Maggie O’Farrell recalls the day she had the idea for her latest book, The portrait of marriage. “It was February 2020 and I was sitting outside my friend’s house, waiting for my daughter to come out of what would turn out to be her last play date before lockdown,” she says. “Unusually, I was early. I had re-read Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. And I was just thinking about Browning and wondering, because some of the monologues are based on real people, if my last duchess was real? »

The portrait of marriage is O’Farrell’s ninth novel. Before it comes Hamnet, about the death at the age of 11 of Shakespeare’s only son. She had carried that idea with her for years. It was also her biggest hit, a literary success that won the 2021 Women’s Fiction Award. Now she was trying to trick herself into deciding what to do next by writing two novels at once on adjacent desks in the shelter of converted garden where she works, doing a bit on each in turn “to see which one caught fire”. The sparks didn’t fly.

“I never really wrote full time,” says Maggie O’Farrell.

Meanwhile, she looked at her phone. my last duchess is a poetic gothic horror in which a Renaissance potentate recounts how he strangled the young woman whose picture still hangs on his wall. Did this portrait exist? “It took a while to come up with an answer, but very soon the portrait of Lucrezia de Medici was uploaded,” says O’Farrell. “I could see his forehead, then his eyes. And it was a strange moment because I knew, as soon as I saw his face, that I had my next book.

Lucrezia de’ Medici was only 13 when she was engaged to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. He was twice her age; she had met him once, fleetingly, when she was a child nursing a pet mouse while playing on the parapets of the Medici castle. O’Farrell evokes this girl and her moral universe in the clean, flowing prose for which she is so admired, never resorting to anachronisms to make these people feel more like us or, conversely, the paraphernalia of scene used by lesser novelists to ward off otherness. times gone by. His Renaissance Florence is a world that makes sense on its own terms.

Lucrezia knows, for example, that her role as the daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici has always been to marry strategically and produce heirs. The prospect of his marital duties may horrify him — and few things I’ve read are more viscerally disturbing than O’Farrell’s description of his initiation into those duties — but containing that horror is part of the job. “I tried not to pass too much modern judgment on them,” says O’Farrell. “Because at the time, that was exactly what happened. She was 15 years old. It was the age of marriage. Life expectancy was probably 40, 45 years. And you know, a man like Alfonso would want someone who would produce a lot of children.

He was also, she decided, a psychopath. “It’s not entirely certain that he killed her, historically,” O’Farrell says. “At the start of the writing, I was prepared to be fairly impartial about him.” Then she read how he had her sister’s lover strangled and forced her to watch him die. “He was very proud of it, so there was no ambiguity about what he did. When I read that, I thought ‘OK, Alfonso, the gloves are off’.” It was up to her to save Lucrezia, both from her husband and from darkness; she wanted to give him a voice.

It does not do so by sticking to the known facts, which are few. O’Farrell’s Lucrezia is an animal whisperer, academically brilliant, and an artist who moves her paintings from one locked room to another. “I made this up, totally,” she says. What she knew was that Cosme had educated his daughters with his sons; they had the best classical education money could buy. “Not only that, but on the walls of their houses they had the mark of Botticelli. Birth of Venus and Primavera. What effect would that have on you? I guess that’s why I wanted to give him a way to express himself. You have this amazing upbringing, but you’ve been locked in a palace all your life. You are going to need something.

O'Farrell in 2011, when <i>Hamnett</i> won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.” loading=”lazy” src=”https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.279%2C$multiply_0.7725%2C$ratio_1.5% 2C$width_756%2C$x_40%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/6c6f093b85f7d7da8154cb75ccf6a477a9892c3a” height=”390″ width=”584″ srcset=”https://static.ffx.io/images/$zoom_0.279% 2C$multiply_0.7725%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_40%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_86%2Cf_auto/6c6f093b85f7d7da8154cb75ccf6a477a9892c3a, https://static.ffx.io/images/279%2C_0. $multiply_1.545%2C$ratio_1.5%2C$width_756%2C$x_40%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/q_62%2Cf_auto/6c6f093b85f7d7da8154cb75ccf6a477a9892c3a 2x”/></picture><figcaption class=

O’Farrell in 2011, when Hamnett won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.Credit:PA

O’Farrell herself comes from an academic family; she read English at Cambridge, intending to go on to write a doctoral paper on the medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight. She loves research. “When you’re writing a contemporary novel — any novel — there’s always a series of brick walls that you encounter,” she says. “You have to find your way around them. When you’re writing a historical novel, you can just say to yourself, “Well, I’ll do some more research!” I can go down a funny rabbit hole for several days to see how people grind lapis lazuli! »

The doctorate never took place, however; her grades were not good enough to secure funding for graduate school. “At the time it looked like a disaster, but it was just one of those things. Because I actually went to Hong Kong and worked for a newspaper. I loved Hong Kong. It was very, very exciting; it was in 1994, so before the transfer. And I don’t think I would have been a very good academic. I’m too restless.

She wrote her first two books while working at a Sunday newspaper in London. The third she combined with freelance and teaching bits. All three have won major awards. “Then when I had my son in 2003, I gave up extras to be with him as much as I could and write my novels as quickly as possible. I never really wrote full time, but that I’m fine. I think too much time at your desk is probably dangerous for a writer. You must be desperate and hungry by the time you get to your desk. And a good filtering system happens if you don’t have enough time to write too.

TAKE 7: MAGGIE O’FARRELL’S ANSWERS

  1. Worst habit? I asked my husband that. He said, “Recycle newspapers before someone else reads them.”
  2. Biggest fear? Suffocation. I am terribly claustrophobic.
  3. Biggest regret? Give up the cello. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had to have my lesson after the school day was over and I hated being there after everyone left; it was really scary. Big mistake.
  4. The work of art you would like to own? Probably a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. One of those with all the crossed strings that look like lyres.
  5. The line that stayed with you? The first line of Jane Eyre – “There was no possibility of a walk that day” – is so elegant and so simple, a very clever front line. With these words “that day”, Charlotte Brontë signals that something is going to happen.
  6. Favorite room? Our bathroom. There’s the original Edwardian bath and I have a ridiculous thing about indoor plants, so it’s pretty jungle.
  7. If I could solve one thing… There are so many! Climate change is very, very high on my agenda, but I also guess when I was getting to the end of writing about Lucrezia, I started thinking about domestic violence. I wish I could solve this. So two things, if that’s OK.

Her husband is fellow writer (and early reader) William Sutcliffe, whose reviews she called “brutal, but you need it.” Their son is now 19; they also have daughters aged 16 and 10. They moved to Edinburgh 12 years ago, the longest she has lived in one place. Does her husband share the furnished shed? She bursts out laughing at the very thought. “We couldn’t do that. I don’t think we would have stayed married! He likes to listen to jazz when he works. I hate jazz. We’re pretty good at ignoring ourselves. I just texted him saying, ‘Your music is too loud, turn it down!’ »

Those years in journalism served her well as a writer, she thinks. “You must be completely indifferent to your words. Just hit the words. But she has always been a novelist in waiting. As a child, she caught encephalitis and spent a year in hospital, expecting to die; meanwhile she read voraciously – the Moomins, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Pippi Longstocking – and eventually recovered. She also kept diaries. “They’re full of utter nonsense, but I can look at them and know that this six-year-old really wanted to fill that notebook with something.”

She has no idea where this urge comes from. “There’s this whole debate about whether writers are made or born. I think the answer is probably a bit of both. But you can’t just have the inclination and the skills. You also need to be pretty bloody minded because to get there you need to be incredibly focused and resilient. I think it takes a mix of a lot of things.

On reflection, she sees The portrait of marriage like his novel COVID. “The writing of the book was interrupted by the pandemic and, in a way, it’s no coincidence that I was writing a book about a girl and her family who are completely confined – for their own safety – in a palace “, she says. “Having 16th-century Florence to escape to during the pandemic while confined to a house was not a bad solution to cabin fever. But there was no part of me that thought, ‘Oh, I wish I could go back – no, not at all.’ On the contrary, she was simply happy not to be a woman in the Renaissance era – and, more than anything, that her daughters weren’t either.

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The book was finished by the time she was able to visit Lucretia’s tomb. It’s inside a monastery which due to the pandemic was closed when he visited. “I rang the bell, one of those big bells, and explained in my very poor Italian that I wanted to visit the tomb of Lucrezia de Medici,” O’Farrell recalled. They kept saying, “Oh, so you want to see Lucrezia Borgia? The scandalous Lucretius, temptress and alleged poisoner, was the grandmother of Alfonso II; she is also buried there. It turned out that no one had ever asked to see the tomb of that other Lucretius, heroine of Browning’s greatest poem.

“And it’s so heartbreaking,” O’Farrell says. She suspects the monks thought she was a crackpot, standing by the tomb no one visited. “I had brought flowers and placed them on his grave,” she said. ” And I cried. I was so sad for her.

The portrait of marriage is published on August 30. Maggie O’Farrell will be in conversation with Sophie Black, via video link, at the Melbourne Writers Festival on September 8. mwf.com.au