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26 March 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 11:19am

Watching the juggernaut

By Jane Shilling

A passionate gardener, the author Iris Origo was herself an exotic hybrid. She was born Iris Margaret Cutting (the Margaret added as an afterthought when her grandmother complained that Iris Cutting “suggests a gardeners’ catalogue”) in 1902. Her American father, Bayard Cutting, was the son of a wealthy New York family and her mother, Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish peer, Lord Desart.

Iris’s early childhood was peripatetic, as Bayard tried to combine useful work with a climate that would alleviate his tuberculosis. The family travelled to California, Switzerland, Italy and Egypt, where Bayard died, aged 30. Iris was seven. In his last letter to his wife, he wrote that he wished his daughter to be brought up free from “all this national feeling which makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong… so that she can really be cosmopolitan… [and] when she grows up, she will be free to love and marry anyone she likes, of any country, without its being difficult.”

Sybil duly moved into the Villa Medici, in the hills above Florence, where Iris grew up in an atmosphere of febrile aesthetic refinement. In 1924 she married Antonio Origo, the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo. During their engagement they sought “a place with enough work to fill our lifetime” and in 1923 they discovered La Foce, a Tuscan estate in the “lunar landscape, pale and inhuman” of the Val d’Orcia.

Iris first wrote about her life at La Foce in War in the Val d’Orcia, published in 1947. The book, based on her diaries from 1943-44, described how the estate became a refuge for partisans and escaped British prisoners of war, and told how the Origos, having taken in 23 homeless children, found themselves caught between the Allied advance and the German retreat and had to lead their group of terrified refugees to safety in Montepulciano – a journey of some 10 kilometres, made on foot along mined roads under Allied fire. But a previous journal, written in 1939-40 during the “juggernaut approach of war”, has remained unpublished until now. A Chill in the Air is a study in real time of the confusion, rumour and dread that preceded Italy’s entry into the war; and a keenly observed account of the difficult moral choices made by individuals in troubled times.

Cutting’s wish for his daughter to grow up “cosmopolitan” had unforeseen consequences. Iris’s sense of rootlessness – intensified by the complexity of her situation when her husband’s nation and her parents’ were at war – made her diffident about voicing political views. She admitted “a disinclination to write about the long years of Fascism, during which I learned to hold my tongue and preserve my convictions”.

Her convictions altered over time. In the mid-1920s, the Origos’ plans for the restoration of La Foce corresponded exactly with Mussolini’s policy of reclaiming derelict farmland. On a first encounter with Il Duce during his 1930 tour of Tuscany, Iris wrote to a friend, “He is a very great man.” But by 1939, when A Chill in the Air begins, her views had changed.

With close friends in aristocratic and diplomatic circles (her godfather, William Phillips, was the American ambassador in Rome) and a life at La Foce rooted in a medieval farming tradition, Iris occupied a unique vantage-point from which to observe the coming of war. In the autumn of 1939 she recorded Phillips’s account of taking Roosevelt’s “peace message” to Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III, “a very small, shabby man in a brown overcoat”. A few days earlier, as the peasants of La Foce were called up, she had written, “One old man, whose four sons work on the farm, put a shaking hand on my arm: ‘If they all four go, I might as well throw myself into that ditch. Who will work the farm? What shall we give the children to eat?’”

The dense atmosphere of foreboding so acutely rendered in the pages of A Chill in the Air is punctuated with brilliant vignettes: the customs officer who cheerfully exclaimed, “Come in and stay in!” as the Origos returned to Italy from a last pre-war trip to Switzerland; a soldier making a chain of dandelions for his baby daughter; and the poignant image of a “still, lovely summer’s evening” at La Foce, “the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

“Death and destruction have visited us,” Iris wrote in the final sentence of War in the Val d’Orcia, “but now – there is hope in the air.” In this elegant, eloquent account of a period when death and destruction were imminent, the sense of hope is never quite extinguished.

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939-1940
Iris Origo
Pushkin Press, 192pp, £14.99

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