A creative writing teaching on fantastic foreshadowing or marvelous misdirection, an unsatisfying heroine, and what you can steal for your own work in progress

by Studio Peer Mentor and Teaching Assistant April Streeter


Image of a marriage portrait, painted by Agnolo Bronzino, of Lucrezia di'Medici, (14 February 1545 – 21 April 1561) who was a member of the House of Medici and Duchess consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio from 1558 to 1561. Painted by Agnolo Bronzino. She wears a black velvet gown, a decorative head piece, golden pearls, and holds a jeweled object at her chest.

Lucrezia di’Medici (14 February 1545 – 21 April 1561) was a member of the House of Medici and Duchess consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio from 1558 to 1561. Painted by Agnolo Bronzino.


Fantastic Foreshadowing…or

Lucrezia, the young protagonist in The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, is a compelling character in great danger. The reader meets her on a winter evening in 1561 and is told in the author’s ‘historical note’ that Lucrezia will die that same year. This is long after her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia’s death, stated outright, directly foreshadows the outcome of the book. The historical note includes the rumor that she may have been murdered by Alfonso. Lucrezia’s foreshadowed murder and her murderous husband getting away with it are the very reasons I was an eager reader.

In literary terms, foreshadowing is a narrative device in which suggestions or warnings about events to come are dropped or planted. Direct foreshadowing, like it sounds, is stated outright by a narrator or secondary character and may be in the form of prophecy or prediction. Indirect foreshadowing is the sprinkling of clues to the reader that may seems insignificant or confusing until a plot twist makes them obvious.

O’Farrell uses both in abundance.

First, there is the ominous historical note. Next, in the very first chapter Lucrezia ponders Alfonso’s intent to carry out her murder five times. “It comes to her with a peculiar clarity,” O’Farrell first states on page three, “that he intends to kill her.” These portents continue four times more in that first chapter and with great regularity throughout the text.*

On my first read of The Marriage Portrait, having come to O’Farrell after devouring Hamnet, I was impressed with the brevity of the opening chapter and its chilling references to Lucrezia’s supposed plight. Knowing the outcome did not detract me from getting hooked into the story. The opening chapters, describing Lucrezia’s early life, including her encounter with a caged tiger from her father’s menagerie – subsequently brutally killed by two lions – was the perfect set-up of the crime to come. Damsel in distress with a tiger’s spirit battles the forces of Italian patriarchy and misogyny? Bring it on!

O’Farrell also employed an effective structure, threading chapters about the single day/night leading to the murder with backstory chapters of how Lucrezia came to be married to a man who plans to kill her. This keeps the tension high.

A list of chapter titles (bold titles signifying forward action and non-bold the backstory chapters) shows the author’s strict adherence, except in the very first set-up chapters, to this structural pattern.

A Wild and Lonely Place, 1561

The Unfortunate Circumstances of Lucrezia’s Conception, 1544

The First Tiger in Tuscany, 1552

Venison Baked in Wine, 1561

Seven Galleys Laden With Gold, 1550s

The End of the Meal, 1561

Everything Changes, 1557

This Journey’s True Design, 1561

Something Read in the Pages of a Book, 1557

Somewhere in the Darkness, 1561

The Duchess Lucrezia on Her Wedding Day, 1560

Scorched Earth, 1561

Man Asleep, Ruler at Rest, 1560

A Curving Meander of the River, 1561

Honey Water, 1560

With Her Head Held High, 1561

Sisters of Alfonso II, Seen from a Distance, 1560

The Marriage Portrait of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, 1561

A Presence Malign and Predatory, 1561

The Underpainting and the Overpainting, 1561

Or Marvelous Misdirection?

But right there around the mid-point in the above list, in the chapter Scorched Earth, readers get their first indirect hint that O’Farrell’s foreshadowing is actually clever misdirection. Literary misdirection is defined as ‘the act of diverting your reader’s attention for an important clue…a technique of deception to keep the audience’s attention elsewhere so that the trick is carried out successfully.’ And what is the trick in The Marriage Portrait? Readers who reach the end (spoiler alert!) realize, and usually are gratified, that Lucrezia steals out the fortezza kitchen door to escape her husband’s evil-minded henchman Leonello and gain her freedom. The bloated body in the bed the next day isn’t Lucrezia but her maid Emilia.

It’s a clever twist and in Scorched Earth, O’Farrell begins true foreshadowing of Emilia as the real victim of Leonello and Alfonso’s lethal plans. The hint is dropped that Emilia has secretly left the main castle where the couple resides and made her way to the fortezza without anyone, including the killers, knowing. As the narrative goes on, we get more true foreshadowing clues. Lucrezia notices how alike she is to Emilia, how similar they are to each other in height and coloring, and she speculates that with similar clothing they might be taken for each other (Pg. 126). The deepening relationship between Emilia and Lucrezia as equals is developed (Pg. 129), and Lucrezia even implores Emilia to sleep in the same bed together with her (Pg. 130), directly foreshadowing why Emilia will be asleep in Lucrezia’s place when the murder happens.

This foreshadowing of Emilia’s role in the plot’s final twist continues. “We have similar colouring, you and I, do we not?” Lucrezia comments (Pg. 178). There are even hints of Emilia offering herself as victim when on that page the maid tells about her own disfiguring burn that Lucrezia narrowly escaped as a baby: “Better that it was me and not you. Better that it was me who was disfigured.” This statement of Emilia’s foreshadows the ‘disfigurement’ of her body by Alfonso and Baldassare at the end of the tale.

An Unsatisfying Heroine

Lucrezia is depicted as an imaginative, creative, artistic young girl, trapped in a marriage and lifestyle in which she has little control or agency. O’Farrell writes, and convincingly, of Lucrezia’s changing emotional landscape, of her insecurity in her own feelings and intuitions, of her unstable sense of self. That all rang true to me as a portrait of a young person, a teenager feeling strong and rebellious in some ways and uncertain in many others.

But what is all that detailed description of Lucrezia’s emotional states in service to? She goes through so many upheavals and as a budding artist is so straightjacketed by her time and circumstances, that at first she seems to be a multi-faceted heroine. I rooted for her. I wanted her to escape and in my first read-through was thrilled when she stepped through the kitchen door – the tiger’s powerful soul uncaged!

Yet with close examination, Lucrezia is revealed to be rather one-dimensional. She lacks depth. Throughout the story she consistently has the same reaction to her husband, in scene after scene, going back and forth between first a burst of rebellion and then meek acquiescence, in every encounter. She does not seem to learn or grow as the narrative culminates.

A satisfying protagonist must have character strengths with the primary heroic virtues being courage, self-sacrifice, the ability to forgive, honesty and integrity, humility, prudence, and faith. Lucrezia has her (tiger’s) fierce will. She experiences external and internal conflict due to the fact that she is always constrained and confined, never truly able to express that will.

To me, that isn’t quite enough to make her a multi-dimensional heroine. At the climactic action, Lucrezia chooses to save herself but not her maid, who is the only character for the span of the book that is enduringly loyal and loving to her. So much so that on Pg. 205 Lucrezia declares she “will not surrender her maid to [Alfonso]. Never.”

Yet that is exactly what she does. She doesn’t protect Emilia, instead stealing Emilia’s dress and making a dash out the back door for the forest and her erstwhile lover Jacopo. For me, that makes her an unsatisfying heroine and the book a story that fails to go the distance.

Beautiful Stuff to Steal

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing in this book to admire. O’Farrell’s descriptions, especially of the setting of late-Renaissance Italy, are frequently luminous. In addition to the successful weaving back and forth of backstory in the structure, The Marriage Portrait has a very strong sense of place through sensuous the descriptions of interiors and buildings and gardens. One example, from late in the novel, is the description of Elisabetta’s chambers: “Her rooms are draped in deepest pink, like the interior of a soft fruit, and Lucrezia is obliged to sit and watch…” (Pg. 245) Contrast this with how the rooms look after Elisabetta’s lover is killed: “Tonight, the berry-pink wall hangings seem to have harvested the darkness around them, taking on a lowering, purplish hue.’ (Pg. 276).

I also admired the narrative mirroring O’Farrell does with characters and incidents. For example, Lucrezia’s father’s dynasty is described as ‘in danger of dying out’ in 1544 (though it isn’t) while later Alfonso’s dynasty is also described as being in danger of dying out in 1560 (and it is). Vitelli is an unfeeling, harsh consigliere to Lucrezia’s father, mirrored by Leonello Baldassare an even worse, evil-intentioned consigliere to Alfonso. Isabella and Maria, Lucrezia’s sisters, remind us of Cinderella’s stepsisters, haughty and snobby and caring for Lucrezia not one bit. Later, Nunciata and Elisabetta are more cruel mirrors of those two as Lucrezia’s haughtier, snobbier, more scheming sisters-in-law. And as mentioned earlier, the tiger’s captivity, murder and disfigurement by two lions is mirrored by Emilia’s attack, murder and disfigurement by Leonello, described as a lion, and Alfonso. There’s even a sort of foreshadowing or mirroring of the maid Emilia’s dress. Lucrezia, on a whim, puts on Emilia’s plain dress and claims a moment of freedom and heroism when saving the artist Jacopo (Pg. 262). This is mirrored by her donning the dress at the end of the story and fleeing toward freedom and Jacopo, though with less heroic results for Emilia.

The Marriage Portrait is a beautifully written book with much to teach us as writers. Ultimately it poses an important question: do we, as authors, have a duty to provide our protagonists with situations that not only test their moral values but allow them to transcend the egoic realm and be true heroes and heroines?

What are your thoughts? Is Lucrezia’s break for freedom enough to leave you satisfied with the story? Does it go the distance for you? Put these into the comments section.

April Streeter, Peer MentorApril has studied at Blackbird for seven years (SII) and is a founding member of the Whole Writers Program. With an undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Hawaii and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a master’s in International Policy Studies, April is a longtime blogger and freelance journalist. She is the author of Women on Wheels: The Scandalous Untold Histories of Women on Bicycles (Microcosm, 2021) and co-editor of Our Bodies, Our Bikes with Ellie Blue (Microcosm, 2015). After studying at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, she wrote tech news for MacWEEK and LANTimes magazine. Turning to sustainability and climate change, April contributed to Tomorrow Magazine and was managing editor at Sustainable Industries Journal. Living in Sweden, she was also a correspondent at Windpower Monthly and a blogger TreeHugger website. Finally, April has contributed to Lit Lessons to discuss falling in love with The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. 

April is at work on her first novel and offers an early morning online yoga teaching at Your Morning Yoga.

Click here to learn more about Peer Mentorship with April.

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