remote place, out in the woods, in such secrecy and without her maids? It’s an opening move that mirrors the beginning of ‘Neck’, the first episode in O’Farrell’s memoir about her near-death experiences, I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), with its sudden, premonitory chill: ‘I realise several things … That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.’

For much of The Marriage Portrait, Browning’s poem lurks in the background, its influence just detectable in the ‘milk-white’ mule Alfonso gives his wife at his villa in the countryside. It comes to the surface towards the end, when Sebastiano Filippi, the Ferrarese painter known as Il Bastianino, begins work with his apprentices on Lucrezia’s portrait – the same image we’re to imagine ‘painted on the wall’ in Browning’s poem, and which the duke will conceal with a curtain and occasionally show off to visiting dignitaries. In O’Farrell’s rendering, Il Bastianino is a jowly, lascivious version of Browning’s fictional painter Fra Pandolf, his fingers ‘insert[ing] themselves into Lucrezia’s cuff’ as he adjusts her lace sleeve, touching and squeezing when Alfonso isn’t looking. When he flatters, which he does constantly, he reuses Fra Pandolf’s lines, admiring the delicate ‘flush along her throat’ and how exquisitely unpaintable it is. Alfonso plays by the same allusive rules, setting up Browning’s title: ‘There she is,’ he murmurs. ‘My first duchess.’

Allusion, here, though, isn’t just about imitation. ‘My Last Duchess’ records the quirks of Lucrezia’s character, but it’s nonetheless a portrait of Alfonso: the way he speaks and thinks, his vanity and cruelty, his need for control. The Marriage Portrait, by contrast, is Lucrezia’s novel: it makes reference to Browning’s narrative to signal difference, not similarity, to indicate the emergence of a new story in the costume of an old one. In Hamnet, words and images from Shakespeare’s as yet unwritten play float through Agnes’s mind, not her husband’s, in moments of crisis (death, she thinks, as she gives birth to the twins, is like a dark expanse of moor, ‘from which people never return’). In The Marriage Portrait, likewise, allusion redirects our attention, coming to rest on Lucrezia, the overlooked consort. She herself has a way of thinking about this process of replacement, the subversion of one narrative by another. A keen and talented artist, she learns early in the novel that oil paintings often contain underpaintings, whole scenes painted and then painted over by artists dissatisfied with their work or wishing to conceal it. In O’Farrell’s version of the story, Browning’s is still present, but her treatment half-obscures it, bringing what was underneath to the surface.

Underpainting, as the novel progresses, comes to be a figure for what makes Lucrezia different. In her work, it enables her to express parts of herself she’s not supposed to, then cover them up. At Alfonso’s country retreat, she obscures, dutifully, an image of a silvery merman she has painted, ‘crawling up out of the shores of a river’ (a version of her husband, shapeshifting, predatory), with a chaste still life. The underside of things, lurking beneath the surface like a palimpsest, fascinates her. In Hamnet, O’Farrell has Agnes dwell on the labour and violence behind the making of a pair of John Shakespeare’s animal-skin gloves (‘She thinks of the tools in the workshop, for cutting and shaping, pinning and piercing’). Lucrezia’s embroidery, which she stabs at performatively in Alfonso’s presence, has, she knows, a ‘wrong side’ as well as a right one, a concealed mass of ‘knots, striations of silk and twists of thread’, bearing witness to work and secrets. Dispatched, as a baby, to be looked after by a wet nurse in the palace kitchens – she is too given to ‘squalling’ to remain with her siblings – Lucrezia grows up knowing all about ‘the noise of cooking pots and the heat of the big fires’, the underbelly that sustains grand banquets and balls. When she sneaks out of her bedroom at night to wander the corridors of Alfonso’s castello, wearing her maid’s dress and cap as a disguise, the ‘private, hidden life’ she witnesses is the Ferrarese court with all its ‘knots and weave and secrets on display’: a world of scurrying maids, laughing guards, courtiers ‘jealously discussing a posting’, a lady scuttling out of an equerry’s chamber.

Lucrezia thinks in metaphors of embroidery and painting because they’re what she knows best. Outside the cathedral on the morning of her wedding, she notices the way ‘the campanile has stitched itself to the summer sky’; the faces of ordinary Florentines on the streets, as she passes them in her fine carriage, seem to her like ‘daubs of paint’ rapidly ‘dissolving in water’. Her painterly way of understanding the world shapes not only how she conceptualises it, but also how it looks to the reader – what’s foregrounded and what isn’t, where the light falls. Slices of cheese at a Ferrarese banquet are ‘so fine you can see the light through them’. Candlelight, in the novel, is like something out of Caravaggio, laboriously ‘push[ing] at the blackness’ in dark rooms, allowing the shapes of objects and people to become visible. The way it flickers and gutters creates partial, fragmentary scenes, faces seen indistinctly, a technique that gets at Lucrezia’s half-awareness of motives and intentions. ‘In this shuddering light, she cannot tell, cannot say whether his visage is pleasing or threatening,’ O’Farrell writes of the first evening with Alfonso at the fortezza. ‘She can see only parts of him: now his brow, now his cheek, the whorl of his ear.’ The edges of Lucrezia’s world, possible escape routes from Alfonso, seem to diminish and disappear as if drawn in perspective: a path leading away from her husband’s villa ‘draws the eye along the valley floor’, ‘narrowing’ into space; the kitchen door that Jacopo, Il Bastianino’s apprentice, leaves unbolted for her is as significant as ‘the vanishing point in a sketch’.

Alfonso sees plenty, but his field of vision is narrower than Lucrezia’s. When they arrive in Ferrara for the first time as husband and wife, he ‘keeps his eyes ahead’, while she can’t help looking round her, taking in the faces they pass: a young boy, a brown dog ‘crazedly barking’, a ‘sightless’ elderly woman, a girl balancing a sack on her head. Alfonso’s idea of what’s worth looking at is roughly what you’d expect from a man of his station: Michelangelo; unicorns and trident-bearing Neptunes; Il Bastianino’s trademark ‘fleshy’ warriors and ‘babies riding dolphins’. The things he and other powerful men don’t see – the people and actions they consider beneath their notice – become instrumental to the plot as the novel progresses. In Florence, Lucrezia’s childhood nurse, Sofia, determined to prevent a man in his twenties from marrying her twelve-year-old charge, manages to delay the process for a year by claiming that Lucrezia hasn’t started menstruating. At Alfonso’s country villa, it’s Emilia, her loyal maid, who brings her the dangerous news (acquired from a housemaid who heard it from a groom who heard it from a court servant) that Alfonso’s rebellious mother may be preparing to depart Ferrara for France in secret, taking his sisters with her. Later, in the castello, it’s Emilia again who informs her, reluctantly, of the extent of Alfonso’s power and his willingness to use it, in the shape of his violent reprisals against one of his guards, Ercole Contrari, Elisabetta’s secret lover.

The small possibilities the novel holds out to its readers pit fiction against the weight of history. Maybe Lucrezia’s parents will change their minds and carry her back to Florence? Maybe Elisabetta will be allowed her romance? Maybe, with the help of Jacopo, the sensitive painter’s apprentice, Lucrezia will escape Alfonso’s clutches and run away into the forest? In places, the narrative seems to struggle with this, opening up possible avenues only to close them again. When, at the villa, a dramatic thunderstorm forces Jacopo and his fellow apprentice to stay overnight rather than ride back to the city, romance seems about to rear its head. But plot, here, is a matter of what you can’t do, not what you can, and all that the storm brings to Lucrezia’s room is Alfonso, raging and then mollified, preoccupied with getting her dress off. ‘This is what is required,’ O’Farrell writes. ‘This is the only exit from this scene.’

Lucrezia’s choicelessness is the novel’s crux. Under the influence of the poison she suspects Alfonso of administering, ‘she is a creature entirely at the mercy of a stronger power, a flea on the back of a rabid beast, a plucked quince in a pot of bubbling water.’ Throughout, her entrapment generates a flowering of images and metaphors. It’s there in her father’s caged tigress; in the little starling Lucrezia finds dead on the mezzanine (she imagines it getting trapped behind the glass and having to watch its companions ‘wheeling and massing’ above the palazzo outside); in the ‘slack, loose bodies’ of the three hares that Alfonso’s right-hand man, Leonello Baldassare, slings over his saddle, their ‘eyes resolutely shut’. Choicelessness runs through the stories O’Farrell weaves through Lucrezia’s own – the dramatic poem, performed at her first Ferrara banquet, about ‘a king who accidentally poisons his wife’; the story of Iphigenia she learns in the palace schoolroom. ‘Iphigenia walked blithely to what she thought was a marriage altar but turned out to be a sacrificial altar … Beware, Lucrezia mouthed to her, beware.’ Analogues like these are apt to seem so pointed as to lose their sharpness, but their sheer heavy-handedness, the way they insist on necessity, on the following of one particular path and no other, is part of the novel’s atmosphere. The Marriage Portrait is obsessed with its own repeating designs, pointing out auguries and patterns everywhere; it has its own logic, and requires a sacrifice.

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