Author Patricia Nicol unveils a selection of the best books on: Difficult marriages
Author Maggie O’Farrell has spent her lockdown writing about uxoricide – the killing of a woman. The Marriage Portrait, his last atmospheric historical novel, is set in 16th century Italy, in the setting of the dynastic marriage of Lucrezia de’ Medici and Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara.
Its protagonists are historical figures, but O’Farrell’s story is speculative. In 1560, 15-year-old Lucrezia left Florence to begin her married life. Within a year she was dead; it was long claimed that she had come to a delicate end. The Wedding Portrait begins several months after the honeymoon. Alfonso brought Lucrezia to a remote hunting lodge: “it comes to her with particular clarity…that he intends to kill her”.
Left: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Right: Maggie O’Farrell’s wedding portrait
For all the success of romantic fiction, it is unhappy marriages that hold arguably the most vaunted place in literary history.
Western literary tradition begins with Homer’s Iliad. What started this ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans? Helen of Argos leaving her husband Menelaus to flee to Troy with Paris.
The Women of Troy is the second installment in novelist Pat Barker’s reimagining of the Iliad from a female perspective. In it, Troy has fallen and Menelaus has reclaimed his wife. But when the narrator Briseis visits Helen, she sees “a necklace of circular bruises around her throat”. Briseis thinks: “Poor Hélène. All that beauty – and she was really just a moldy old bone for the wild dogs to fight for”.
Other people’s marriages can often seem unfathomable. One of the most inscrutable unions in 20th-century fiction is that of John le Carré’s great spy, George Smiley, and serial adulterer Lady Ann Sercombe. She despises him and his business makes him a laughing stock. Yet he remains steadfast; it always comes back. “I’m an actress, George,” she says in Smiley’s People. ‘I need a straight man. I need you.’
Many of literature’s greatest novels, like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and The Portrait of a Lady, revolve around characters in unhappy marriages.