Longing Against the Facts of History: ‘The Marriage Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Last night I watched the movie Three Thousand Years of Longing, starring Tilda Swinton as Alithea, a solitary-but-contented “narratologist,” and Idris Elba as the Djinn she inadvertently releases from a bottle bought in an Istanbul shop. Because she’s a scholar of stories, Alithea resists falling for the pitfalls inherent in stories of wishes while the Djinn, attempting to persuade her to make her wishes and release him from bondage, recounts his own sad tale in a series of vignettes meant to generate empathy for his plight. The movie wants the audience to come away with a renewed sense of the importance and centrality of stories to humans but it approaches this point like it’s writing an essay, placing it’s underlined thesis at both intro and conclusion, the artistic equivalent of banging pots together while marching up and down the street hollering, “This is the point!” So while I found myself taken in by the Djinn’s stories, the larger arc collapses under the weight of its own self-importance, the story of Alithea and the Djinn not given time or space to breathe or simply be.

So why do we tell and consume stories? For entertainment. For learning. As a way of understanding the ineffable and mysterious. In some ways, I’m not sure the primary question is very interesting to me at this point. Because I or someone could argue X or Y and no argument would alter the simple fact that we do. We sort our lives into stories. We absorb them constantly. It’s as human as smiling at baby creatures and desiring yummy food.

What feels more interesting is why I like the stories that I do. Why am I more drawn to characters over plot? Why do I prefer fantasy over science fiction but speculative fiction over “high” fantasy? How do good stories work their peculiar magic?

Take, for example, The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. Lucrezia De’Medici became Duchess of Ferrarra in the 1500s before dying at the age of 16, ostensibly of a putrid fever but rumors persisted that she was murdered by her husband. These rumors led Robert Browning to write “My Last Duchess,” perhaps his most famous poem. Other than her parents, siblings, and husband, we know almost nothing else about Lucrezia. Only one painting of her exists.

Decorative image: The cover of the book 'The Marriage Portrait' by Maggie O'Farrell, featuring a Renaissance painting of the face of a young woman, slashed through with orange stripes with the title and author.

Out of this history, obscured by time and misogyny, O’Farrell constructs a world of upper class Renaissance Italy, creates a girl finding space for herself within highly-constrained circumstances, and spins a story in language so sparkling and grubby and mysterious and melancholy that I felt myself pulled in by the gravity of the novel such that I finished it in only a few days. Like its predecessor Hamnet, The Marriage Portrait tells a story destined to end in death. O’Farrell seems to have a knack for constructing the worlds and interiorities of 16th century women for whom tragedy looms over their biographies. Through her writing, she brings them to life again, makes them more than the loss of a son, the wife of a playwrite, or a potential murder victim, imagines them into a whole-personess never granted by history.

Which brings me to fairy tales, not the weird and wondrous folk tales and mythologies from which they often originate, but the versions generated in more recent times, generally for children. Fairy tales convey culture like any other story, but they also lie. No matter how much darkness permeates in the middle, a fairy tale ends happily, at least within the logic of the story and the culture conveying it. They reassure readers that everything turns out right in the end, such that we even tell dreamers and children and those working to make a better world that their efforts are a “fairy tale.”

So here I am, reading a story of duchesses and dukes, loyal servants and court intrigue, with a compelling young girl at the center. These fairy tale tropes battle in my head with the historical details draped like elaborate, layered garments on top. I find myself loving this girl, this made-up version of a person who died almost 500 years ago. I want her to live past 16. I want her to have a full life. I want her to triumph over or at least amidst her circumstances and live happily-ever-after. Yet the historical facts belie my wish. Whether murdered or sick, Lucrezia De’Medici died at the age of 16. End of story.

I do not want to spoil the ending and there are many things I would love to unpack. (Call me!) But the ending itself is not my point, rather the impact of my wanting a certain kind of ending. I hear so many defenses of fantasy and science fiction, whether for the “realism” of the grimdark or the need to imagine something different and better in solar-punk or hope-punk. But there exists some magic happening in The Marriage Portrait because this particular novel is literary historical fiction. Because of its basis in history combined, I suspect, with a setting so often mimicked in Western or Western-inspired fairy tales, the novel sets up different expectations as a reader and therefore invites a different interrogation of the readerly experience. I am fascinated by this experience, this literary technique, and curious about other books that generate an argument between assumptions and longing, between facts and desires, between understanding what “really happened” and wishing things were different, better.

Because I am compelled by my readerly experience—intrigued by what is revealed in this longing for the assurances of a happy ending, by my persistence in wishing for this in the novel despite the Historical Facts. On one hand, I could deem this desire childish, and by association every person’s desire for a happy ending. The experience also reminded me of reading Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise, the implication of my distantly bloodied hands through my wanting a happy ending for this boy even as, in reality, Syrian and other refugees die every day seeking only to live. Face facts. Don’t be such a dreamer. Stop believing in fairy tales.

On the other hand, however, I see the deep power of fiction to generate empathy and how the creation of empathy incites a desire for justice for the character(s) in question, or simply for good and normal things for them, which is to say in another way, justice. Murdered or not, nobody deserves what Lucrezia went through no matter her relative privilege compared to poor women, no matter the historical norms of the time. So my desire for a happy ending could be seen as not a desire for a soothing lie but, rather, a deep ache for justice. And by bringing her to life in this way, by writing Lucrezia into a whole, complex person, O’Farrell enacts a bit of that justice and also creates a longing for it.