Book Review

Iris Origo

When Iris Origo’s autobiography, Images and Shadows, appeared in 1970, Anne Freemantle’s review described the author as “a great scholar who also happens to write superbly well.” This is only one of the reasons to rejoice that NYRB Classics has issued fresh editions of that title and of Origo’s justly famous diary, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944. The occasion is the publication of the first American edition of an earlier Origo diary, A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940, also from NYRB, newly discovered among Origo’s papers.[1] A Chill in the Air gives a vivid contemporaneous account of life under an inchoate Fascist government issuing a spew of misinformation in the years leading to World War II, as well-intentioned people agonized and hoped that what seemed to be about to happen would not. Cynthia Zarin, writing in The New Yorker, pointed out that while we know how it turned out, Origo did not, and concluded, “By the end of these pages, my heart was in my mouth. To read it is to witness the slide of a country into tyranny and chaos. It does not feel unfamiliar.”

Reason enough to down tools and turn to, especially since binge reading a marvelous writer is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Taken separately, Origo’s diaries provide unforgettable reporting of facts on the ground during one of the darkest periods of the twentieth century, while her autobiography is distinguished by its beautiful prose style, its moral and psychological intelligence, and its vivid social history. Taken together these three volumes are perhaps even more absorbing in the realm of the novelist’s eternal subject, the mystery of character. (Gifts of talent I think we must put aside as past our understanding.) What alchemy of heredity and upbringing, accident and history, produces a person and writer like Iris Origo?

One begins with this much-quoted paragraph from Iris’ American father, William Bayard Cutting, Jr., in a letter written to his young English wife as he lay dying from tuberculosis when Iris was eight:

I would wish Iris to be brought up free from all this national feeling which makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong, then she can’t have it. I’d rather France or Italy than England, so that she can really be cosmopolitan, deep down . . . She must be English now, just as she’d have been more American if I’d lived and not you. This is natural and right. But I’d like her to be a little “foreign” too, so that when she grows up, she really will be free to love and marry anyone she likes, of any country, without its being difficult . . .

Bayard Cutting, Jr., had had almost everything worth having: intelligence, breeding, education, social capital, money, and a powerful impulse, passed down in his family for generations, to be of use. His father was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum and of the New York Public Library and a Trustee of Columbia University. He was also one of “those box holders . . . who had founded and financed the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York and who paid its annual deficit.” Mani­festly, the Cuttings “belonged” in New York society. They were welcome and at ease there, highly cultured, generous and useful. But Iris writes that “the Cutting children (my father Bayard, his brother Bronson, and his sisters Justine and Olivia) were particularly allergic to the taste of their silver spoons.” Interesting. Why?

Bayard possessed an anti-tribalism that he certainly did not learn at home. His belief that being a true citizen of the world was a value important enough to be worth emotional discomfort was to have far-reaching consequences for the lives his daughter saved or changed and for the readers who are still touched by her.

Iris, who was brought up not to belong, among people who courted distinction rather than fitting in, had ideas about both of those modes of being. As a very rich, very young widow, her mother had bought the Villa Medici in Fiesole, hard by the expat salon of Bernard Berenson and his circle of esthetes at Villa I Tatti. Given her unconventional girlhood within that circle, coupled with her personal reserve, her blistering intelligence, and her resolute moral core, Iris could hardly help being distinctive herself, though she might well have preferred to have been less so. Among her distinctions is the fact that her personal writings are the works of a biographer and historian by temperament, training and practice. This quality, the historian/biographer’s interest in everything that shapes character and reveals the personality of a culture, is of course what makes her personal writing so penetrating and valuable. But Iris combines this habit of mind with the techniques and ironic distance of a novelist of manners, which is what makes her observations so thoroughly readable. These qualities are particularly evident in her writing about her mother.

Lady Sybil Cuffe, the pretty daughter of an Anglo-Irish lord, was twenty-two when she married Bayard Cutting in London in 1901. Bayard seems to have been an intellectual of unusual gifts. He had been granted a summa cum laude degree after just three years at Harvard and accepted a job as private secretary to Joseph Choate, the American Ambassador to London, thinking that diplomacy might be his calling. It was not, but in the course of his duties he found in Sybil Cuffe, “a girl with whom he could talk and argue as freely as with a man, and who possessed a mental alertness that was to him a constant astonishment and delight.” What exactly this says about the girls he had grown up with in New York I do not know and wish I did. But I digress.

Writing in The New Criterion in 1995, Louis Auchincloss described Sybil as “a witty and talented woman but self-centered and demanding and something of a malade imaginaire.” Iris describes the same woman as Auchincloss, but characteristically, even in describing her own childhood and youth about which many of us are at our most outraged, she manages to be generous, fair and often funny while not obscuring what was painful in the picture.

Iris writes that while her father and her English grandfather were the “presiding deities” of her early childhood, her mother, in recollection, is either “a reclining figure upon a sofa or a moving one, waving goodbye from a car.” And that is pretty much all you will hear from her about her own loneliness or grief at the absence of her father or her distance from her beloved grandfather once her mother settled her in Italy. She says instead that “It was in [Sybil’s] company that I discovered the two greatest pleasures of my childhood, which have endured for my whole life—the pleasures of travel, and of books.”

This, we are to discover, is extremely delicately expressed. It was in Sybil’s company that Iris discovered these pleasures, but not necessarily because of her that she learned to love them. She follows this remark with a hilarious description of a typical train trip with her valetudinarian mother, the luggage, the hampers, the pillows and rugs and sheets (all sheets on trains were damp, in Sybil’s view), and of her inevitably sending little Iris off down three or four train cars to find a stranger whom Sybil felt must be smoking a cigar. Iris was under orders to explain to him in any of her four languages that her mother was very delicate and would he please . . .

Sometimes my interlocutor was nice about it, and sometimes not. If he went on smoking, I would hurry back to our compartment, shut the door, hand my mother a book, and retreat in silent prayer that she would not notice, but in vain. A few minutes later:

“Darling, I don’t think you can have explained yourself properly. Would you call the conductor?”

I wished that I were dead.

Or, there is this description of a typical afternoon drive in the Tuscan countryside when, at the sight of an appealing cypress allée, Sybil would order the chauffeur to drive straight to the house it belonged to, while Iris, clutching her Baedeker, protested, “But we don’t know them, Mummy!”

Picture Sybil bugling to the startled occupants, “‘I know you won’t mind us glancing around for just a moment—such a delightful façade! And my daughter tells me that the frescoes in the hall are by Veronese, or at least his school. Yes, look Iris! That balustrade is very characteristic . . . It is really very delightful of you’—this to our dazed host . . . ‘and I see you have a little formal garden on the other side—rather like Maser, only of course on a smaller scale . . .’”

As Nancy Mitford might remark: do admit.

Iris’ comment: “She belonged to the great tradition of eighteenth-century travelers—enterprising, courageous, arrogant, totally immune to criticism or ridicule, carrying their own world with them.”

Iris’ upbringing and education were, not surprisingly, pretty much arranged for her mother’s convenience. While it included few other children, and the instruction provided by her governesses was not rigorous or interesting, their neighbor Bernard Berenson did her one enormous favor: he persuaded Sybil to allow twelve-year-old Iris to travel down to Florence to pursue a classical education with a scholar who taught her Latin and Greek, as well as poetry in her several languages, according to a Humanist curriculum developed in Mantua in the fifteenth century. Iris’ description of this process is engrossing, and she calls her three years with Professor Monti the happiest of her girlhood, and possibly of her whole life.

She longed to attend Oxford. Instead, she rather miserably made her debut in Italy, London and New York. It took three years, and changed her life but not at all in the way her mother or grandparents expected. During her Florentine season, she at last broke out of her mother’s gilded Anglophone bubble and engaged with the Italian society around her. There she met the Marchese Antonio Origo.

Antonio was ten years older than Iris and, according to Sybil, much too old and too handsome to be appropriate for her. Iris and Antonio persisted. Even before their marriage, they had bought a vast and neglected estate in southeast Tuscany called La Foce, chosen because it was a wreck, and both wanted enough work to make a difference and to last a lifetime. From the looks of the barren hills, the fallen-in farm­houses, and the defeated families of peasants apparently as miserable as their oxen in photographs taken around the time of the purchase, several lifetimes would have seemed more like it. At Iris and Antonio’s wedding at the Villa Medici in 1924, Sybil was not in attendance. She had taken to her bed.

The soil in the Orcia valley is heavy clay, at its best suitable only for growing wheat, grapes and olives. Its feudal system of mezzadria was at the time essentially unchanged since the thirteenth century. “Now, as then,” Iris wrote, “the landowner builds the farm house and keeps it in repair; he supplies the money to buy half of what is needed to cultivate and improve the land; he pays for half of the stock of cattle. When harvest comes, owner and farmer share the crops.” That was the theory.

In practice, in that climate, with absent landowners, little water and a punishing climate, things had gone badly for many decades. In high summer, “the whole valley becomes dust-colored—a land without mercy, without shade. If you sit under an olive tree you are not shaded; the leaves are like little flickering tongues of fire.” There were no schools and no health care on these 7,000 acres. Eighty percent of the estate’s farmers and their families could neither read nor write. Iris visited one farmhouse where four generations shared a single bed. In it, at the time of her first visit, an old man was dying, and beside him his granddaughter was giving birth.

In the fifteen years between their arrival and the coming of war, the Origos had worked a long string of class-B miracles. Farmhouses were repaired. They built a school and a clinic and provided teachers and a resident nurse. They sent “busses” to bring the farm children to school; those who could be reached by roads were conveyed in horse carts, and those who could not were brought by oxen.

Through all of these years of grinding work, Iris was aware of being distinct from the people she lived among, in appearance, background and temperament. She writes, “Antonio, however—simpler, warmer and tougher, and living in a world he took for granted, went steadily ahead.” It’s a sentence that says much about the man and their marriage, notable to Origo completists because those are two subjects on which Iris almost never comments directly. We know from Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Origo and other sources that the death in 1933 of their first and adored child Gianni, aged seven, from tubercular meningitis, was a harrowing blow to them both. In the years that followed, Iris spent much more time than before in England, a world that she took for granted, and that didn’t remind her of her loss. In England she revived old friendships and formed strong new attachments, including one to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. It was in this period that she began her work as a biographer, publishing her study of the nineteenth-century poet Leopardi in 1935, and also in 1935 a biography of Byron’s little lost daughter Allegra, and in 1938 of Cola di Rienzo, a medieval politician and demagogue who tried to restore the glory of ancient Rome. The latter two works were published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.

But at this same period, that “national feeling that makes people so unhappy” was once again darkening Europe. According to Origo’s oldest granddaughter, Katia Lysy, the discoverer and editor of A Chill in the Air, Iris gave up her American passport in 1938 and recommitted herself then to life at La Foce. In Iris’ telling however, she didn’t experience her choice as irrevocable until an August afternoon in 1939. She and Antonio had driven into Switzerland the day before to attend concerts in Lucerne conducted by Bruno Walter and Toscanini. In the event, Walter did not appear; his Nazi son-in-law had arrived to insist that his (Jewish) wife, Walter’s daughter, return to Germany with him. When she refused, he had shot her and himself. Toscanini conducted.

When the Origos reached their hotel after the concert, the late news announced that Russia and Germany had signed a Nonaggression Pact.

Iris wrote, “We all realized its implications.”

The next morning as the hotel swiftly emptied, Iris put through what she knew was a last phone call to England. Then she climbed into the car with Antonio and drove off with him toward the Simplon Pass. At the border, they watched as an Italian car was ordered to turn around and return to Italy. When their own passports were handed back, the carbinière said cheerfully, “No more Italians jaunting abroad now, and none of our money! Come in, and stay in!”

As they drove through, “the pole of the barrier swung slowly back behind us. I realized I had made my choice.”

She had no way of knowing that by 1943, Italy would effectively be at war with both Iris’ home countries, in civil war with itself, and occupied from the north by the Germans and from the south, by the (all too slowly) advancing Allied armies, nor that at one point she would ask a German officer who had requisitioned her house what was happening at the front and be answered, “Where do you think you are?” But there is no reason to infer at any point in her diaries of the period that, given the chance, she would have chosen differently.

In A Chill in the Air, what strikes us most forcefully now is her account of the miasma of fake news in Italy in 1939–1940. We learn too that she had friends in England involved in rescuing and finding homes for refugee Jewish children (though she omits to mention how much involved she had been herself in organizing the Kinder transport effort, and directly in the rescue of five children from Berlin). Saving children was work she could do even situated as she was, and by 1943, in spite of being a resident alien, she had managed permission to take in 23 children from Genoa and Turin whose homes had been bombed by the Allies. Until the end of the war they lived at La Foce in what had been the nursery school for the farm children, and were fed, taught and cared for by Iris, two teachers, and by her own two young daughters’ Swiss nurse, Schwester Marie, who had refused to leave the Origos.

War in Val d’Orcia describes day by day the confusion, the danger, and the challenge of making life and death decisions with never enough information, as La Foce became a crossroads of people needing food, clothing, boots, medicine and comfort. Boys and men from La Foce’s own farms were in danger of being shot for avoiding conscription in a war they didn’t understand and had never wanted. Because of what they were doing, the Origos and all who helped them were daily in danger of being betrayed, bombed or shot by Allies, by partisans, by Italian Fascists, by Germans or by mistake.

A sample of the politics on the ground: in September of 1943, an armistice has been signed between the Fascist Badoglio government and the Allies, but only after an inexplicable delay and a failure to close the Brenner Pass had allowed the Germans to invade from the North. Allied POWs who had been held in great numbers are suddenly freed into the countryside, with no supplies, information, maps or orders. The Tuscan woods are also full of Communists and of partisans, some­times the same thing, sometimes not, as well as spies from both sides, and grifters from all over posing as refugees but willing to sell out anyone to the highest bidder. On October 15, after reporting with barely suppressed exasperation that Badoglio, the general who succeeded Mussolini, has now declared war on Germany, Iris writes, “Italy has nominally four governments . . . and two armies.” She then with concision gives a master class in how various Italian factions feel about the political situation, but never is she more illuminating than in describing their specific everyday interactions with those in need.

An escaped Moroccan POW is hiding in a shed at La Foce as Germans arrive at the house. Iris excuses herself to warn him, and finds him hiding behind a pig sty. “‘Jerries, tedeschi,’ I said, ‘Bang! Run!’ The ragged figure stood up. ‘Tedeschi? Me English!’—‘Yes, I know. Go! Allez!’—‘Me English! Sank you!’ And he was off into the woods.” She goes back to help Antonio entertain the Germans.

Origo presents her own behavior and Antonio’s as simply what any moral person would do. She emphasizes the heroism of the common people, their extraordinary kindness and self-sacrifice. She didn’t write the diary with thought of publication, but rather because she was profoundly a writer, and it was calming to her to do it, but when she was persuaded to publish War in Val d’Orcia in 1947, it became an English language best-seller and changed the way the outside world understood what the Italian people had done while their leaders were so spectacularly failing them. It also announced Origo as a writer with a compulsively readable style to a wider audience than had been reached by her scholarly biographies to date.

The world of the War diary is so claustrophobic, as circumstances hemmed in the Origos and their wards at La Foce, that it is easy to forget, in reading it, how extraordinarily well-connected they were. William Phillips, the American Ambassador in Rome in 1939, had been Bayard’s best friend and was Iris’ godfather. The Origos were also on intimate terms with Roman and Florentine society and with their Tuscan neighbors at all levels, from local government and police to partisans in the woods. They were also passionate consumers of news from outside Italy, and thus even in the fog of propaganda officially available at the time, they kept themselves as informed as it was possible to be.

Opening Chill at random, there is this: Antonio’s half-sister and her German husband Karl von Hertling (an old cavalry officer) arrive in Florence. As Bavarian Catholics, they are rabidly anti-Hitler; they are also frightened of reprisals if they so much as sit in a railway carriage where someone is speaking against the Führer. Iris writes that their only son, nineteen-year-old Lupo, confided to her privately “that his whole life has been a nightmare since his parents did not dare to enroll him in the Hitler Jugend. He is convinced that he will be killed as soon as he is called up . . .” (And we learn in a footnote that he was exactly right.)

The Origos and von Hertlings walk down the Lungarno after dinner in silence. “Suddenly Karl burst out: ‘But how can people help believing? Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers; it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in. We’re bewildered: we’ve got to believe in something . . .’”

A Chill in the Air includes a useful introduction by the cultural historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, and a particularly welcome afterward by Katia Lysy. Lysy is a graceful writer herself, and she adds much of interest that Iris was too private or modest to include. Most importantly, she conveys something of what Antonio and Iris were like as people. Lysy also provides an afterword for the NYRB edition of Images and Shadows. Virginia Nicholson, a social historian and great-niece of Virginia Woolf who also knew the Origos in her own girlhood, introduces the NYRB edition of War in Val d’Orcia. Her informative essay is a great improvement on the dated piece by Dennis Mack Smith that accompanied the penultimate American edition, in which he began with the word “I,” boasted of having read the book in Italian translation (why?), congratulated himself on recognizing a minor masterpiece, and identified the author as “an Anglo-American lady married to an Italian landowner.”
[1] Images and Shadows: Part of a Life, by Iris Origo, afterword by Katia Lysy. New York Review Books Classics. $18.95p. War in Val d’Orcia: an Italian War Diary, 1943–1944, by Iris Origo, intro. by Virginia Nicholson. New York Review Books Classics. $17.95p. A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940, by Iris Origo, intro. by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, afterword by Katia Lysy. New York Review Books Classics. $15.95p.