[Fiction Issue] ‘You need a plan … To lose your temper is to lose the battle’—Read an excerpt from Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Marriage Portrait

The JRB presents an excerpt from The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell.

The Marriage Portrait
Maggie O’Farrell
Headline, 2022

Venison baked in wine

Fortezza, near Bondeno, 1561

‘And perhaps tomorrow,’ her husband is saying, as he tips his bowl to scoop out the final dregs of soup, ‘we shall go for a ride along the river. The views further west are most pleasing to the eye. I will see it to that your saddle is adjusted—I noticed today that it was listing on one side. And the hoofs of your mare will need attention, I fear, when we return, and …’

The sense of his words disintegrates as Lucrezia stares at him, until what comes from his mouth reaches her as a string of babble and nonsense, the squawks of a beast. Why is he saying these things? How can he sit there, serenely eating his food, talking about groomsmen and horse tack when somewhere in his mind lurks a scheme to end her life?

Once again, Lucrezia seems to hear the rasping voice of his sister Elisabetta saying into her ear: you have no idea what he is capable of.

Despite the fire that growls and pops in the large grate, despite the breath that comes from her, from her husband, from the servants in the shadows, the air in the dining hall is as frigid as iron. It has been an unusually chill winter, which yet shows no sign of ending. Even the candles, standing in ornate brass holders, seem to shiver, casting an uncertain light that doesn’t reach the walls. Her husband’s face comes in and out of visibility. She watches, with fixed fascination, as his expression changes with every flicker of the candle: first thoughtful, then kind, now stern, now animated, now forbidding, now handsome, then amorous and then detached. It is true: she has no idea what he is capable of, and she does not want to find out.

Again, she feels her disbelief as a bubble of mirth, just below her ribcage. If she is not careful, she will burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all, his talk, his pretence, his dissembling, his lying looks.

Her husband, who means to kill her, either by his own hand or by his order to another, takes up the end of his napkin and dabs at his cheek with its pointed corner, as if a spot of soup on one’s face is a matter of importance. Her husband, who intends her death, spends a moment brushing a stray hair from his brow, then finally tucks it behind his ear. Her husband, the murderer, says, over his shoulder to the servants, that the cook should be told to add more salt. As if seasoning is important to them now. Her husband, who will kill her before long, reaches out, as if he means to fold her cold fingers into his palm. It is this that proves too much for her. She startles into life, moves her hand away, picking up her spoon and dipping it into her bowl.

And in an instant, her mirth shrivels and burns, alchemising into the purest, hottest form of fury. How dare he? She moves her spoon from bowl to mouth, her hand trembling with the effort of not transmitting her thoughts to him. Concealment, here, is all. The broth’s surface is spangled with yellow circles of oil. She fixes her eye on these instead of on him. She has a feeling that if she were to see his face, his neatly parted hair, the whiteness of his teeth, her rage would boil over and she might shout or strike him or run from the room. 

She will not allow him to kill her, to extinguish her. But how can she, a small-for-her-age sixteen-year-old bride with no friends or allies present get the better of him, a soldier, a duke, a man of twenty-seven? She recalls the lessons in combat her brothers received, the hours and hours they spent practising with swords and lances and spears, with ropes to strangle, clubs to batter, daggers to slash and stab, how they learnt to parry, thrust and maim, to block a blow with one hand while delivering a counter-blow with the other, to turn and duck, to wrest themselves from the grip of another, to kill and to survive. They were taught all this, as Alfonso would have been, while she, Isabella and Maria were cloistered upstairs, learning how to replicate flowers in threads of coloured silk. 

‘You need a plan,’ she hears—or seems to hear—her old nurse, Sofia, say, from a place near her elbow. ‘To lose your temper is to lose the battle.’

A plan. A strategy. Sofia was always a woman with a plan. She would have made a wonderful condottiero, Lucrezia had often told her, had she been born a man. 

So be it, she says to the invisible Sofia next to her. So be it.

She lets out her held breath, slowly, through her nose. Forces herself to smile at her husband, to lift her spoon, to take a sip of soup.


  • Maggie O’farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972. Her novels include Hamnet (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), After You’d Gone, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award), and Instructions for a Heatwave. She has also written a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. She lives in Edinburgh.


Publisher information 

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf. 

Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble? 

As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance. 

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.

Author photo: Murdo Macleod

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