Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia 
by Caroline Moorehead.
Murray, 351 pp., £22, October 2000, 0 7195 5672 4
Show More
Show More

Iris Origo, who died in 1988 at the age of 86, was a highly esteemed biographer and autobiographer, author of The Last Attachment (1949), about Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, his last mistress; The Merchant of Prato (1957), about a 14th-century Tuscan merchant and banker, and other Italy-oriented works. Her father, Bayard Cutting, came from an exceedingly rich New England family, with a fortune derived from the railroads and land development; her mother, Sybil, was daughter of Lord Desart, an Irish peer. Socially speaking, Iris could expect to be regarded as ‘somebody’ and when it became time for her to ‘come out’, she had to do it in three separate countries (Italy, England and the US).

Her parents had met when, as a very young man, Bayard had come to London as private secretary to the US Ambassador. They got married in 1901, and Bayard toyed with various schemes for a career: diplomacy, university work, politics and so on. Before very long, however, he was diagnosed as consumptive, and his few remaining years (he died when Iris was seven) were spent in endless journeys in search of health.

In his last letter to Iris’s mother, Bayard wrote: ‘All this national feeling makes people so unhappy. Bring her’ – Iris – ‘up somewhere where she does not belong, then she can’t have it . . . I’d like her to be a little “foreign”.’ He had been contemplating their setting up home in Italy, and on his death Sybil, who was left well provided with money, rented a magnificent mansion at Fiesole: the Villa Medici, designed for Cosimo de’ Medici by Michelozzo. It was here, amid the Anglo-Florentine colony – the Berensons, the Actons, Janet Ross, Vernon Lee, with their house-guests such as Edith Wharton and Percy Lubbock – that Iris spent her girlhood. It was a society with a raging appetite for gossip, and before long Sybil had become almost their favourite subject: her dazzling wardrobe, her hypochondria, her high-pitched chatter and magnificent caprices and, above all, her marriages.

I need to digress a little here. In 1906 Berenson’s wife Mary wrote to ask her sister Alys, then married to Bertrand Russell, for the names of young men suitable to escort her and her two daughters by a previous marriage on a motor-tour of Tuscany. The choice fell on Maynard Keynes and Geoffrey Scott, who proved to be ‘nice, intellectual boys’ who did not lead the girls into any ‘nonsense’. Scott was recently down from Oxford, with a reputation as a brilliant conversationalist but no obvious vocation, and Mary Berenson, who had a benevolent mania for organising other people’s lives, invited him to stay on. With her encouragement (by now she had fallen in love with him) he acquired a smattering of architectural knowledge, and this brought him a commission to make improvements to the Berensons’ villa I Tatti. In 1914 he published an admirable book on The Architecture of Humanism. He was, nevertheless, indolent and subject to suicidal depressions, and it became a burning topic, what should Geoffrey do next? His own idea, very frankly expressed, was to marry Sybil Cutting for her money; Sybil, feeling lonely, though many years older than Scott, decided it was a good idea, too. They married in 1918, to the extreme misery of Mary Berenson; and the marriage, though always exceedingly shaky, lasted for nine years. Iris later commented on the marriage with what Moorehead calls ‘exemplary restraint’, saying ‘I watched her become so much younger and so much more vulnerable . . . My instincts told me the choice was not wise.’ Nor did she think it wise when, in 1927, Sybil got divorced from Scott and married the reputedly unmarriageable Percy Lubbock, but she did her best to be supportive.

She was fond of her mother but found her more and more of a trial, and this may help explain why, in 1923, she announced her engagement to Antonio Origo, the natural son of a marchese. To her literary-minded friends it seemed an odd choice, for Origo, though socially polished and a charmer, was a very unbookish man, with an ambition to become a farmer. Moreover, being a Fascist, he detested the Berenson circle.

They got married in 1924 and proceeded to buy a huge and neglected estate named La Foce, some fifty or so miles south of Florence. It stood on a bare, windswept upland, overlooking the Val d’Orcia, and comprised 25 farms. Antonio’s vocation as an agriculturalist was real, and within a few years he had altogether transformed La Foce, laying roads, sinking wells, planting orchards, olives and grain and taking steps against soil erosion. Mussolini favoured large landed properties, and the local landowners elected Antonio president of a consorzio for the reclamation of land, an office he held for forty years.

Iris threw herself into his plans. She took charge of a girl guide troupe, set up a school, and tried her hardest (she did not find it easy) to make friends with the tenants. In these early days she declared to a friend of hers, Colin MacKenzie, that she was ‘deeply happy – with a completeness and serenity of happiness for which I had never dared hope’. Later she said she had never been physically attracted to Antonio, but this was to a lover, so we can treat it with caution.

In June 1925 she bore Antonio a son, whom they named Gianni. She idolised him. On the other hand, she did not spend all that much time with him. As Caroline Moorehead puts it, ‘Gianni, almost overwhelmingly loved, totally wanted, spent most of the time with his nanny.’ The truth is, through most of the 1920s and 1930s Iris spent half her time travelling. With Antonio, or her mother, or on her own she was always on the move: to Sicily and Egypt and Syria; to England and Wales and Ireland; or to America to stay with the Cuttings. ‘Why does one ever stop travelling?’ she wrote to Colin MacKenzie. ‘This is the perfection of happiness.’ Involved in this, no doubt, was her father’s dying wish that she should ‘be a little “foreign”.’ It was only in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, that she was forced to choose a nationality – she opted for Italy. Before this, in 1933, Gianni died from meningitis, and Iris, whether with good reason or not, accused herself bitterly of neglect. Fifty years later she would still talk endlessly, even to comparative strangers, about the beautiful and long-lost Gianni.

Caroline Moorehead is a highly accomplished biographer, with an easy and fluent narrative style and a nice incisiveness of phrase. She is an enthusiast for Origo, but she is not frightened to report adverse opinions about her. She quotes acquaintances as saying that ‘she liked everything to be just right, like the proportion of gin to vermouth in a dry martini. But she was not often warm.’ She had, as one person put it, a ‘built-in distance’. She was, it was generally agreed, a ‘managing’ person, not to say bossy. This could be alarming and put people off – it alarmed Caroline Moorehead herself, when she interviewed her in 1980. On the other hand, justice requires one to say that, when it came to sheltering Italian partisans and escaped prisoners-of-war at La Foce during the war, her bossiness, efficiency and courage proved the greatest boon and exactly what the situation required.

But one gradually comes to realise the problem Moorehead faced in writing this biography. She tells us that there are no papers by or about Antonio in the archives at La Foce and hardly any photographs of him in Iris’s collection. No great difficulty in guessing how this came about, though why is a different matter. The result, at least, as Moorehead frankly says, is that ‘it is often hard to get any real sense of him.’

Equally, it is a puzzle to her that, in all Iris’s surviving correspondence from the 1920s and 1930s, there is hardly a mention of Mussolini and Fascism. Iris was inclined to say after the war that she had never broached political topics with Antonio, knowing what a gulf lay between them. But was this true, Moorehead wonders? Iris vehemently denied that her husband ever wore a black shirt, but there is photographic evidence to contradict her. When Mussolini appealed to Italian women to sacrifice their gold wedding rings, to help his Abyssinian venture, Iris patriotically threw hers into the cauldron. (Virginia Woolf records her saying so, in her Diary.) So much from this period has been tidied up that we could be mistaken in thinking we are getting a ‘real sense’ of Iris.

Back in 1922 she became friendly with MacKenzie, a young Cambridge-educated war hero. He was working for a Paisley thread company in Milan but had a passion for literature and music, sported enormous cloaks and wrote poetry. The two were soon writing each other long letters, sometimes twice a week, about books and places and themselves. ‘Yet, for all their intimacy,’ Moorehead writes, ‘there is something mysterious about these letters, something that rings a little false.’ The reason for this eventually became clear. Iris, for all their intimacy, had not told MacKenzie she was planning to get married.

But then in 1927, while they were staying for the weekend with some friends in Wales, this friendship turned into an affair. The correspondence flourished even more, though letters had to be channelled through accommodation addresses. Moorehead writes that ‘in its completeness and apparent total frankness and honesty, about themselves and the people in their lives, it is a remarkable correspondence.’ But from the fragments that she quotes, this is not my feeling. There is in them, sometimes, a ‘wise’, self-admiring pseudo-frankness which makes one want to tear one’s hair. What is significant, too, is that from early days they decided to have the letters typed up – evidently with an eye to some future audience.

Antonio eventually discovered the affair and gave Iris the choice between a legal separation and agreeing never to see MacKenzie again – she chose the second. There followed, in the mid-1930s, a liaison with the novelist L.H. Myers, author of The Root and the Flower and for a few years a famous name. The two even set up house together, in a flat in Pall Mall and then in a rented house at Ringwood in Hampshire. But this episode is enveloped in mist. She returned to Italy, and after some straight talking with Antonio, decided to give Myers up – telling a woman friend, none the less, that she had never enjoyed ‘such complete harmony and happiness’ with him as in the last few months. ‘Something had reached its maturity – and so is indestructible for us, for ever.’ It seems more like something one might say about an investment.

Origo only becomes fully human to us after the war, and in the context of writing and publishing. We may not know exactly what she felt about her husband or her lovers, but there is no doubting her passion for writing, which she could do anywhere – on trains or boats or in waiting-rooms. No doubting, either, the depth of her feelings over a misplaced comma or a non-arriving royalty advance (though she gave all her literary earnings to charity). She was a nightmare for her publishers. Over any book of hers a thousand letters would be exchanged, things being made worse by the fact that her handwriting was practically illegible (a trait perhaps related to the fact that she talked so fast). Nevertheless, her editors and publishers seem to have grown quite fond of her. She was a prodigy and a challenge to them, and a born writer. She took books seriously.

Geoffrey Scott, before his premature death in 1929, had been the first editor to work on the newly-discovered Boswell papers. The discovery of this amazing hoard must have been an inspiration for Origo; twice she lit upon a similar treasure-trove and saw how a new kind of book, thoroughly scholarly yet appealing to the ordinary reader, could be made from it. It happened over Byron’s correspondence with the Countess Guiccioli, which only came to light in 1947 and was the origin of one of her best books. A few years later, while working on a monograph about the use of slaves in 14th-century Italy, she visited the archive of Francesco di Marco Datini, a Tuscan merchant of the same century, and was astonished at what she found. Datini had left instructions that every one of his business and family documents should be preserved, and this collection, rediscovered in 1870, comprised 575 account books, 126,000 letters, together with quantities of deeds, inventories, bills of exchange, bills of lading etc. A book about Datini’s trading empire had been published in the 1920s, and some of the letters had also been printed, but not – for instance – those between Datini and his wife. Iris saw the immense potential for the kind of writing she was skilled in, and in The Merchant of Prato she leads us out from business letters and items in his account-books into the rules and theology of usury, the functioning (or non-functioning) of sumptuary laws, banking methods (it appears that Datini, in his brief experiment, was in some respects more advanced than the bank of Barcelona, usually regarded as the first in Europe), and the (very matter-of-fact) marketing of (non-Christian) slaves. In this book her leading trait, a masterful organising capacity, comes brilliantly into its own.

The Merchant also claims to be a biography, and Moorehead speaks admiringly of Origo’s essay on biography in A Need to Testify (1984). I am inclined, however, to think her theories about the subject largely false. One will not quarrel with her three commandments to biographers, not to suppress, not to invent and not to sit in judgment, but they do not get us very far; and one needs to dig in one’s toes against her claim that the task of a historian-cum-biographer like herself is to recreate an ‘age’.

For an ‘age’ is a totally empty concept and, as used (‘the Jazz Age’, ‘the Age of Steam’), can never be more than a mnemonic for a certain span of years. Any attempt to sum up an ‘age’ or ‘world’ or ‘society’, as Origo herself undertakes to do – ‘a small, busy, earthy society . . . neither sophisticated nor subtle’ – fatally turns out as patronising. She argues, in the Merchant, that the chief value of the letters is ‘as an echo and a mirror’: that it is precisely because Datini and his kindly notary friend Ser Lapo Mazzei were not great men that ‘the record of their daily lives has a peculiar value.’ By contrast, great men – leaders, geniuses, saints – ‘are poor mirrors’. I am reminded (though the parallel is not exact) of Charles Rosen’s remark in The Classical Style (1971), that if there can be a history of music (which is not certain) it will have to be a record, not of the normal, but of the exceptional and the unique. Fascinating as is Origo’s account of Datini’s activities, one will learn more, and more that is important, from Dante.

It follows from Origo’s vain assignment to recreate an ‘age’ that, paradoxically, she is eager to discern the ‘timeless’. Timeless, so it would appear, is something that she calls ‘the Tuscan mind’, but also more universal things. She remarks that ‘the servant problem . . . in the 14th century was no less trying than in any period of the world’s history’; ‘then, as now, a good Tuscan housewife’s chief pride was in her linen-chests’; Datini’s friend Ser Lapo sends him a rule of health which is, ‘in some respects, singularly modern’; and in his ambition, shrewdness, tenacity, anxiety and greed, Datini is ‘a forerunner of the businessman of today’.

As regards character and psychology, she cherishes the belief (shared by some historical novelists), that a literary artist may, by dint of listening without prejudice or interruption to their subject, see – ‘as suddenly as, at the turn of a passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror’ – a living face. Yet when it comes to it, rather than catch Datini’s ‘living face’, she ruthlessly generalises his features, defining him as a ‘typical parvenu’. It is for her, no doubt, a ‘timeless’ category; but for us it reeks, not of the 14th, but of the 19th century – of Anthony Trollope and Bulwer-Lytton.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences