7 OCTOBER 2000, Page 49

Coming home to heroism

Isabel Colegate

IRIS ORIGO: MARCHESA OF VAL D'ORCIA by Caroline Moorehead John Murray, £22, pp.35 1 Iris Origo wrote a volume of autobiogra- phy called Images and Shadows. Published in 1970, it is, like everything she wrote, ele- gant and intelligent; also reticent, cool, and a little melancholy. Caroline Moorehead's biography brings the images to life and sheds light on the shadows, and in so doing reveals a character of unexpected warmth and vulnerability. It is a fascinating por- trait, and one which matches the high stan- dards of its subject, who in her own work — on Leopardi, Byron, and Francesco Datini, the 14th-century merchant of Prato — was herself a meticulous and at times inspired biographer.

Iris Cutting came from a very grand background, Anglo-Irish on one side, the world of Edith Wharton on the other. Her father was Bayard Cutting, scion of an immensely rich and philanthropic New York family. Her mother was the pretty, spoilt daughter of Lord Desart, a distin- guished lawyer and public figure much loved by his grand-daughter. As a child Iris accompanied her parents on a long quest for health for her father, who became tubercular soon after marriage. One by one his ambitions in politics and diplomacy had to be given up as the little family, with their a retinue of servants, wandered from Italy to California, Egypt to St Moritz. For a time he was American vice-consul in Milan and took a valiant part in rescue work after the terrible Messina earthquake of 1908, but had to give up when his health deterio- rated again. His stoicism and optimism remained with his daughter as an example all her life. He also taught her to read. 'Of all the pleasures of life,' she wrote later, `this is the only one that, at every age, has never failed me.'

After Bayard Cutting's death, his widow Sybil settled in the beautiful Villa Medici in Fiesole, and became a star in the Anglo- Florentine firmament. She had a brief affair with Bernard Berenson and then astonished everyone by marrying Mary Berenson's protege, Geoffrey Scott, the fragile and neurasthenic author of The Architecture of Humanism. The marriage was not happy. No one could outdo Sybil where neuroses were concerned, and she spent more and more time in bed on one pretext or another. It was not an easy world for an only child to grow up into, Iris was not a pretty little girl, though later she became in her own way both beautiful and elegant. 'At 30,' she once overheard Scott say to Sybil, 'she may be quite attractive.' One day when her mother complained that she was always reading, Bernard Berenson suggested she should be sent for some lessons to a classical scholar in Florence. Professor Monti opened the door to a new World, a world in which Iris really belonged.

In her mother's eyes, however, there was only one thing for a girl to do when she grew up. She was to 'come out' and get married. Iris came out in three countries. There was a ball at the Villa Medici, Iris with Gianni, born in June 1925 dances in London, even a hunt ball in Dorset, and dances in New York, where the American habit of 'cutting-in' meant that the less popular girls remained, as Iris put it, 'mercilessly linked' to their partners, `like two figures in Dante's inferno'.

At the age of 22 Iris married Antonio, Marchese Origo. He was ten years older than she was, and had little interest in books and the sort of civilised conversation Iris always loved. On the other hand, like her, he disliked smart social life and want- ed to do something useful. His dream was to find a property in the country and farm it well. It was perhaps this resolution, as well as some sort of integrity, which origi- nally attracted her to him. (`Antonio is a good man,' wrote Iris's great friend Ella Dalollio much later.) She never shared with him the side of her life which was per- haps most intensely hers, her love of books. She did share it with Colin MacKenzie, a clever young man hardly older than herself, who had lost a leg in the first world war. She started a correspondence with him when she was only 20. They kept their let- ters, and bound them, but possibly she was already secretly engaged to Antonio. It was only after her marriage that the relation- ship developed into a passionate affair, in which all Iris's longing to love and be loved found its fullest expression. Antonio found out and delivered an ultimatum. By that time he and Iris had an adored son, Gianni, and Iris saw no alternative but to end the affair. the marriage endured, though in the years after Gianni's tragic death from meningitis it needed all Iris's stoicism. Later there were other love affairs, but in the meantime La Foce, its farms and its garden, developed into a model estate, and two much loved daughters were born of the marriage.

By that time, Italy was at war. Caroline Moorehead's knowledge of the background makes her description of the Mussolini years as seen from rural Tuscany extraordi- narily interesting. She traces Antonio's relationship with the Fascists with scrupu- lous fairness, exonerating him from the charges of too close an association which some English and, strongly, some Italian critics have made. In the early years he approved of Mussolini's agricultural poli- cies, and it took him some time to under- stand the evils of Fascism. Iris, initially uncertain, came to detest it long before he did. Her Florentine friends were also at first divided, some, such as the close Beren- son circle, always strongly anti-Fascist, some, less prescient, clinging to the litany about the trains being on time. For an English woman married to an Italian it was an extremely difficult time. The English were disliked, and generally assumed to be finished.

Then came the heroic years in which La Foce became a source of shelter, food and information for escaping English and American prisoners, as well as for desper- ate Italian refugees. Iris emerged as extraordinarily efficient and resourceful; both she and Antonio were remarkably courageous. When Iris published her diaries after the war the book, War in Val d'Orcia — became a best-seller.

Towards the end of her life Iris worked among other things on an idea for a book on true compassion — the capacity to feel with other people. Caroline Moorehead, in an admirably perceptive, well-written and entertaining biography, makes it clear that, in spite of the formidable exterior she could present when not at ease, true com- passion was part of Iris Origo's rare and complex nature.