Book Reviews

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell — confinement and escape

Cover of The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell breathes life into a young Florentine woman whom history has largely erased.

Little is known about Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici beyond her marriage at the age of 16 to the wealthy, powerful Duke of Ferrara. Then her death within a year amid rumours she had been poisoned. She would likely have remained a figure glimpsed merely in fragments of dusty sixteenth century documents but for the poem My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, said to have been inspired by Lucrezia.

Browning’s Lucrezia is a joyful figure who finds as much pleasure in the sunset and fresh cherries as in a valuable piece of jewellery. O’Farrell’s Lucrezia is a more rebellious spirit who prowls the passageways in her father’s palace to eavesdrop on royal gossip and intrigue. She’s more interested in observing and painting the natural world than in matrimony.

The Marriage Portrait traces her life from childhood through to her betrothal and marriage in a dynastic arrangement between two powerful families. In a parallel timeline, we find Lucrezia in a dark, high-walled lodge deep in the forest, “a wild and lonely place” owned by the Duke. Here, in the absence of servants and guests, is where her husband, plans to kill her, she believes. Retribution for her failure to produce an heir.

The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.

It’s a compelling and progressively tense story of a fight for survival in the treacherous political world of the sixteenth century. A world in which daughters like Lucrezia are viewed merely as commodities, pawns to be deployed in a complex manouevre to gain greater power and wealth.

Lucrezia wishes nothing more than to be back at her father’s palazzo, walking the battlements, taking riding lessons, singing and playing the lute. But she knows she is expected to marry. And if it wasn’t Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara it would be a different duke, or a maybe a prince or a nobleman from overseas for that has what she has been brought up for, to be married. to be used as a link in his [her father’s] chains of power, to produce heirs for men like Alfonso.

Freedom versus constraint

Throughout The Marriage Portrait, O’Farell weaves together this idea of constraint and escape.

We’re told that at times Lucrezia views her father’s palace as oppressive as a prison and that her wedding dress feels like a cage. Reinforcing this idea of confinement is an episode in which the girl feels an affinity for a tigress her father has acquired for his menagerie.

Seen first from afar as “a lithe, sinuous shape, the markings on the beast’s give Lucrezia the impression of prison brandings “as if captivity had been her destiny all along.” When she is finally allowed to get close to the animal, Lucrezia recognises the pain and sadness that eminates from this creature and it’s yearning to be free. She will, she resolves, appeal to her father to send the animal back to its habitat, to let it bound from the cage back into the trees.

Lucrezia develops her own escape strategies once she is Duchess of Ferrara. She walks in the garden, rides her pony and spends hours in her chambers producing miniature paintings, the true subjects of which she hides under images of classical scenes. But at night, the only way she can “escape” her husband’s visits to her bed, is through a separation of her ‘self’ and her body.

The relief at putting distance between herself and that bed. The self, the part of her that is leaving, seems amorphous, shapeless. It is at once padding on noiseless feet across the floorboards and also floating somewhere up near the ceiling.

Is Alfonso really the monstrous figure Lucrezia makes him out to be? During their marriage we see him being courteous, respectful and solicitous of her health. True he does, occasionally, tell her to keep her nose out of affairs of state but this the 16th-century after all when all women are expected to do is look attractive, be graceful and produce children.

By manipulating the time frame and the point of view, O’ Farrell keeps us guessing whether Lucrezia’s fears are the product of an over-active imagination. Or whether the Duke is a master of hiding his true nature.

Lush world of the Renaissance

It’s a good yarn set in a Renaissance world that is richly imagined with detailed use of colour, texture and smell. Too rich unfortunately.

As much as I was fascinated by the story, I found the lushisness of O’Farrell’s prose overwhelming. One descriptive phrase never seems to suffice, we have to get it in triplicate. The tigress’ description is a case in point: The animal was orange, burnished gold, fire made flesh; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite.” There are plenty more examples like that throughout the book.

We don’t so much read this book as wallow in it, overcome by layer upon layer of images, similies and descriptions. There were touches of this in her previous novel Hamnet but I didn’t feel it was as intrusive as it was in The Marriage Portrait.

Even if this didn’t have the same finesse and emotional heft as Hamnet, I still love Maggie O’Farrell as an author. Now that she has two works of historical fiction under her belt, I wonder whether this is going to be her chosen genre from now on.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

34 thoughts on “The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell — confinement and escape

  • Interesting that you pick up on that overly descriptive, triplet cantation tendency. I haven’t read this, but noticed it in my recent read of Hamnet, particularly in the opening scenes which felt very much like framing a scene in a film, describing everything in it, while rushing forward. It’s a particular style and took me a while to get in sync with it.

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  • Energy, as one of your first commenters said, is what’s required for a novel like this, and energy is what I’m currently lacking – which is why I’m in a phase favouring short fiction and novellas.

    This sounds worthy, but perhaps not the reading I’m seeking at the moment. (A classic Lovecraft horror novella, which I am currently on, is similarly verbose in descriptions, using two or three adjectives or adverbs where one or even none would achieve a similar or better effect. Thank goodness it’s not very long…)

    • The O”Farrell novel moved along at quite a good pace so it didn’t take me too long to read – particularly because I skimmed some of the more verbose passages.

      You’ll be amazed when I tell you I have a science fiction book on the go right now – Project Hail Mary. Completely bonkers stuff

      • Ah, I keep meaning to read Andy Weir’s The Martian as I enjoyed the film version very much. Project Hail Mary is his third astronaut title, isn’t it, but glad to hear it’s completely bonkers!

  • I’m reading this at the moment and while I’m enjoying it, I am finding the prose a bit overwrought. I didn’t get on with Hamnet, although I usually love O’Farrell, and like this better but it is sometimes a bit much.

    • Phew, so glad to find that I am not alone in finding parts of the narrative just too rich and profuse. I wanted to get my editor’s blue pencil out and streamline it ….

      • With both of you being a bit ‘meh’ about this, that’s enough for me. Like Cathy, I didn’t get on with Hamnet, so was feeling reluctant to give this one a go, despite the lovely book cover!

  • Exactly. Hamnet made me cry, this one didn’t. Still, both are wonderful books!

    • I didn’t feel as firmly rooted in the future prospects of Lucrezia as I did with Agnes in Hamnet. As you say though, it was still a remarkable and wonderful novel

  • This sounds interesting and I do like reading about Renaissance Italy. I didn’t love Hamnet the way most people did, though, and I’m not sure whether Maggie O’Farrell is really an author for me. I’ll probably still try this book at some point and find out!

    • If you enjoy books in that period and setting then worth giving this a go – there are some sumptuous descriptions of the palazzos

  • Even Henry VIII gave his wives more than one year to produce an heir. I know it’s very 21st century of me but I find it a bit distasteful to imagine a 16 year old married off to an older (unknown!) man.

    • Even more distasteful – he wanted to marry her when she was 13 years old but had to wait “until she became a woman”

  • Despite your misgivings, this has ben a ‘must read’ for me since it was published. Even more so now.

    • It was a must read for me too Margaret. Despite my issue with her purple prose her next book will also be a must read

      • I’ve just reserved it at the library. I’m number 47 in the queue! I should have done it sooner.

        • Yikes, unless they have multiple copies, that could be a very long wait

        • They have quite a number if copies throughout the county, and this is a county-wide waiting list.

        • Well that’s good news. Hope the wait isn’t too long

  • I can see the attraction of writing about someone about whom little is known. Leaves you free to use your imagination without fear of getting it wrong. That writing style isn’t for me, though.

    • if she’d reined it in a little I’d have been happier.

  • I love O’Farrell but I didn’t get on with Hamnet at all, so I’ve been hesitant about this one. I don’t think her strengths lie in hist fic. However, the blurb does sound good.

    • I do like the way she has given life to two women on the fringe of history. And she certainly knows how to bring a historical period to life. It was only the over elaborate writing that irritated me

  • Did she write this during the pandemic? Maybe she had too much time on her hands? Fabulous review!

    • Hm I don’t honestly know though looking at the gap between Hamnet and this one, some of it must have been written during one of the lockdowns

  • I’ve just bought this (though I swore I wouldn’t until I’d read Hamnet) so I’ve made a note of your review and will read it later.

  • I see this book everywhere I go. I have looked at it but just don’t have the energy for it at the moment. I tend to find that with a few historical novels.

    • I’m sure you are not short of a few books that do appeal at the moment and can safely leave this to another day (or maybe never)

  • I enjoyed wallowing in the prose. I just finished reading the book, so I’ll think a little more about it and then will be reviewing this one at NNP soon!


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