Novelist Maggie O’Farrell became a true literary star with 2020′s “Hamnet,” about the effect of Shakespeare’s young son’s death on the playwright and his wife. “Hamnet” won The National Book Critic Circle’s award for fiction and the Women’s Prize; it was also a New York Times bestseller. O’Farrell’s new novel, “The Marriage Portrait,” takes as its inspiration the brief life and mysterious death of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici, who at 15 was married to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, but within the year was dead. Officially, she perished from “putrid fever,” but it was ever after rumored that her husband murdered her.
Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess,” narrated by Duke Alfonso about his late wife, Lucrezia, is the best-known fictionalization of this strange story; lines from the poem provide one of the epigraphs to O’Farrell’s novel. But O’Farrell’s point of view will be that of the wife, not the husband. The story begins in close third person with Lucrezia in “A wild and lonely place,” at dinner with her husband, realizing “that he intends to kill her.”
“The Marriage Portrait” unfurls in chapters alternating between present tense in the wild and lonely place and scenes from Lucrezia’s earlier life. As a baby, Lucrezia “roars and writhes and throws off” her blankets; she “will not rest or sleep or be comforted unless [she] … is in constant motion.” “Unbiddable and inconsolable,” she is separated from her siblings, assigned a different wet-nurse, and “placed far away from the rest of the family.”
Like many a classic heroine (Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, and Lily Briscoe came to mind at various points), Lucrezia is a misfit in her family and her society: smarter and more outspoken than other girls, less dutiful and conventional. She rejects dolls, refuses to wear shoes or to play with her siblings, “preferring instead to spend her time on her own, running like a savage” or “looking out at the city and the distant hills beyond.” A talented artist, she is passionate, willful, and dreamy.
When she is 7 years old, her father procures a tiger for the “menagerie in the basement of his palazzo,” and on meeting it, Lucrezia feels an instant kinship with the wild beast. Its fate both prefigures her own (the parallelism is a bit overdetermined) and haunts her as she grows into young adulthood.
After her older sister, Maria, dies of a sudden illness, Lucrezia must take her place as the betrothed of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, even though she is just 12 years old. Her feisty nurse, Sophia, protects her from being married off immediately by keeping the evidence of her menstruation from her father’s henchman. But eventually marry she must, and her parents begin the arrangements despite Lucrezia’s pleas and their own anxieties about her fitness for marriage given her rebellious nature.
At first, her fiancé seems surprisingly congenial. He sends her a sweet, charming letter with a strange gift — a painting of an animal. While it is “shocking that such a man would send a gift so improbable, so unconventional,” our unconventional Lucrezia eats it up. At the ceremony, too, Alfonso is attentive, sensitive, and humorously conspiratorial. Perhaps, Lucrezia thinks, she will find greater happiness with him than she has ever experienced in her own rigidly controlling family.
Despite an unsettling incident during the journey to her new home, Alfonso initially seems thoughtful and compassionate and life as his wife surprisingly liberating. Alfonso doesn’t pressure her sexually and courts her with gallantry and irreverence. He is complimentary and affectionate to her in a way her parents never were.
But once Alfonso begins their sexual relationship, the act is so brutal and he so savagely callous during it that Lucrezia dissociates to survive as he pounds away on top of her. No longer the quirky, animal-loving wife Alfonso treated with tenderness and respect, she is reduced to a body and a role: “she is the link between the House of Tuscany and the House of Ferrara, and will bear children who can lay claim to both provinces, both houses.”
Even as Alfonso’s violent temper, sadistic streak, and obsession with his reputation are revealed, he remains multifaceted. He is no simple villain, but a man oppressed as much as emboldened by his power. And what Browning’s poem describes as “the depth and passion of [Lucrezia’s] … earnest glance” comes through in abundance here. Lucrezia is an inimitable young woman of uncommon discernment and unusual “toughness … [and] resilience.”
This duchess certainly looks and sounds and feels as if she were alive. The book’s use of present tense rushes us along on the leading edge of her experience. O’Farrell has an uncanny ability to put us in Lucrezia’s very unusual shoes. One experiences, viscerally, Lucrezia’s exhaustion and terror when she is abandoned in a strange place a few hours after her marriage, her giddy excitement and expansive feeling of freedom in the early days of her marriage, her revulsion and fear as her husband’s “fury and contempt” emerge, and her certainty that “some vital part of her will not bend, will never yield.”
Alfonso commissions a marriage portrait of his new bride, but Lucrezia is much more invested in her own art than in sitting for another’s. The bonds she forges with her maid and one of the artist’s apprentices sustain her as Alfonso’s cruelty and malevolence become more apparent.
The final twist is so unexpected and so gorgeously executed that it brought this reader to tears. With it, O’Farrell demonstrates fiction’s ability to offer counter narratives to those of received history, to open before us imaginative abundance and a tremulous sense of possibility.
THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT
By Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 352 pages, $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”