- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

IRIS ORIGO. MARCHESA OF VAL D'ORCIA
By Caroline Moorehead
David R. Godine, $35, 373 pages, illus.


It is a good general rule that if you won't read and read incessantly you'll never make much of yourself intellectually. The reason why is that you will never know enough to keep up with the people who are reading every spare minute they can find. You may wind up highly trained technically, but the life of the mind as it has been accumulating over all the millennia ofWestern civilization still will have eluded you. You may think you know how the world works, but you won't.
Iris Origo, or Iris Cutting as she then was, was at age 12 studying with girls three years her senior. In her teens she was translating the poems of Giacomo Leopardi. She did it mostly by reading, having had governesses but not very much regular schooling, for Iris' mother, the hypochondriacal but appealing Sybil Cutting, was forever dragging her child about, between the Cuttings' American estate, the home of Lord Desart, Sybil's father, in Ireland, and Italy, meaning Anglo-Florentine society with its bases of villadom at Fiesole and Settignano (Michelangelo's birthplace). Despite all this Iris Origo's literary output as a self-trained historian was prodigious.
Hers is an Italian story in the main, for Origo, despite her particular affection for London and friends there, spent most of her life in Tuscany and Rome. Caroline Moorehead, biographer of Sidney Bernstein, Freya Stark, Bertrand Russell and author of other books, tells the tale elegantly and affectionately, but not in hagiographic vein, in her "Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia."
Reading the book, I have been trying to remember where I first heard of Iris Origo, and think it was a short essay in a collection by Louis Auchincloss a few years back. This makes sense, because Mr. Auchincloss sat at Edith Wharton's knee, and she used to visit Fiesole, and Percy Lubbock, friend of Wharton and author of "The Craft of Fiction" which pretty much got formal literary criticism off the ground in the 1920s, married Sybil Cutting and became Iris' stepfather. The couple lived on the water at Lerici, which is where the poet Shelley had his last home before drowning.
I digress, but with Iris Origo, and with Italy for that matter, digression comes naturally, it seems to be the rightful order of things in that adorably haphazard country. I have a first edition of what I had thought to be the marchesa's first book (though it now looks to be her second after her "Leopardi"); either way, "Allegra" was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1935. It is a slight volume in, now fading, canary-ochre cloth-covered boards, but a sensitive telling of the short life of the little girl who was Lord Byron's daughter by Claire Clairmont.
My copy of Origo's "The Last Attachment" also is a first edition, published in 1949 by Jonathan Cape and John Murray, the descendant of Byron's publisher. It is a much more ambitious work than "Allegra," founded upon the author's gaining access to the box left by the Contessa Teresa Guiccioli containing much of the correspondence between her and Byron. Theirs is one of the great love stories of the Romantic age. A lovely, pretty girl married off to an old man, Teresa met the poet, at that time living in Venice in self-imposed exile after leaving England when his wife left him, angry about his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. When Teresa found him, Byron was still having his affair with Margherita Cogni, "La Fornarina" or baker's wife of famous story. But I digress again.
This book is about Iris Origo, not only the wonderful books she wrote. Still, let me briefly visit one more of her histories, before coming to the marchesa's life, which is no less exciting than her books. It is "The Merchant of Prato," a 1957 biography of Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410). Prato, if you don't know the place, is located between Florence and Lucca on the way to Pisa, so is Tuscan and in central Italy. Datini was born and died there, but in the meantime went, as we would say, everywhere. His philanthropic work for his city lasts to this day, he was quite a guy.
As with Teresa and her English milord, the book (available in a Penguin paperback) is based on the discovery of a great cache of neglected correspondence. Let's allow the author to tell you about it: "… his private correspondence has remained almost untouched in particular, the letters he exchanged with his wife, his partners, and his fattori. It is from these letters that most of the information in this book is derived …"
But back to the life of the marchesa. After a childhood and socially prominent coming-out youth spanning Anglo-Florence, London and America, she married Antonio Origo in the early 1920s. Wanting to get away from Florence, they decided to buy and develop a seriously barren estate in the southern part of Tuscany near Siena. There is a photograph in the book of the moonscape with which the Origos started. Called La Foce, in course of time it was made to flourish and be beautiful.
The complicated part was that the Origos did so with governmental assistance from Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. Thus, the Anglo-American marchesa was compromised.
When war came to Italy in 1940, she worked with the Italian Red Cross. When the Allies bombed Genoa, she took a crowd of orphaned children in and opened her own little school at La Foce. When the Germans stormed into the peninsula after the Italian capitulation in 1943, the marchesa received officers of the Wehrmacht on her patio and served them wine. She had never seen, she said, more splendidly disciplined young men. This is not from the book, I'm recalling it from her memoir, "War in Val D'Orcia," published in 1947 to considerable acclaim.
By the time the going got really down and dirty in 1944, the marchesa was hiding escaped British and American prisoners all over the La Foce estate in the cottages of her contadini (tenants). At the end, La Foce had to be evacuated, but the British finally turned up. I am not sure whether it was to her or her husband, that the arriving English major said, "Are you the marchese(a) Origo? The entire British 8th Army has been looking for you." She was an insider, had pulled through and wound up a Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire.
Origo's private life was problematic, as most lives are. The great tragedy was her son Gianni, a beautiful child as readers of the book soon will see, dying in childhood. She subsequently had two daughters, Benedetta and Donata, the former of whom now is a trustee of La Foce, which can be visited and stayed in overnight, if one fancies. It has its own Web site, easy to find.
Iris Origo wrote a memoir, "Images and Shadows" (1970) but, as she was in life, it is reticent and much is left unsaid. I shall not be tactless and get into any of that here. Caroline Moorehead will tell you the rest of the story.


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