Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell


When I learned that this book was inspired by Browning's My Last Duchess--one of my favorite poems, I knew I'd want to read it. And I wasn't disappointed.

Based (loosely) on the life of Lucrezia de Medici and her marriage to Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and himself probably the inspiration for Browning's poem, the novel is set in Italy in the mid-1500s. 

O'Farrell's opulent prose draws the reader in to the lavish lifesyle of the Italian ducal courts, while her sensitive portrayal of character brings these historic figures to life. 

The powerful Alfonso needs a heir and, after his first choice for a wife dies, he turns to her sister, 13-year-old Lucrezia, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and his wife Eleonora, known as La Fecundissima for the many healthy children she has borne. Like Henry VIII, the guy is obsessed. And a bit of a control freak.

After almost a year goes by and no pregnancy, things begin to go very badly indeed.

I really admire the way O'Farrell contrived a better, less tragic ending for the little duchess than history relates. After all, this is historical fiction. And who knows, it could have happened this way.

Here's the poem:

My Last Duchess


That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. 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.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


Sandra Parshall said...

Years ago I was enthralled by the TV series about the Borgias. What a family! Lucrezia is somehow the most notorious, probably just because she was a beautiful young woman, but all of them were fascinatingly repugnant.

Vicki Lane said...

I wish I'd seen that.

Sandra Parshall said...

Do you have any streaming services? The Borgias has been available on NETFLIX for years, but is leaving Feb. 1. It's on Amazon Prime Video, SHowtime, Paramount Plus, and Apple+ TV. You can watch Amazon Prime Video on your iPad if you have a Prime account. Actually, you can watch any streaming service on an iPad. (I watch Star Trek shows on Paramount and PBS shows and some other things on my iPad.) Most of them let you sign up for a free trial, which would be plenty of time to watch the series before you cancel. We use Roku to get to streaming services on our TV sets, except for the ones we access through our cable system (HBO, Showtime). Anyway, the Borgias is still out there.

Holliday Grainger plays Lucrezia. She also plays Cormoran Strike's assistant in the Strike series, which is available on HBO Max.