Title: The Trophy Bride’s Tale
Author: Cyrilla Barr
No. of Pages: 434
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Bascom Hill Publishing Group
Bottom Line: Decent piece of fiction but ultimately Prudenza’s idiosyncrasies and issues with medical details push it across the line from interesting to just plain annoying.
“Prudenza, an innocent convent-educated adolescent, the trophy bride of a silk merchant – subjected to increasing cruelty and harsh treatment at his hands. Even so, she tries to be a good wife within the social constraints of Renaissance Italy.The Trophy Bride’s Tale is based on a true case of domestic abuse, murder, and criminal justice in sixteenth-century Florence. Cyrilla Barr’s imagination and scholarship combine to illuminate a footnote in history: the story of a young mother convicted of killing her husband.Using archival documents as the framework of the narrative, and with attention to historic detail, Barr adds life and spirit to the story of Prudenza Cecchi. The tale begins as she is led to the scaffold, choosing to sacrifice her own life to save her children.”
Thoughts: In the 1500s, women had very few options and almost no rights. They were often married for financial reasons to one designed to improve a family’s position and very rarely married for love. They were subject to the whims of their fathers, the Church, and later their husbands. They could own no property and were completely reliant on others for money and for material goods. If facing an untenable situation, like an abusive parent or husband, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it other than suffer as their daughterly or wifely duty. This is the life into which Prudenza Cecchi is born. Her attempt to try to change her fate resulted in her execution and a very public admonishment that all women were to heed her example of how not to act. Cyrilla Barr’s The Trophy Bride’s Tale sheds light onto this mysterious Florentine woman, using historical documents and a healthy amount of imagination to flesh out and explain what drove her to sacrifice herself for her children.
The Good – The Trophy Bride’s Tale is first and foremost a tale of fiction, but its roots are indubitably based in fact. In her author’s notes, Ms. Barr notes how she uncovered the poem penned about Prudenza’s life and found in her cell after her death. She describes her search through Florence’s archives to find documentation about her trial and learn more about this mysterious women whose poem has lasted for 500 years. This basis in fact provides a rich backdrop for the story, knowing that the key elements of the story actually did occur.
Adding to this are the beautiful, almost lyrical, descriptions of life in 1540 Florence. Ms. Barr uses a no-holds barred approach to her descriptions, describing the beauty and the nastiness of the age in equal detail. In fact, she leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to describing the life – its smells, sounds, and views – Prudenza lives.
The Bad – The story revolves around Prudenza Cecchi – a women born to loving parents, educated in a convent to teach her the proper manners and accomplishments for her future life as a wife and mother, devout Christian, and wife to an abusive, almost bipolar, husband. The Trophy Bride’s Tale covers her entry to the convent, the unusual arrangement of her marriage, as well as her move to Florence and marriage to the unpredictable Matteo Cecchi. Prudenza is intelligent, beautiful, loving, and gifted; namely, she is a stereotypical Madonna-like figure who inspires deep loyalty and love within everyone knows her. While the cliche of her role is understandable, even if it is a bit of a stretch, the true issue is the fact that she cannot make up her mind to be strong-minded or submissive when it comes to her husband.
Yes, he is cantankerous, prone to fits of insane jealousy, irrational, and physically abusive, and this can wreak havoc on even the strongest will. Still, Prudenza will defend herself, and her children, one minute and then succumb to the need to cater to his every whim the next. These switches to submissiveness are so unlike the Prudenza the reader has gotten to know and understand that they ring false for a reader and cause a major disruption within the narrative.
Also, those with atheist leanings will struggle with Prudenza’s sense of duty and obedience to the husband who has endangered her life and the lives of their children. It is one thing to feel pity for someone who falls so far so quickly, but to devote herself to nursing the man who has made her life hellish beyond her wildest dreams may be difficult to fathom for modern readers. Similarly, her refusal to heed the advice of friends and family alike is incredibly frustrating, especially as she knows they are right. Her stubborn streaks tend to diminish the sense of sympathy a reader will feel for her and her situation.
The Ugly (warning – there will be spoilers) – For a novel with roots directly tied to a real historical figure, beautifully researched with vivid details regarding Florence in the 1530s and 1540s, the tale quickly veers into the preposterous regarding medical issues. For one thing, Prudenza is supposed to have been far enough along in her pregnancy that she was able to spontaneously abort the baby after a major trauma to her abdomen and have the baby live even though no one else knew she was pregnant…with her fourth child. I’ve researched 1540s Florentine fashions; the stomachers popular back then would have made it virtually impossible for any female to hid her pregnancy, let alone a fourth one given how readily a body expands after even one pregnancy.
Then there is the issue of the spontaneous abortion/birth. One minute she is pregnant, the next minute she has been thrown against the corner of a piece of furniture, and the baby is instantly expelled. We are talking she feels the baby pop out in a gush of blood. Again, not even five minutes of research will show that hard blows to the abdomen will not cause spontaneous births, and even if the trauma would disrupt the placenta, the birth would not be so sudden. Anyone who has given birth knows how long it takes for the body to get ready for delivery, so again, a reader has to suspend disbelief to get through this scene.
Also, let’s not forget the viability of the baby. What are the chances that in the 1540s, when doctors were bleeding people as a cure-all from every medical ailment known and unknown, a premature infant would survive with undeveloped lungs? The entire scene, from the previously unannounced pregnancy to the sudden birth and survival of the premature child, is too sensational and does not fit with the gravity of the rest of the novel.
We also have the circumstances of Matteo’s death. Yes, Spanish Fly is a poison, but a reader is supposed to assume that he died a gruesomely violent death immediately upon ingestion of the poison. How can one urinate blood, lose all functionality of the bowels, and bleed from every orifice within seconds of swallowing a poison? The poison has not even had a chance to get into the bloodstream, let alone into the various organs that would have to be affected for such a reaction. Yet, this is what happens to Matteo and ultimately seals Prudenza’s doom. Once again, a quick Google search will show a discerning reader that death by Spanish Fly is a slow death, which makes sense as it requires time to get into the major organs.
What makes these flights of fancy so difficult to accept is what little research is necessary to discern the biology behind these scenes. Given that the entire novel is a study in research, with the entire basis of the story hinging on real documentation about the real Prudenza Cecchi, a woman who was executed by decapitation in 1549 for murdering her abusive husband, this lack of medical research is unfathomable and simply inexcusable. The sensationalism caused by these inaccurate scenes is a major disservice to the sobriety of the novel, and its discussion of the timelessness of spousal abuse and the lack of adequate options for abused wives. One would expect better of a historian.
In the end, while The Trophy Bride’s Tale has a fascinating premise, it is the sensationalism towards the end, as well as the rapid pace of the denouement, that will ultimately leave the reader with a bad taste. One gets the impression that Ms. Barr felt that she spent too much time on Prudenza’s youth that she had to hurry up and finish the narrative. The story is strongest when Ms. Barr sticks to the facts and declines quickly the more elements of fiction she incorporates. This is troubling because Prudenza’s story is truly timeless. Instead, one gets a caricature for a heroine, unrealistic elements, and a story that rushes to its sad conclusion. Unfortunately, Prudenza Cecchi deserves better than what she received, both in life and now in death.