Iris Origo is not much remembered now. But from the 1930s, she wrote a series of biographies that went a long way towards establishing the principles and practice of the genre. Almost twenty years earlier, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians had blasted away the high 19th-century tradition of the respectful life and letters. It was heady stuff, but left behind a wasteland. In this new, cynical landscape, how could anyone write the story of someone else's life without seeming like a stupid fan?
Origo answered Strachey's challenge by developing a self- conscious and coherent strategy towards her subjects, who ranged from Byron's daughter Allegra to the early 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. Truth was everything, she maintained, and the greatest sins a biographer could commit were to invent, suppress or sit in judgement. In today's sceptical, playful climate towards authorised versions of human lives, Origo's approach seems as quaint as that of the Victorians, with their pious celebration. Still, the point remains that she thought carefully about what she was doing, anticipating, by 50 years, biography's late-arriving concern with its own procedures.
On a superficial reading of her life, Origo, who married an Italian nobleman in 1924, seemed to come from exactly that class and background which had produced a slightly earlier group of well-heeled ladies of English letters - Vita, Virginia and Violet. Her father, Bayard Cutting, was a man straight out of a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton (both of whom, naturally, were friends of the family). Cutting was that kind of East Coast Brahmin who scooped all the prizes at Harvard before heading for Europe with a grand and nervy Anglo-Irish wife. Switzerland could not cure his TB (he died in 1910 at the age of 30), but it did confirm Cutting's deep belief that Iris should grow up stateless. National identity bred insularity, and Cutting wanted his only child to be free of petty parochialism.
The intention was good, but took no account of the needs of a seven-year-old mongrel who had just lost her father. Settling in Florence with her mother, Iris developed the self-protective coolness of a permanent outsider. It was this chilliness that was to remain the lingering flavour of any encounter with her. As late as the 1980s, by which time she had evolved into something of an Italian national treasure, people still instinctively avoided the Marchesa Origo.
This coolness does not make Origo an easy person for Caroline Moorehead to write about. Passion occasionally splutters through - especially in the letters that she wrote to the lovers scattered through the first half of her lukewarm marriage - but mostly Origo stayed firmly in control. Deeply interested in the welfare of the local children, she opened a Pestalozzi-type school in the grounds of her beloved La Foce estate, yet her personal contact with them seems to have been confined to daily visits to taste the food.
Even during the war, when Origo worked like a fury to help anyone on the run from Il Duce and his allies, she managed to keep her emotions tidy and her hair crisp. Her friends gave her the nickname La Progettista - "the planner" - and there is a controlling quality to Origo that makes her hard to love (and love, surely, is what keeps readers of biography going through the boring bits).
Particularly disappointing is Moorehead's failure to give sustained critical attention to Origo's views on biography. Origo's belief that one had only to be still and attend carefully in order to capture the essence of another human soul has a kind of naivety that sits oddly with the clever, well-read woman whom Moorehead shows her to be. By the time Origo started writing biography, Virginia Woolf had already published Orlando, that cunning satire on the idea of human identity as fixed or stable. Origo knew Woolf slightly and admired her greatly, and it seems incredible that she would not have taken on board the older writer's warnings about the impossibility of biographical "truth". Then again, Moorehead quotes Origo as saying that the biographer comes upon the reality of the subject "as suddenly as . . . one comes upon one's image in a mirror".
Here, surely, Origo is betraying the truth: that no matter how hard she looked at someone else's life, she always found herself. Hardly a provocative statement for a biographer to make, in these self-reflexive days, but for someone who maintained that it was her first duty to efface herself, it deserves a second look.
Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic. She reviews regularly for the NS