Excerpt from Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Elizabeth Fremantle

Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle X
Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle
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  • Published:
    Aug 2023, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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1. Beatrice Cenci

Rome, September 1599...

The studio smells of minerals and linseed. It is silent, save for the rhythmic grinding of the pestle and mortar as an assistant mills pigments at a bench: gaudy splats of colour, glossy with oil.

Artemisia sits motionless. She is trussed up uncomfortably, like a joint of mutton, in a puce silk dress that belongs to another girl. A loose wire in her jewelled headband torments her.

She musters all her self­discipline to keep still, waiting for the moment her father turns away to discuss something with the assistant. Quick as a fly, she digs her nails into her scalp – an instant of blessed relief.

"Don't move," he blasts. She snatches her hand back into position. It must be true, his warning that he has eyes in the back of his head. She squints at the dark hair hanging to his shoulders, wondering how those invisible eyes can see through such a mane.

She has taken the place of a child whose portrait he is finishing. Artemisia hasn't seen the girl in real life but knows she is the Pope's great­great­niece, or something like it. That is why she is wearing the elaborate, scratchy lace and jewels – so her father can add the final touches without "further imposing on the young lady". She is very glad not to be the Pope's great­great­niece and have to wear such uncomfortable things every day.

The quiet is shattered as the door bangs open and her father's friend strides in, bellowing a greeting.

"You're early, Merisi." She can see her father's irritation in the red flush blossoming on his cheeks. He is usually quick to temper but not with Merisi, or not to his face any­ way. Behind his back he calls him "that vile miscreant" and worse things she is not supposed to have overheard: "The devil's taking all my commissions. Everyone calls him a genius. He's not a genius, he's a plague sore."

"Early? On the contrary" – Merisi is wearing a grin – "we'll miss all the fun if we don't hurry." He steps towards Artemisia, removing his hat with a flourish and stooping into a deep bow. "Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio at your service, my lady."

"I'm not ..." She stops, unable to remember the Pope's great­great­niece's name. "It's me, Arte –" Realizing that Merisi is teasing, she laughs.

The angelus bells ring across the city. "See, it's already noon." Merisi is animated. "Help your daughter out of that absurd dress and let's go."

"We're not taking her with us." Orazio hands his palette and brushes to the assistant to tidy away.

"Why ever not?"

"It's not a suitable occasion for a six-year-old."

"You wouldn't say that if she was a boy." Merisi winks at her, his thick­lashed eyes black and shiny. "Let her learn what becomes of girls who disobey their fathers."

She wonders what he means.

Merisi removes the jewelled band from her hair.

"Her mother would never allow it. Be careful with that. It's worth more than you earn in a year." Her father loosens her ties and lifts the heavy dress over her head, leaving her in her shift, comfortable at last.

"I didn't know your wife was your keeper." Merisi is standing in the doorway, tapping the jamb.

Artemisia watches her father relent with a sigh, as she climbs into her ordinary clothes.

"Where are we going, Papa?" She wonders if it will be one of the puppet shows in the Piazza del Popolo. She remembers the man puppet, big red circles painted on his cheeks, beating his puppet wife with a truncheon. Everybody thought it was funny.

"Isn't it much more exciting if it is a surprise?" says Merisi.


He laughs at her. Not in a way that makes her feel silly, like some adults do, but more in a way that draws her in, as if he counts her as one of his friends.

Excerpted from Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle. Copyright © 2023 by Elizabeth Fremantle. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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