The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967

The Marriage Portrait is a work of historical fiction by Maggie O’Farrell that tells the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici’s short marriage to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. In a historical note prior to the book’s first chapter, the author notes that the formal record indicates that the real Lucrezia died of “putrid fever.” Rumors suggest she was poisoned by her husband, and O’Farrell’s imaginative text explores the second of these possibilities.

Lucrezia, the book’s heroine, is an eccentric among her peers from childhood. One of the Grand Duke of Florence’s eight children, she has little interest in marriage or domesticity and would prefer to spend her days painting, studying, and exploring. But when her sister Maria dies unexpectedly, Lucrezia is chosen to replace Maria in her betrothal to solidify the relationship between the Florentine and Ferrarese courts. Thus, she finds herself married to Alfonso.

Initially, Lucrezia is hopeful that the young Duke may be a suitable match: he shows curiosity, a sense of humor, and a progressive attitude that suggest she may be happier as his wife than anticipated. Before long, however, another side of Alfonso is revealed. He is controlling, treacherous, and abusive, and he eventually attempts to poison her.

In an early chapter titled “The First Tiger in Tuscany, Lucrezia foreshadows that the Florentine fortezza alternates back and forth between seeming protective and restrictive: 

The palazzo of Lucrezia’s father was a changeable building, unstable as a weathervane. Sometimes it felt to her like the safest place in the world, a stone keep with a high garrison perimeter to enclose the Grand Duke’s children like a cabinet for glass figurines; at others it felt as oppressive as a prison.

This motif returns throughout the narrative. Seen as a delicate, passive figure in need of protection at all times—a glass figurine—Lucrezia’s life is precisely calibrated to protect her from danger. She is protected by physical walls, by guards, and by numerous restrictions, but there is significant irony here: these protective restrictions ultimately lock Lucrezia in with her biggest threats, rather than keeping them out.

These architectural motifs persist throughout the work in both literal and figurative ways, and Lucrezia often describes herself as a spatial, architectural construction of sorts. Just as she seeks out hidden passageways and unexplored rooms in palaces and often daydreams of hinterlands beyond her existing limitations, the things about herself that she guards most dearly are often described as unknown territories, chambers, and alleyways within herself. In considering whether to tell Alfonso her secrets, she decides against giving him the “key” to unlock these concealed parts of herself.

Throughout the course of the book, Lucrezia regularly bristles against the expectations placed on her through a number of strict authorities: by Alfonso, who demands that she bend and stretch to fit his perfect ideal of a wife; by her family, who expect her to live her life in service to their aristocratic and strategic needs; and by patriarchy itself, the demands of which decide the female interests and behaviors that are deemed acceptable. 

At various points in the narrative, Lucrezia exhibits symptoms of what might today be understood as migraines. Within the confines of the text, they are written off as childish fits of attention-seeking. Like Lucrezia’s own story, this has its basis in history: Lucrezia’s real medical needs are dismissed, just as women throughout history have been diagnosed with hysteria instead of having their real needs addressed. 

Medical patriarchy arises yet again when Alfonso and Lucrezia fail to conceive. The novel implies that he is sterile, but all treatment for their shared infertility centers around her body and her perceived deficiencies. In Lucrezia’s own origin story, her mother theorizes that her lack of focus on domestic, maternal things during Lucrezia’s conception is responsible for the child’s failure to conform. She had been irresponsibly thinking of strategic, supposedly unfeminine things, and she feels this cursed her with a strategic, unfeminine daughter.

The book can certainly be considered a feminist retelling of the story of Lucrezia and Alfonso, but there is also an underlying commentary on work, leisure, the relationship between labor and output, and especially the ways in which privilege can shelter one from thinking about the inequities of life.

It is perhaps through the character of Emilia that the intertwined dynamic of economic and social inequity are most thoughtfully explored. Emilia and Lucrezia grow up in the Florentine palazzo together, figuratively twinned by having nursed from the same woman. But Emilia constantly takes punishment for Lucrezia throughout their dual lives: when the two are in an accident in childhood, it is Emilia who ends up disfigured by a scar while Lucrezia walks away unscathed. As the two grow up, Lucrezia leaves the kitchen to be raised in privilege while Emilia continues to toil in the kitchens, facilitating that very privilege with her labor. And eventually, by being mistaken for Lucrezia on the night of her murder, Emilia is sacrificed so that Lucrezia can live. While Lucrezia’s role in this dynamic may be unintentional, and while she herself is another unhappy victim of circumstance, she is also passively complicit in her friend’s economic oppression and eventual death.

The ambiguity here may have been O’Farrell’s purpose all along. Throughout the novel, “villainous” characters show their humanity just as “heroic” characters show their faults. It is easy to view this as one of many entries in feminist literature designed to make the woman the hero, but O’Farrell’s portrait of Lucrezia is nuanced. Rather than plucking her protagonist from relative historical obscurity to turn her into a hero, the author does something arguably more difficult: she turns her into a human.

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