Familiar poem hints at terrible tale of murder

Review: Vivien Horler

The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press/ Jonathan Ball)

Do you remember the Robert Browning poem My Last Duchess?

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive…

…She had

A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere…

…This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.”

The poem was based on the real life Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, who in 1560, aged 15, left Florence. where her father was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to marry Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Less than a year later she was dead.

In a note at the beginning of this historical novel, also based on Lucrezia’s short life, Maggie O’Farrell writes: “The cause of her death was given as ‘putrid fever’, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.”

The novel sees baby Lucrezia born, the third daughter of the Grand Duke, and a girl nothing like her older sisters. She is not biddable, she is restless, she has terrible tantrums. Her brothers are taught the business of running the dukedom and how to defend it, they are taught to fight and fence.

The girls are taught the gentler arts of embroidery, drawing, music and languages; they are being groomed to make good wives and mothers.

When Lucrezia is 7, her older sister Maria is betrothed to Alfonso in what is seen as a way to draw Tuscany and Ferrara together. Alfonso visits Florence and briefly, during a walk on the battlements of the Florence piazza, spies Lucrezia.

She is holding her pet mouse as he and Maria pass, and he glances down at her, sees the mouse, and twitches his nose at her.

Lucrezia is charmed.

Years go by, but shortly before the marriage is due to be solemnised, Maria dies of an infection. Instead of calling the wedding off, Alfonso says he would like to keep the arrangements, but marry Lucrezia instead.

She is only 13, and is appalled. Her nurse persuades the powers that be she is too young to marry, not yet “being a woman”. And so the marriage is staved off for another two years until she turns 15 and has no choice.

Lucrezia has observed the way her mother acts as a sounding board to her father, and assumes Alfonso will see her as a helpmeet and partner as well as he rules his dukedom. But it soon becomes clear his only demand of her is that she produces an heir, and quickly, or he could lose his position.

After a year of marriage, and no pregnancy in sight, Alfonso is angry. During a trip to a remote hunting lodge, Lucrezia becomes convinced that Alfonso means to kill her.

And indeed, after a heavy meal of venison and red wine, she becomes desperately ill and suspects he tried to poison her. Can she possibly escape?

This is an unusual novel in that by this time you’re fully invested in Lucrezia, but you also know the inevitability of history – she dies. This is a tricky detail for the novelist to get round, but O’Farrell is not only an excellent writer but a skilled story teller too.

In a note at the end of the novel O’Farrell says the only portrait of Lucrezia on display in Europe is in the Palatine Gallery, two streets away from Casa Guidi, where Browning lived in Florence.

The portrait for which she sits in the novel, and which forms the basis of Browning’s poem, is, “to the best of my knowledge, entirely fictional. If one ever does come to light, I would be very keen to know about it”.

O’Farrell is an accomplished historical novelist, her book Hamnet (to see my review go to https://thebookspage.co.za/2020/10/04/when-the-pestilence-came-to-stratford/), about the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamlet/Hamnet, which appeared in 2020, was a great read, incorporating much research. And so is this. I was engrossed.


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