Luckily, this writer is Maggie O’Farrell, some of the thrilling novelists alive. Two years in the past, she revealed “Hamnet,” about William Shakespeare’s solely son. The novel, which received a Nationwide E-book Critics Circle Award and the Girls’s Prize for Fiction, created a devastating cost of pressure and sorrow, even supposing nearly nothing is understood about little Hamnet besides his demise in 1596.
“The Marriage Portrait” exhumes a equally fated teenager: Lucrezia, the daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Like Hamnet, Lucrezia has fallen into the footnotes of historical past. However she survives — “trying as if she have been alive” — in Robert Browning’s grimly ironic poem, “My Final Duchess.”
The info of this case are skinny and unhappy. Lucrezia was born into Italy’s legendary household in 1545. One in every of her sisters was imagined to marry Alfonso II d’Este, the longer term Duke of Ferrara, however she died earlier than the ceremony. Like some Renaissance version of “The Bachelor,” Lucrezia took her place. On the age of 16, earlier than celebrating her first marriage ceremony anniversary, she was buried in her husband’s mausoleum.
The data counsel that Lucrezia in all probability died of tuberculosis, however rumors have continued for greater than 400 years that her bold husband poisoned her. O’Farrell creeps into this gloomy realm of intrigue with an inkwell stuffed with blood and a stiletto for her pen.
The occasions of “The Marriage Portrait” come to us out of order, a construction that displays Lucrezia’s dislocation and heightens our dread. Within the opening paragraph, we discover the younger Duchess sitting together with her husband at an extended eating desk in a darkish, high-walled lodge deep within the forest. Lucrezia can’t assist however discover that the constructing feels surprisingly empty of individuals — or witnesses. “It involves her with a peculiar readability,” O’Farrell writes, “that he intends to kill her.” The setting and the woman’s sudden premonition really feel like one thing from Edgar Allan Poe. “The knowledge that he means her to die is sort of a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered chook of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.”
In that second of clarifying terror, she turns into a curious observer of her personal plight. “She turns her eyes on to her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and wonders what’s going to occur subsequent.” Such is the ability of O’Farrell’s storytelling that we do too.
Over the following 300 pages, the novel sweeps backwards and forwards, first filling out the outstanding circumstances of Lucrezia’s adolescence in Tuscany. O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historic element to weave this story of a precocious woman delicate to the contradictions of her station. Her father’s palace appears to shift within the gentle. “Typically,” O’Farrell writes, “it felt to her just like the most secure place on the planet, a stone hold with a excessive garrison perimeter to surround the Grand Duke’s youngsters like a cupboard for glass collectible figurines; at others it felt as oppressive as a jail.”
Transferred in opposition to her will to Alfonso’s family, she feels the identical oppressive sense of containment — however with the added concern that her lifeless sister is haunting her and her new husband is planning her demise. However why?
O’Farrell’s manipulation of time and viewpoint retains us vacillating between sympathy and skepticism. In any case, Alfonso could also be agency, even brutal along with his topics, however that is Sixteenth-century Italy; his political and literal survival relies upon upon persistently projecting energy. “To rule as he does, so effectively, so decisively,” a member of the court docket observes, “you want to be fully heartless.” However in all his dealings along with his teenage spouse, is Alfonso not appropriately courtly and solicitous? Is there not one thing paranoid and delusional about Lucrezia’s obsession with “his pretense, his dissembling, his mendacity seems”?
“No, it’s inconceivable,” she realizes in a happier second. “She have to be mistaken, he should love her in spite of everything, he should treasure and respect her, as a result of nobody would kiss somebody like this, with ardour and warmth and mouth and the slash of a tongue-tip, would they?”
Flip a web page of this novel, and the shadows forged upon the stone partitions look ominous. Immediately, it appears potential that with all his concern and reassurances, Alfonso is gaslighting his younger spouse — or, I suppose, candlelighting her. Bored out of her thoughts, her life feels equally dire and absurd. “What’s a girl imagined to do when she suspects her husband of attempting to homicide her?” Lucrezia wonders, as if she have been confronting the problem of constructing dinner plans for a choosy eater.
Whereas she scurries round her husband’s fortress, we will hear echoes of “Yellow Wall-Paper,” that late Nineteenth-century basic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman a few younger mom being pushed mad by her husband’s overbearing concern. However on this case, it’s the strain to develop into a mom that’s warping the family, ratcheting up strain on Lucrezia to conceive an inheritor for an imperiled dukedom. How lengthy can an enterprising younger ruler look ahead to her to offer what’s wanted? (The intercourse scenes, with “the warmth, the labour, the noise of it,” convey all of the romance of a barn elevating.)
Lucrezia’s solely respite comes from portray, a diversion she started in her dad and mom’ home and continues, for a time, in Alfonso’s. She’s notably within the painters her husband hires to create her portrait — till, that’s, she begins to suspect that the portrait, with its surprising acuity, could also be supposed to switch her. It doesn’t assist when Alfonso admires the completed portray and sighs, “There she is . . . my first duchess.” A slip of the tongue, certainly, nothing extra.
It’s possible you’ll know the historical past, and it’s possible you’ll suppose what’s coming, however don’t be so certain. O’Farrell and Lucrezia, together with her “crystalline, righteous anger,” will all the time be one step forward of you.
Ron Charles opinions books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Submit.
On Oct. 15 at 3 p.m., Maggie O’Farrell will focus on “The Marriage Portrait” with Ron Charles at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington.
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