Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Maggie O’Farrell is the kind of author who enjoys taking a deeper dive into history than most of her literary peers, a quality which shines through in her latest novel, The Marriage Portrait. It follows Lucrezia de’ Medici as she is thrust into a marriage with Alfonso II d’Este, barely out of girlhood. Largely alone and unprepared, she must learn to navigate the ruthless world of the Italian court with her very future hanging in the balance, depending on whether or not she can produce a heir for the duke.
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Maggie O’Farrell Traces Footsteps of Defiance
Wealth, power and nobility are likely the three most fantasized-about topics in human history, at least starting from the moment when the few began to rule over the many. Those of us who don’t have it often imagine how all of our problems would be solved if things were different, how wonderful life would be if we lived as nobles in times when all was permitted to them. However, we tend to forget the shackles such stations put on people historically, as they did on Lucrezia de’ Medici in The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell.
Just to be clear, while this is certainly a novel, and thus a work of fiction, it’s the sort of story quite heavy on accurate historical details, and the author never treads too far from real-life events. It’s a character study centred on a relatively well-known historical figure, mixed with the author’s own imagination on the topic where applicable.
In any case, the story begins by taking us to the blossoming Florence of the 1550s, where Lucrezia, third daughter of the Grand Duke, is enjoying her life in the fabled palazzo, rife with artistic treasures and works from abroad. Entranced by the world she lives in, Lucrezia plans to devote her life to artistic pursuits.
Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to Alfonso II d’Este, ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. Quickly enough, Alfonso requests her hand in marriage, an offer the de’ Medici family isn’t about to turn down. The pact is sealed, and barely out of girlhood, Lucrezia is shipped off to be a prominent figure in the Italian Court.
As she learns to navigate this ruthless and hostile world she has unwittingly found herself in, Lucrezia also suspects there is more than meets the eye to her husband, and that her life hangs precariously in the balance with her duty as of yet unfulfilled: to deliver him a worthy heir. For all her wealth and nobility, she is a prisoner of the expectations placed upon her, fighting for her survival every step of the way.
The Intricacies of the Court in The Marriage Portrait
Naturally, the novel follows Lucrezia’s journey into adulthood above anything else, but the fact of the matter is, most of her story takes place in the Italian Court, and in my opinion, Maggie O’Farrell simply outdid herself in the way she depicted it all. Rather than simply limited herself showcasing it in the form of minor intrigues between characters, she actually makes it a world within a world.
Though she seldom stops to bore the reader with long descriptive paragraphs of how things worked in those days, she still conveys rather precisely all the minute details about life under such circumstances. She manages to do so largely because Lucrezia is more or less like the reader, discovering this new and alien domain as she cautiously moves through it.
More than any author I’ve read so far, O’Farrell really makes it feel like a cutthroat type of business, being a noble and beholden to so many rules, many of which leave an alarming amount of room for interpretation. We really feel like one wrong step might send Lucrezia to the gallows, and that’s even without thinking on what would happen to her should she fail in delivering Alfonso a son.
We also get to observe how many different characters from varying stations in life interact with each other, the unwritten laws they seem to follow, and how their relationships differ with each other based on their social standings. It’s a realm captured with an astounding amount of detail in The Marriage Portrait, spicing the story up in the process, creating various other intrigues besides the main one.
Indeed, rather than just being a historical excursion, it’s a carefully-crafted backdrop for the author to set her story in, giving her the opportunity to add little bits of excitement here and there, always carefully balancing education and entertainment. Ultimately, Maggie O’Farrell remembers she’s writing a work of non-fiction, and thus, the plot ought to always take precedence.
A Girl’s Path of Rebellion
From what I’ve gathered, a fair amount is known about Lucrezia de’ Medici, but I’ll be honest, I was only limited to knowing she existed, ignorant of her history. As such, I’m not in the best place to comment on exactly how closely this novel follows reality, but I can say that I never felt as if the author deviated into the unbelievable. Additionally, a bit of cursory research did show me she followed all the main historical events to perfection.
Now, whether or not this novel accurately depicts her as she was, I can say that it does depict her in a memorable and engaging way, exploring the deepest recesses of her mind and showing her to be wise beyond her years. Whether you’re a young girl yourself or an old man matters little; the themes she explores are universal and the conclusions she comes to are poignant, even if you disagree with them.
She might only be fifteen years of age, but already her path is more difficult than the one many of us are walking, thrusting her into a world equal-parts beautiful and horrifying. Set in the midst of the Renaissance in Italy, the novel naturally has her exploring many exceptional works of art and meeting singular people letting their minds and spirits fly.
In the hands of a lesser author, Lucrezia’s slow-burning rebellion against her station in life would have likely come off as unbelievable and childish, but Maggie O’Farrell pulls it off with flying colours in The Marriage Portrait. She always constricts her acts of rebellion to the realms of realism, and even when she pushes the envelope I could still see it happening, for the most part at least. Let’s not forget, it is a work of fiction after all.
In my humble opinion, O’Farrell‘s Lucrezia de’ Medici is one of, if not the best historical fiction protagonist I’ve had the pleasure of following in recent memory. Her softer, artistic side is interestingly balanced by her burning ambition for personal freedom, the development she undergoes from start to finish is nothing short of fascinating, her inner ruminations are often interesting, and ultimately, her history is one which deserves to be remembered.
|352||Knopf||Sept. 6 2022||978-0593320624|
The Final Verdict
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell is a unique and wonderful piece of historical fiction, following Lucrezia de’ Medici’s turbulent path while taking us on an exposition through the colourful world of 1550s Italy, and the monumental intrigues which developed in its Court.
If you’re looking for a novel capable of transporting you back to Renaissance Italy and are eager to learn about one of the more overlooked figures of the de’ Medici family, then this book is the right one for you.
Maggie O’Farrell is a Northern Irish novelist whose first novel, After You’d Gone, won her the Betty Trask Award. Her subsequent novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, earned her the 2010 Costa Novel Award, for which she also been shortlisted two more times. Her 2020 novel Hamnet won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the Dalkey Literary Awards Novel of the Year.