Culture

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell review – the doomed duchess

Earlier this month, Philip Pullman went on a cranky Twitter rant that made me wonder if he too was reading the new Maggie O’Farrell novel. “I don’t care how many people enjoy it, fiction in the present tense is an ABDICATION OF NARRATIVE RESPONSIBILITY,” he tweeted. “I resent having to re-calibrate my entire attitude to time whenever I open a novel in the present tense. Away with them!”

The Marriage Portrait, like O’Farrell’s 2020 runaway bestseller, Hamnet, is written in a lavish if rather solemn present tense that tries to bring the past to life: “The two girls grip each other by the arms. The maid is trembling, a hand held to her chest, as if to still her heart. The scream comes again, louder this time, and with words attached: ‘No, no, no!’” It’s Pullman tearing his hair out!

O’Farrell has clearly found her historical sweet spot in the 16th century and her subject in women whose stories have been overshadowed by men. In Hamnet, it was Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes. Here, it is Lucrezia, the third daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence. The historical Lucrezia was married off at the age of 13 to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, as a last-minute substitute for her older sister, Maria, who died just before the wedding. Then Lucrezia herself died, supposedly of tuberculosis, though it has long been thought that she could have been poisoned by Alfonso.

The idea for O’Farrell’s novel took root in soil prepared by Robert Browning’s famous poem My Last Duchess. Browning’s dramatic monologue takes us inside the mind of the Duke of Ferrara, as he shows a painting of his former wife (Lucrezia) to a representative of the family of his next bride-to-be. An avaricious megalomaniac, the duke prefers her ever-smiling portrait to the original girl because the image is inert and easier to control.

O’Farrell, writing in close third-person, tries to imagine what this girl was like. When the novel opens, in 1561, Lucrezia is one year into her marriage, newly arrived at a “hunting lodge” belonging to the malevolent duke. She becomes convinced Alfonso intends to kill her because she has failed to fall pregnant with the heir needed to secure his hold on the kingdom.

The narrative then goes back in time to show how Lucrezia has reached this critical moment. We see her as an untameable child sneaking around her father’s palace menagerie in order to get close to his pet tigress. At her wedding, she is depicted virtually immobile in a “fortress of silk”. And when she loses her virginity, she discovers how “the heat, the labour, the noise of it, is appalling”.

Lucrezia de’ Medici, who was married off at the age of 13
Lucrezia de’ Medici, who was married off at the age of 13.
Illustration: Alamy

Lucrezia senses a soulmate in Jacopo, the mute apprentice to the artist commissioned to create her marriage portrait (as imagined by Browning) and also befriends Elisabetta, the more genial of her two sisters-in-law. However, their attachment is brutally curtailed by an act of cruelty engineered by Alfonso.

This is all such promising material – and yet it is not nearly as horribly gripping as it ought to be, partly as O’Farrell refuses to say in one image what she can do in three: “She is unrecognisable to herself; she is a creature entirely at the mercy of a stronger power, a flea on the back of a rabid beast, a plucked quince in a pot of boiling water.” Too much hospitality is shown to Lucrezia’s dreams and there is an abundance of scenes where she wakes up confused about where she is. The symbolism of men as hunters, women as prey soon becomes overwrought.

None of this is helped by the unvaried texture of the narration. “If every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value”, Philip Pullman wrote in a 2010 article. O’Farrell’s narration amplifies the scream while muffling the actual drama.

I am not a member of Pullman’s tense police. Hilary Mantel uses the present adeptly in her historical fiction to capture what she calls “the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them and their ungraspable speed”. But in the case of The Marriage Portrait, I was reminded of what he said about the overuse of the present tense in novels having a similar effect to the overuse of handheld cameras in TV. It can feel queasy and claustrophobic when sustained over a 430-page novel. I had – sorry, I have – the sensation of being dragged this way and that when what I really want to do is take a breath and survey the whole scene.

It’s a shame as she is a perceptive writer whose sentences often have real poetic cadence. When Lucrezia arrives in her new bedchamber at night, the ceiling is “alive with writhing frescoes”. When she hears castrati singing “like a shimmering kite on a string”, she “feels a sympathetic dizziness” with them. Entering the servants’ quarters is like seeing “the wrong side of its embroidery with all the knots and weave and secrets on display”.

But the high production values cannot disguise the fact that this is melodrama reworked to appeal to a progressive 21st-century audience. The book’s evil deeds are committed by evil people because they are evil. No one acts unpredictably or without foreshadowing. Lucrezia’s doting maid, Emilia, is scarred because as a child, she was hit by boiling water that narrowly missed baby Lucrezia: “Emilia gives a sad smile. ‘Better that it was me and not you.’” We know she is a good soul because she has a “heart-shaped face”.

If you can set all that aside, it’s worth sticking around for the rousing climax, which departs from historical record (though it uses the same narrative switch as O’Farrell deployed in Hamnet). I didn’t believe it for a minute; it stirred me all the same. Still, I couldn’t help marvelling at how a novel that’s so richly descriptive could feel so limited in its range of expressiveness.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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