The Italianness of it all

Tessa Hadley

  • Images and Shadows: Part of a Life by Iris Origo
    Pushkin, 384 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 78227 266 3
  • War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo
    Pushkin, 320 pp, £9.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 78227 265 6
  • A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-40 by Iris Origo
    Pushkin, 200 pp, £14.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 78227 355 4
  • A Study in Solitude: The Life of Leopardi by Iris Origo
    Pushkin, 416 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 78227 268 7
  • The Last Attachment by Iris Origo
    Pushkin, 576 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 78227 267 0

Iris Origo wrote biographies of an Italian poet, an Italian saint, a merchant from Prato, and Byron’s Italian mistress; her bestselling book was the diary she kept of her experiences on her estate in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany during the Second World War. Everything in her life and writing was inflected by her relationship with the idea of Italy and its past (of course it was not always one ‘Italy’), as well as with the actual 20th-century country where she mostly lived. And yet she wrote in her first language, English, and didn’t think of herself as Italian. She went to live in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence, after her father’s early death from tuberculosis in 1912, when she was seven years old; her father’s family were American, wealthy from railroads, shipping and sugar beet, and her mother was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Her parents had spent the few years of their marriage in wanderings – from Ireland to California to Switzerland to Italy to Egypt – which were partly the rootless travels of a privileged leisure class and partly, as time went on, a search for the best climate for Bayard Cutting’s deteriorating health. ‘I’d like it to be different for Iris,’ he wrote in his last letter to his wife. ‘Make a home for her and yourself, all this travelling and homelessness is so bad for you and will be bad for her.’

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[*] Charles Nicholl wrote about The Merchant of Prato in the LRB of 8 February.