THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT. By Maggie O’Farrell. Tinder Press 2022. 438 pp. $42.99
Book Review by Frank O’Shea
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall
Looking as if she were alive.
Those are the opening words of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue about the Duke of Ferrara who was annoyed at how highly his wife was regarded by others. It was, he felt, ‘… as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift.’The Duke could not tolerate this, so ‘I gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together.’
It was a work of Browning’s imagination, not based on some historical incident. Now, Maggie O’Farrell re-imagines the same event in her latest book. Her previous book, Hamnet, looked at Shakespeare’s family, the book taking its name from that of the writer’s first child. This one is more extensive, as if she is allowing her imagination a freer rein and her pen a bulkier thesaurus.
The future duchess is a member of the Medici clan of Florence, a bit of an outsider among her family of six siblings. She is betrothed to the Ferrara Duke only after her sister, who was the original choice, dies suddenly. She is still barely thirteen years old, but that did not seem to bother her parents or other observers of the time. When the marriage takes place almost two years later, she is warned of what the whole marriage business involves but she suffers greatly from the whole thing – at no stage does she welcome her husband’s attentions.
Unfortunately, there is no outcome of all this bedroom activity. It is suggested that, since the Duke does not have any illegitimate offspring from his away-from-home activities, it may be because he is incapable of producing an heir. He does not interpret it in that way, instead blaming his young wife, whom he must get rid of lest his dukedom will be without an heir. The ending of the book gives a creative, if somewhat unlikely, resolution to the problem of the Duke and Duchess.
This is a big book, every incident lavishly described, so much so that you are likely to find yourself speed-reading in places. Knowledge of either the geography or history of sixteenth-century Italy may help, but in truth, the author manages to get over that problem and the reader will not notice. It is a story of human relations in a different era, the violence and kindness, the scheming and family dealings that may not have changed as much as we like to think.
This is a book that will do nothing but good for Maggie O’Farrell’s reputation.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective