Note: This review discusses specific elements of the novel’s plot, which new readers may not wish to know.
Since the publication of her award-winning 2020 novel Hamnet, Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell’s next book has been eagerly awaited. The Marriage Portrait came out in August, was an instant New York Times bestseller, and was recently shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize in fiction. However, I came away from The Marriage Portrait deeply dissatisfied. It is a beautifully written book, but many of the choices end up dramatically undercutting its own story and themes.
The Marriage Portrait is about Lucrezia de Medici, a young girl born into the ruling dynasty of Florence during the Renaissance and married off to the Duke of Ferrara when she was barely a teenager. The fictional Lucrezia is based on a real person who tragically died at the age of 16. And, as O’Farrell tells us in a note on the first page, “it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.”
O’Farrell is an extraordinarily talented writer. Her descriptions of location and clothing are beautiful; the novel has a very strong sense of place. From palatial halls to Lucrezia’s room in a villa, the reader becomes immersed in where the book takes place. O’Farrell goes beyond describing a location: she knows how to capture a scene’s energy, helps us feel Lucrezia’s reaction, and uses her writing to develop themes. When describing the arrival of a captured tiger in Florence, O’Farrell writes that the tigress “didn’t so much pace as pour herself, as if her very essence was molten, simmering, like the ooze from a volcano…the animal was orange, burnished gold, fire made flesh; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite; she carried on her body the barred marks of a prison, as if she had been branded for exactly this, as if captivity had been her destiny all along.” The last line especially feels more and more prescient as Lucrezia begins to feel trapped at her husband’s court. I tore through the book very quickly and enjoyed O’Farrell’s writing style so much that I now want to read Hamnet; that alone is a testament to her talent.
The novel jumps back and forth between two narratives: one following Lucrezia as she grows up and marries and the other taking place on the weekend that she realizes that her husband is planning to kill her. We are told twice that we should be suspicious of her husband’s role in her early death in the first two pages. Ultimately we know how the story is going to end: there are no questions here, just a slow reveal of the Duke’s cruelty that is dramatically undercut by the fact that we know what is coming. It’s almost a mystery, but the victim, the circumstances and the killer are all essentially revealed by page two. The only mystery left is the motive and O’Farrell is rightly not that interested in what leads a man to kill his wife. The narrative is so undercut by the early reveal that there’s very little to work with.
Except, at the end, we learn that Lucrezia actually survived the events of the novel. All the clear foreshadowing was misdirection. Her husband does indeed try to kill her, but she is saved by a travelling musician and sneaks away. O’Farrell is left here with a problem. History records that Lucrezia died, but O’Farrell wants to save her. How does she reconcile those two things? In O’Farrell’s version, Lucrezia’s loyal maid, Emilia, who followed her from Florence to Ferrara, is sleeping in her bed and is smothered by the Duke and his aide in Lucrezia’s place by mistake. The room is dark and the body was badly bruised, so no one realizes Lucrezia survived.
This ending left a very bad taste in my mouth. Fundamentally, The Marriage Portrait belongs to an increasingly important category in historical fiction of trying to reclaim women’s narratives in history, often with a focus on victims of male violence. Examples of this include Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2006), retelling the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective, and even the musical Six, sung by Henry VIII’s wives. O’Farrell has saved Lucrezia, who now gets a happy ending and can live her life how she wants. But that ‘happy’ ending only happens because a maid was killed for no reason. History was owed a life that night, and O’Farrell sacrifices the maid to save her mistress, juxtaposing a graphic description of Emilia’s murder with Lucrezia sneaking away. However, what is even worse is that O’Farrell never actually uses Emilia’s name in her murder scene, nor does she mention her again in the novel. She is reduced to a “form in the bed” before vanishing from the novel without acknowledgment. After we realize that Lucrezia survived, the reader is able to go back and slowly puts together the pieces to figure out how. The maid is loyal to Lucrezia to the end of her life, but is denied her own name in death. By celebrating the survival of one victim of violence, the reader is almost made complicit in the death and erasure of another.