A Little ‘Foreign’

P.N. Furbank

  • Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia by Caroline Moorehead
    Murray, 351 pp, £22.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5672 4

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.

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