The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

The Hand That First Held Mine –

Robert Browning – The First Rapper

Robert Browning

After watching the old movie – “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” – I wanted more of Robert Browning, the exuberant Victorian who loved and saved Elizabeth from a dreary spinsterly life with her overbearing father.  Famous for writing The Pied Piper of Hamlin, Browning celebrated his bicentenary in May – although few noticed. His birthday falls on May 7th, but the celebration at Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner is scheduled for December – but then so many other important events have overtaken Britain this year (including Charles Dickens).

His poetry could be obscure; in the movie Browning cannot satisfy Elizabeth’s plea to explain his meaning in “Sordello.”  Only Browning and God knew his meaning when he wrote it and now only God knew.  His dramatic monologues  and long narratives (My Last Duchess) are credited as the precursors of Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost – and possibly Eminem in music.

Yet, he may be best remembered for his love for Elizabeth, their years together in Italy, and the poetry they inspired in each other.

How do I love thee, let me count the ways…Elizabeth Barrett Browning  – from “Sonnets from the Portuguese”

Grow old along with me! the best is yet to be…Robert Browning – from “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

Clasped Hands of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer