"Iris Origo: Threads and Co-incidences." By Deborah Fry, November 2019

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Working in Grand Days one day, putting some new old books on the shelves, I came across Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows and was delighted.  I’d read a review of it and four other books of hers in London Review of Books (The Italianness of it All by Tessa Hadley, 24 May 2018) and had put her into that long list of ‘must read’s in the back of my mind. I had assumed from her name that she must be Italian and that drew me in from the start.  I have long loved Italy and things Italian and have been battling to learn its’ language for many years. But no, Origo was Iris’s Italian husband’s name, she having been born in Britain in 1902 to a mother from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and a father from American extreme wealth made from railroads, shipping and sugar-beet.  She lived nearly all her life in Italy, however, and it was the focus of, and background to, her writing.


I avidly read Images and Shadows, a sort of autobiography (Part of a Life is its co-title) and then tracked down Origo’s biography of the Italian poet Leopardi, A Study in Solitude. Further, intrigued by Iris Origo herself and the bits of her life she had obviously been reticent about in Images and Shadows, I read Caroline Moorhead’s biography of her, Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d’Orcia.  Later I read Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War diary 1943-1944 and A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-40

Origo is a wonderful writer – perceptive and sophisticated and in Images and Shadows her fierce intellect and extensive knowledge are greatly in evidence, but never in a show-offy way.  She’s a good story teller, drawing the reader in with tales about her fascinating and unusual childhood, loving (and hugely rich) families in Ireland and America. Her adored father, Bayard Cutting, died of tuberculosis just short of his thirtieth birthday but throughout Iris’s early years the family of three had traversed the globe in search of treatment for his disease or at least for a conducive climate which might delay its progress. After his death, Iris’s eccentric, headstrong mother, Sybil, took off with her ten-year-old daughter to live in Italy. Young Iris was immersed in the ex-pat life there, mixing with artists and writers, home schooled by a series of governesses and later serious scholars and taken by her mother on exotic travel adventures.  Sybil bought and then spent squillions making exquisite a magnificent house in the hills above Florence called Villa Medici, built for Cosimo de’ Medici.  Over the years she (well, her army of advisors and helpers) restored the Villa’s formal gardens and filled the house with Florentine antiques and treasures.  All that, during the years 1914 – 1917!  War was, as Origo later wrote, “only a distant rumble, an inconvenient and unpleasant noise offstage” to these foreigners in their magnificent renaissance villas and sequestered lives. 

Iris lived at Villa Medici for fourteen years until she married an Italian marchese, Antonio Origo, and gradually they withdrew from the party life in Florence and dedicated themselves to La Foce, a large neglected estate they bought in the Val d’Orcia (a region of Tuscany), bringing it life and prosperity over the years.  In Images and Shadows there are fascinating descriptions of Italian agricultural feudalism entrenched over centuries, the day to day hardships of the Origos’ farming life but also of their dedication to improving the lives of the workers on their land, their extensive travel and Iris’s long periods in Britain.  The lead up to WW2, the rise of Mussolini and the progress of the war, the school Iris set up for local children, the making of a beautiful garden, the birth of her children and death of her much adored child, Gianni, when he was seven, are all there. Origo is never maudlin, always restrained but not without intensity; detailed when you want detail and sweeping when you feel ready to move on. She is wise and stoic. She reflects upon the pleasures and challenges of writing and the haziness but solidity of memory. The behind the scenes tales in Moorhead’s biography about both Antonio’s and Iris’s love affairs and the more real story of their marriage and family life intensify the picture and reveal more of Iris than she is inclined to do herself. It’s a great entertaining biography and I came to like Iris even more and also to understand better the idiosyncrasies of Italian history and culture.  

I discovered that Iris’s greatest friend, Elsa Dallolio, with whom she worked in the Red Cross during and after the Second World War, was founder of the Italian branch of International Social Service (ISS), a global non-government agency formed in 1924 to assist families and children confronted with complex social problems as a result of migration and war.  ISS has a branch in Australia and I have been involved with it for many years.  I was so happy to find out that Iris and I had this connection.

A Chill in the Air, about Italy’s slow, reluctant stumble into the Second World War is interesting but War in Val d’Orcia,  Origo’s daily record of what happened to her family, the peaceful farming community in which she lived and her adopted country during 1943-1944 is a compelling read and was a revelation to me of what devastation was wreaked upon Italy during that war by both the Allies and the Germans as alliances shifted.  All Italy had been a battlefield. Ferocious bombing raids destroyed cities and lives. Starved civilians abandoned all that they knew and fled for their lives. Iris and Antonia hid and fed partisans and fugitive British soldiers on their estate, themselves risking summary execution for doing so by the German occupiers. They took in evacuees, housing and feeding them and setting up a school for thirty-two small children. When German troops turned Iris and Antonio and their own two small children and these helpless dependents out of La Foce, Iris led a troop of sixty people including four babies and twenty-eight children in a hair raising march across the countryside that was being bombed by the Allies. There is no self-promotion in the book, just records of small acts of heroism and compassion by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Origo writes, “the shared simple acts of everyday life are the realities on which international understanding can be built.”


Giacomo Leopardi  is considered the greatest Italian poet since Dante.  Origo’s biography of him is beautifully written and full of details about this unbearably sad and lonely man (querulous and scornful too, it’s hard to like him) and the Italian mores of his day but… unending despair and loneliness can become tedious and depressing page after page and I think you’d need to be a very loyal devotee of either Origo or Leopardi, or probably both, to persevere with this book.  Even then it’s a struggle. Born in 1798, Leopardi lived his life in the stranglehold of his parents’ grip, hardly moving out of his father’s library, let alone the family home in an Italian provincial town until the last years of his life when he lived, unhappily of course, just outside Naples.  He had significant physical ailments, was ‘a hunchback’, suffered great pain throughout his life and died at the age of 39 (!!).   His hard won freedom to venture for short periods out of the microcosm of his stifling world didn’t bring the happiness he longed for; the two ‘love affairs’ he had are agonising to read about, being unfulfilled intense passions for unattainable, unsuitable and largely uninterested women to whom he could hardly bring himself to be bold enough to speak let alone fulfil his passionate longings with. Poor Leopardi. He would never know a requited or consummated love.  And yet, as the back cover of Origo’s biography says, “this pain and misery gave rise to some of the most intense and brilliant poems ever written in the Italian language”.  You marvel at the mystery of how an imagination so sensitive and lively and feelings of such intensity could flourish in such barren life circumstances. 

Then, via those threads that weave between what one reads, either serendipitously or because one deliberately follows a trail, I came across an Introduction to the 2000 edition of Origo’s biography of Leopardi, in a book of recently published essays by one of my favourite writers, Shirley Hazzard, titled We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think.  “Admirable and deeply felt”, writes Hazzard of Origo’s  biography. She reminds us that Leopardi mastered Latin, Greek, French, German and Hebrew and read and translated Homer and Virgil in his childhood and teenage years, holed up obsessively reading among the 25,000 books in his father’s library. Reading was his great joy in life. As Hazzard says, “Leopardi was not the first to feel homesickness for a setting he had never known -  for the stimulus and sympathy of kindred spirits to whom art and thought, and the heart’s affections, were supreme: a country that he had inhabited in books”.  She says about him, “desolation hurt him into poetry”.

As a young person, living with her parents in Wellington, New Zealand, Hazzard found a slim volume of translations of Leopardi’s poems and was driven to learn Italian so she could read them in the original. In 1956 the United Nations opened a temporary staging area in Naples and Shirley, thanks to those Italian lessons, got a job there, “in the city”, she writes, “that would become part of my life ever after. Destiny, but also pilgrimage: some part of me had been working towards transformation”.

And then another co-incidence occurred - the next essay in Hazzard’s collection is about the American twentieth century writer William Maxwell who wrote the novel The Chateau which I love and which GD Tom had just that day taken from my bookshelf to read.  Last year in his Bookowski’s blog Tom had written about another beautiful book of Maxwell’s, So Long, See You Tomorrow. And I had just begun a subscription to The New Yorker, the magazine for which Maxwell had worked for 40 years.  When he was dying, Maxwell said that he did not fear death but would ‘miss reading novels’ and two days before his beloved wife Emmy’s death and ten days before his own, he finished re-reading War and Peace, saying of it, “It is so comforting”. (Watch the wonderful BBC series of that comforting, tragic and tender book on Stan) 

Hooray for books and reading, threads and co-incidences and for Grand Days, that treasure trove of all things wonderful, literary and otherwise.

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