The Marriage Portrait
Maggie O’Farrell

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Why did Emilia deserve to die?

I’m sorry, but I’m really hung up on this one aspect of a book that is otherwise immaculate. The book is set in Italy, so you know the scenery is gorgeous. The protagonist is intelligent, talented, ferocious. There’s a creepy duke who needs to be swindled, a loyal maid, a beautiful country villa, and a castle. The whole story is based on a dramatic monologue, which gives the book a strong literary vibe as well. It gives me all the cozy nostalgic college feelings, because it feels like a book I could have studied in any literature class. There is literally nothing I don’t like in any of those words. But why couldn’t Clelia have died instead?

To understand why I just tried to sentence a lady’s maid to death, we have to backtrack a bit. Inspired by Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” The Marriage Portrait is a speculative take on the life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, thirteen-year-old bride to the twenty-four-year-old Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. She is the fifth child of Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleanora di Toledo, who was dubbed La Fecundissima (kind of a gross nickname, but all right) after giving birth to eight children. The first four children were perfectly docile, but Lucrezia – conceived during an afternoon tryst in which her mother was heavily distracted by thoughts of maps and wilderness, which in those days apparently was thought to have an effect on the resulting child – is a hurricane in a human wrapper. Her mother is unable to deal with her, and she therefore spends her early childhood in the kitchens as the unofficial second child of the wet nurse. She is raised alongside the wet nurse’s slightly older daughter, Emilia, but finds her loving world yanked up by its roots when Eleanora calls her back upstairs. There’s no adjustment period; she is unceremoniously thrown into a nursery with siblings she doesn’t know, and who don’t know her, and she never really finds her footing among them. The only bright side is that she discovers a talent for drawing, and from there becomes interested in the painting that sustains her throughout her life.

Following her muddled, confusing childhood, Lucrezia finds her world uprooted anew when her sister Maria unexpectedly dies. The twelve-year-old Lucrezia is almost immediately betrothed to Maria’s bereaved fiancé, Duke Alfonso II, and is married off a year later. She finds her new husband alternately solicitous, creepy, and controlling, with frightening bursts of violence. His best friend and second-in-command is the even creepier Leonello Baldassare, who hates her and does everything he can to make her uncomfortable. (I almost wonder if Baldassare is in love with Alfonso, given his unreasonable hostility towards Lucrezia and especially given historical rumors about Alfonso’s sexuality; but this is never directly suggested, nor ever confirmed, by the text.) Nevertheless, Lucrezia sets out to make the best of her situation, and finds a wild kind of happiness at Alfonso’s country villa. When Alfonso is not there, she is free to eat, sleep, wander around the estate at will, go riding, even paint. There are no in-laws to ask her questions, no parents to keep her on a tight schedule, no siblings to taunt her; her only companion is Emilia, who has been hired as her personal attendant. Left more or less to her own devices, she paints every day, honing her craft in peaceful solitude, and even befriends painting assistants Jacopo and Maurizio when they arrive alongside the artist who was commissioned to paint her. This is the highlight of her marriage, and it’s never the same after she leaves the villa.

After the honeymoon period, Alfonso takes his new bride to his official home in an unwelcoming castle, where she meets his sisters Elisabetta (friendly) and Nunciata (unfriendly). She cautiously makes friends with Elisabetta, but their relationship is completely destroyed when Alfonso forces Elisabetta to watch the murder of her lover. Meanwhile, Nunciata presses a second attendant, Clelia, into Lucrezia’s service, ostensibly to serve her but really to spy on her; and Alfonso, who was relatively easygoing outside of the castle, becomes increasingly menacing in his quest for an heir. Life rolls along uneasily until Alfonso, convinced that his now sixteen-year-old wife is barren, decides to take her to his countryside fortress, where he intends to kill her. Following an unsuccessful poisoning attempt, Lucrezia briefly reunites with Jacopo, who knows she is in danger and offers her an opportunity to escape. Despite her skepticism, Lucrezia manages to sneak out of the fortress in the dead of night, and makes her way to Jacopo. While they begin a long, quiet journey that will eventually end in Venice, where they will be happy and free for the rest of their lives, Alfonso and Baldassare sneak up to Lucrezia’s bedroom, unaware that the woman sleeping in the bed is Emilia, and strangle her to death. The physical brutality of her murder leaves her unrecognizable, and no one ever realizes that a substitution has unwittingly been made.

This is the reason the book got four stars instead of five, because Emilia’s death infuriates me. I can’t get around this sacrifice that was forced on her without her knowledge, much less her consent. She was Lucrezia’s milk sister, closest friend, confidante, everything she never got from her biological siblings or even her parents, and this book did her so dirty that I can’t think about anything else. She deserved so much better, which is why I am asking, again: Why couldn’t Clelia have died instead? (I feel kind of rotten admitting that I would have watched Clelia get strangled in her sleep without batting an eye. But that’s the way I feel.) I kept waiting for Lucrezia to find some way to go back and bring Emilia with her, but she never did. Emilia never even crossed her mind. At the very end, I was hoping that Lucrezia’s paintings would pay tribute to Emilia or that she would show some concern for her friend, or at least vaguely wonder what ever became of her. That didn’t happen either. Even if she didn’t have time to go back, and even if she didn’t expect Emilia to be murdered in her place, that seems like a pretty shitty way to repay a loyalty so deep that Emilia literally smuggled herself into a hostile fortress specifically for the purpose of taking care of Lucrezia.

This oversight is all the more galling because I really love Lucrezia. O’Farrell has an incredible ability to take a historical figure and spin them into a living, breathing person based on almost no information: she did it with Agnes Hathaway in Hamnet, and she has done it again here with Lucrezia. Despite her wild beginning, Lucrezia grows up into a (mostly) thoughtful, intelligent, determined young woman, with a streak of the unruliness that caused her mother to banish her to the kitchens. She doesn’t blindly follow orders, but neither is she stupidly disobedient in the way that a lot of people seem to think is attractive in female leads. (I said what I said. I will stop shading The Handmaid’s Tale when it fixes its June problem.) And, to her immense credit, she really tries to love her husband, even as it becomes increasingly clear to her that he is severely unbalanced. Even if she was never comfortable with the idea of marrying Alfonso in her sister’s place, she doesn’t mope around or take out her frustration on her servants. She idolizes the love she saw between her parents and tries to replicate that with Alfonso, but he spits on all her attempts to support him and makes it clear that he wants a brood mare, not a partner. It’s heartbreaking. As much as she wants her duke to love her, and as much as we the reader want him to love her, it just isn’t possible. But she tries, and I love her for it.

The only thing that sort of bothers me, aside from the Emilia problem, is Lucrezia’s fixation on Alfonso’s mother, who is frequently referenced but never seen. Alfonso becomes more dangerous every time Lucrezia mentions his mother, so I’m not sure why a character so survival-oriented would keep asking questions about her. But on the other hand, I get it. Aside from her childhood nurses and Emilia, Lucrezia effectively has no family – or, more accurately, she has no role in her family. Her upbringing in the kitchens sets her apart, and even if it hadn’t she would still have been the odd one out. I can understand her subconsciously looking for a surrogate mother, because she has always been so estranged from her biological mother. In general Eleanora does not seem particularly well acquainted with her children, possibly because she has more of them than she can count on one hand. She sees the seven children who are not Lucrezia as sweet and good, when in fact they are cruel, jealous, vain, spiteful, demanding. Owing to the mishap with the maps during Lucrezia’s moment of conception, she is incapable of seeing Lucrezia as anything other than violently unmanageable. This sets the tone for her relationship with her daughter, which remains distant from start to finish, even after Lucrezia sends her a letter begging for support against a husband who makes her feel unsafe.

In a way I suppose this is lucky, because it gives Lucrezia a unique view of two marriages, one that is fruitful and one that is not. It gives her the opportunity to recognize that neither one is satisfactory, even with the powers and privileges afforded to her mother, and allows her to create her own path without looking back. I don’t think she will ever wonder what she might have had if she hadn’t run away on that fateful night of her almost-death; nor should she. But even though she eventually finds her way to her best possible life, it doesn’t feel like a triumph. The pay-off at the end is diluted by the shadow of Emilia’s death, and it doesn’t seem right to celebrate. Maybe we were supposed to forget the sacrifice that made Lucrezia’s new life possible, but I can’t. I never will. As someone who has been similarly expendable, albeit in a modern corporate context (and not in any potentially fatal way), I cannot take her loss as anything other than personal, and I resent the implication, however unintentional, that she does not need to be remembered or mourned. I don’t think O’Farrell deliberately tried to gloss over her death; I just think that, like Lucrezia, she saw Emilia as a non-issue. A side character, unmemorable and safely expendable. But I remember.

I wish my whole opinion of this book did not hinge upon the death of one character. I wish I could just be happy that Lucrezia is happy and free in a world that made every effort to keep her unhappy and imprisoned, and for the most part I am. She deserves every happiness I can think of. But I am tired of being told that servants – which is a class that, if we were in this particular period of time, would include me – do not need to be happy or free, or even alive. (Yes, I’m really going here. Lemme alone, I’m still upset.) If I hadn’t already seen another servant sacrificed for the sake of an aristocrat in House of the Dragon, maybe Emilia’s loss would have hit more softly; as it is, it seems like another link in a tiresome pattern. Her sacrifice is not glorified or excused, but neither is it really acknowledged. It just happens, it is inevitable, and it feels so very unnecessary.