Fortunately, that writer is Maggie O’Farrell, one of the most exciting novelists alive. Two years ago, Hamnet published about William Shakespeare’s only son. The novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Woman’s Prize for Literature, created a devastating charge of tension and grief, despite the fact that almost nothing is known about young Hamnet except for his death in 1596.
The “Portrait of Marriage” exhumes a child of a similar fate: Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Lucrezia, like Hamnet, fell into the margins of history. But she survived—”she looks like she’s alive”—in Robert Browning’s shocking satirical 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 editions of The Bachelor, Lucrezia took its place. At the age of sixteen, before celebrating her first wedding anniversary, she was buried in her husband’s mausoleum.
‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell is one of the top 10 books of 2020
Records indicate that Lucrezia may have died of tuberculosis, but rumors have persisted for more than 400 years that her ambitious husband poisoned her. O’Farrell infiltrates this bleak world of intrigue with a blood-soaked inkwell and a dagger for her pen.
The events of the Marriage Picture come to us out of order, a structure that reflects the dislocation of Lucrezia and heightens our fear. In the opening paragraph, the young Duchess is seated with her husband at a long dining table in a dark, high-walled hut deep in the woods. Lucrezia can’t help but notice that the building feels a strange emptiness of people – or witnesses. “It has to do with the strange clarity that he intends to kill her,” O’Farrell writes. The place and the girl’s sudden obsession sound like something from Edgar Allan Poe. “The certainty that he meant her death is like being by her side, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey had descended upon the arm of her chair.”
At that moment when terror appears, you become a curious observer of her plight. She turned her eyes to her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, wondering what would happen next. That’s the strength of O’Farrell’s telling the stories we do, too.
Over the next 300 pages, the novel sweeps back and forth, first filling in the wonderful circumstances of a Lucrezia teenager in Tuscany. O’Farrell pulls small strands of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station. Her father’s mansion appears to be shifting in the light. O’Farrell wrote: “At times it felt the safest place in the world, a stone surrounded by a high garrison perimeter to enclose the children of the Grand Duke like a cabinet for glass statues; at other times it felt oppressed like a prison.”
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Forced into Alfonso’s home, she feels the same oppressive feeling of containment – but with the added anxiety that her deceased sister is haunting her and that her new husband is plotting her death. but why?
O’Farrell’s manipulation of time and point of view keeps us vacillating between sympathy and skepticism. After all, Alfonso may be resolute, even brutal with his subjects, but this is 16th century Italy; His political and literal survival depends on constantly demonstrating his strength. One member of the court notes: “In order to judge as he does, so well and so decisively, you must be completely heartless.” But in all his dealings with his teenage wife, isn’t Alfonso decent and considerate? Is there nothing paranoid and delusional in Lucrezia’s obsession with “pretending, appearing, appearing false”?
“No, that is impossible,” I realized in a happier moment. “She must be mistaken, he should love her after all, he should cherish and respect her, because no one would accept such a thing, with passion and heat and mouth and tongue-tip cleavage, right?”
Turn a page of this novel, and the shadows cast on the stone walls look ominous. Suddenly, it seems possible that with all his anxiety and reassurance, Alfonso was illuminating his young wife—or, I suppose, candlelight it up. She is bored out of her mind, and her life feels just as awful and absurd. What is a woman supposed to do when she suspects her husband is trying to kill her? Lucrezia wonders, as if facing the challenge of making dinner plans for a picky eater.
As she strolls through 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 who goes crazy over her husband’s intense anxiety. But in this case, that’s the stress had become A mother who disfigures the house, and increases pressure on Lucrezia to conceive an heir to an endangered duchy. How long can the enterprising young ruler wait for her to provide what is needed? (The sex scenes, with “the heat, the action, the noise of that,” convey all the romance of a barn-bred.)
Lucrezia’s only respite comes from painting, a diversion that she began in her parents’ home and continued for a time in Alfonso’s home. She is particularly interested in the painters her husband hires to paint her portrait – until she begins to suspect that the painting, with its horrific plan, can replace her. It doesn’t help when Alfonso admires the finished painting and sighs, “Here she is . . . my first Duchess.” Slip of the tongue definitely no more.
You may know the date, and you may think you know what’s coming, but you can’t be sure. O’Farrell and Lucrezia, with her “good crystallized rage”, will always be one step ahead of you.
Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post.
On October 15 at 3 p.m., Maggie O’Farrell will discuss “The Marriage Portrait” with Ron Charles at Politics and prose5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington.
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