search for something...

search for something you might like...

Bear Bookshop Book Of the Month: The Marriage Portrait Jenny McCann says Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait is Unputdownable

Bear Bookshop Book Of the Month: The Marriage Portrait

Jenny McCann says Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait is Unputdownable

by Jenny McCann, Owner, Bear Bookshop
first published: September, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

This is definitely one of my top 5 reads of the year, best read out doors, early evening with a glass of red wine!

Bear Bookshop Book Of the Month
The Marriage Portrait
Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell book coverI spent several days last month either reading this book or thinking about it-particularly Lucrezia, the heroine. I studied the Browning poem for GCSE and then later taught it so I was very well acquainted with the novel's inspiration, but Thad only ever imagined Lucrezia in relation to the poem, and her relationship and experience with the Duke of Ferrara. This novel presented her as a fully formed, somewhat rebellious person confronting her reality as woman in the sixteenth century Italian court. Set in two time frames; her childhood and early marriage and the night on which she believes her husband is trying to kill her, Lucrezia considers her roles firstly as daughter of a noble family and later as a Duchess. While the first time frame moves us to the point in which she is contemplating what seems to be an almost certain death, we are able to explore and understand the troubles facing her and her fight for autonomy in a world with such clear and limiting expectations for women of her background. This was an absorbing and immersive read. The language used by the author is dense, lyrical and reflects beautifully the motifs of art and painting throughout the novel. This is definitely one of my top 5 reads of the year, best read out doors, early evening with a glass of red wine! 

The Poem: 

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!

The Marriage Portrait was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2023, A Reese's Bookclub December Pick (2022). It was an instant Sunday Times, New York Times and Irish Times Bestseller (August 2022) and won accolades from both the Guardian and LitHub where it was Book of the Year (December 2022).
Winter, 1561. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso. As they sit down to dinner it occurs to Lucrezia that Alfonso has a sinister purpose in bringing her here. He intends to kill her. Lucrezia is sixteen years old, and has led a sheltered life locked away inside Florence's grandest palazzo. Here, in this remote villa, she is entirely at the mercy of her increasingly erratic husband. What is Lucrezia to do with this sudden knowledge? What chance does she have against Alfonso, ruler of a province, and a trained soldier? How can she ensure her survival. The Marriage Portrait is an unforgettable reimagining of the life of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.
Essential Information
588 Bearwood Rd, B66 4BW
0121 7941959

Jenny McCann
Owner, Bear Bookshop

Jenny McCann's is the owner of Bear Bookshop in Bearwood which she opened in 2020. The Bear Bookshop which is a great example of how essential and what a local indie bookstore can be. Jenny also was one of the 2022 Outsideleft short story competition judges.

The Bear Bookshop is online here:

about Jenny McCann »»



All About and Contributors


Outsideleft exists on a precarious no budget budget. We are interested in hearing from deep and deeper pocket types willing to underwrite our cultural vulture activity. We're not so interested in plastering your product all over our stories, but something more subtle and dignified for all parties concerned. Contact us and let's talk. [HELP OUTSIDELEFT]


If Outsideleft had arms they would always be wide open and welcoming to new writers and new ideas. If you've got something to say, something a small dank corner of the world needs to know about, a poem to publish, a book review, a short story, if you love music or the arts or anything else, write something about it and send it along. Of course we don't have anything as conformist as a budget here. But we'd love to see what you can do. Write for Outsideleft, do. [SUBMISSIONS FORM HERE]


Ooh Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha May 29th

outsideleft content is not for everyone