Edinburgh International Book Festival interview: Hamnet author Maggie O’Farrell on surviving lockdown and the Italian origins of her new novel

For her follow-up to the acclaimed Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell spent much of lockdown imagining life in 16th century Italy… before making an emotional pilgrimage to her heroine’s grave. By David Robinson

Books run through people’s lives. They disappear for years on end and resurface at odd moments, like when you’re waiting outside a friend’s house in Slateford for your daughter to come out of what turned out to be her last playdate before lockdown.

Or at least that’s what happened with Maggie O’Farrell and Robert Browning. Years ago, when she still lived in North Berwick but was putting together her Eng Lit undergraduate reading list for Cambridge, she bought a set of his complete works in a local junk shop. She’s still got it, and occasionally rereads some of his poems, especially the dramatic monologues. She remembers the shock she felt when she first came across Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and got to the bit where the duke effectively admits to murdering his wife:

I gave commands;

Maggie O'Farrell

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive.

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Waiting for her daughter that early spring afternoon in Edinburgh, she wondered whether that had actually happened. Were the duke and duchess in Browning’s poem real, historical figures? Yes, said Google, and it gave her a name – Lucrezia de’ Medici – and the fact that she had died, aged 16, in 1561. Four minutes later, O’Farrell downloaded a portrait. As soon as she saw it, she realised she’d found the subject of her next novel. Her last, Hamnet, was about to be launched on a journey towards what turned out to be bestsellerdom and literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic, and here she was again, turning back towards the 16th century.

“Normally,” she says, “I would have gone to Florence and Ferrara as soon as I could, but what with lockdown I couldn’t. Still there was an enormous amount of reading to be done – lots has been written about the Medicis although nothing about Lucrezia, so I read as much as I could. I found I could just about stay sane in lockdown if I could spend an hour in Renaissance Florence, which is not a bad place to go armchair travelling to.”

Lucrezia, it turned out, knew all about lockdown too. “Her father Cosimo, Duke of Florence, had survived several assassination attempts and his daughters were effectively locked into the Palazzo Vecchio. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this novel is all about confinement and lack of choice.”

Although Cosimo was enlightened enough to educate his daughters alongside his sons, Lucrezia had no say about who she would marry. Good relations with neighbouring Ferrara were a Florentine priority, and its ruler, Duke Alfonso II d’Este – he of the Browning poem – had already been betrothed to Lucrezia’s elder sister Maria when she died. Marriage to the 15-year-old Lucrezia inevitably followed, and she soon left Florence for Alfonso’s court in Ferrara, where she knew no-one.

What happened there remains unclear. Browning’s poem, O’Farrell points out, allows for plenty of ambiguity about Alfonso – “Is he a psychopath or just so convinced of his own power that he can say what he likes?”) – and when she started the novel she meant to be even-handed about him (“Perhaps Lucrezia died of putrid fever or tuberculosis, or something like that.”). Then she discovered that Alfonso was capable not only of murder but a murder staged in front of a close relative. Her sympathies hardened against him.

By the time she was able to visit Florence and Ferrara, the picture of Lucrezia that O’Farrell had in her head was not just that of the 1560 portrait attributed to Bronzino but of a woman who realises she has married a monster. “I had written a lot of the book by that point and thought: ’What if I’ve got it all wrong or if I find out I’ve made a terrible mistake?’

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“What I didn’t realise was the incredible emotional impact I felt when I saw the places I had been writing about. Going to the palazzo where she grew up and the castello where she died and to her tomb... I found that really affecting. It was like a kick in the chest.

“All the d’Estes are buried in a working monastery, Corpus Domini, in the south of Ferrara. That’s where Lucrezia Borgia is too. The whole place was boarded up because of Covid, and when I said I wanted to visit Lucrezia de’ Medici’s grave, everyone said, ‘You mean Lucrezia Borgia?’ There was a certain amount of consternation. ‘No-one has ever, ever asked to see her grave’ they said.

“Which was so upsetting. Here was this girl who died aged 16 far from her family. Whether or not you think she was murdered, she died surrounded by people she didn’t know, and the fact that nobody had ever visited her grave .... Anyway, I left her some flowers, some lilies in a pot.”

Lucrezia has been neglected in Florence too. “The rest of the Medicis have a whole room to themselves in the Uffizi, but if you want to see the only portrait of Lucrezia on display in Europe, it is so hard to find, almost obscured by a fire extinguisher in a tiny crowded room in the Palatine gallery.”

But there, all the same it was, this picture by Bronzini that had first intrigued her all those months ago back in Edinburgh, an incredibly detailed portrait of a young girl from the distant past that, when she finally stood in front of it, turned out to be only slightly larger than The Marriage Portrait, the novel O’Farrell has now written.

“The whole engine of the novel,” she says, “was to give Lucrezia a voice. For so long, she has been a silent portrait behind curtains. What I wanted to do was to pull aside the curtain and say, ‘Come on. It’s your turn now. Let’s hear what you have to say.’”

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Maggie O’Farrell will be in conversation with Damian Barr about her new novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 29 August at 5.30pm. The Marriage Portrait is published by Tinder Press on 30 August, priced £25.