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John Saumarez Smith on Iris Origo, War in Val d’Orcia

A Noble Cause

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I was first introduced to Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia by friends who had shared my enjoyment of her equally attractive autobiography, Images and Shadows. Both revealed a strong personality with a remarkable degree of self-knowledge. She knew Heywood Hill both as a bookseller and as an acquaintance, and she was a regular customer. Though her orders would arrive in a notably illegible hand, we never admitted defeat because we had just enough clues to identify what she wanted. (I myself was sometimes guilty of illegibility, once writing a speedy postcard recommending E. M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy to a customer and receiving a reply questioning this hitherto unknown title, Three Cheeses for Doomsday.)

War in Val d’Orcia consists of the diary Iris Origo kept between the end of January 1943 and July 1944. The Origos were based throughout at La Foce, south of Montepulciano in central Italy, though they made occasional excursions to Florence and Rome. She and her Italian husband Antonio had devoted their pre-war lives to reviving the estate, something that could only be done by cooperating with Mussolini and his Fascist bureaucracy; when the Fascists allied themselves with Hitler and Nazism, the Origos keenly adopted the anti-Fascist cause. In what was a remote part of Tuscany they created a remarkable agricultural community, though its close-knit texture would be stretched to the utmost under wartime conditions.

The diary reflects at least three different facets of Iris Origo’s world. First, there was her life at home with Antonio – to whom the book is dedicated – and her two daughters, Benedetta, born in 1940, and Donata, born in June 1943. Then she describes her role on the estate: her relations, always friendly, with the fattore; what was expected of her by the tenant farmers and their families; the part she played in setting up a school and a clinic; and her temporary adoption of children evacuated from Genoa and Turin. Finally, she writes of the outside world: the Italian government in which she had no faith; the Allied army as it moved through Sicily to Anzio, and then, with inevitable delays, via Rome towards La Foce; and the BBC broadcasts from London, some reassuring, others causing nightmares because they could never be checked.

With such endless calls on her, she found it hard to keep a regular diary. Before the war she had written a memoir of her son Gianni, who died at the age of 7, and an impressive biography of the early nineteenth-century poet Leopardi. Brought up as an only child, she had educated herself with wide and catholic reading; in consequence, she wrote with an easy fluency. In the book’s introduction she implies that similar events were happening all over Italy, that Val d’Orcia was in no way exceptional.

Whether or not this is true, she emerges as a remarkable survivor. She lived during this long period under unimaginable

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I was first introduced to Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia by friends who had shared my enjoyment of her equally attractive autobiography, Images and Shadows. Both revealed a strong personality with a remarkable degree of self-knowledge. She knew Heywood Hill both as a bookseller and as an acquaintance, and she was a regular customer. Though her orders would arrive in a notably illegible hand, we never admitted defeat because we had just enough clues to identify what she wanted. (I myself was sometimes guilty of illegibility, once writing a speedy postcard recommending E. M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy to a customer and receiving a reply questioning this hitherto unknown title, Three Cheeses for Doomsday.)

War in Val d’Orcia consists of the diary Iris Origo kept between the end of January 1943 and July 1944. The Origos were based throughout at La Foce, south of Montepulciano in central Italy, though they made occasional excursions to Florence and Rome. She and her Italian husband Antonio had devoted their pre-war lives to reviving the estate, something that could only be done by cooperating with Mussolini and his Fascist bureaucracy; when the Fascists allied themselves with Hitler and Nazism, the Origos keenly adopted the anti-Fascist cause. In what was a remote part of Tuscany they created a remarkable agricultural community, though its close-knit texture would be stretched to the utmost under wartime conditions. The diary reflects at least three different facets of Iris Origo’s world. First, there was her life at home with Antonio – to whom the book is dedicated – and her two daughters, Benedetta, born in 1940, and Donata, born in June 1943. Then she describes her role on the estate: her relations, always friendly, with the fattore; what was expected of her by the tenant farmers and their families; the part she played in setting up a school and a clinic; and her temporary adoption of children evacuated from Genoa and Turin. Finally, she writes of the outside world: the Italian government in which she had no faith; the Allied army as it moved through Sicily to Anzio, and then, with inevitable delays, via Rome towards La Foce; and the BBC broadcasts from London, some reassuring, others causing nightmares because they could never be checked. With such endless calls on her, she found it hard to keep a regular diary. Before the war she had written a memoir of her son Gianni, who died at the age of 7, and an impressive biography of the early nineteenth-century poet Leopardi. Brought up as an only child, she had educated herself with wide and catholic reading; in consequence, she wrote with an easy fluency. In the book’s introduction she implies that similar events were happening all over Italy, that Val d’Orcia was in no way exceptional. Whether or not this is true, she emerges as a remarkable survivor. She lived during this long period under unimaginable stress, conscious that the whole local community depended on her and Antonio, and that at any time of night or day a German deputation might appear at the door with an order to have them arrested and possibly deported. Their tenants were just as brave: they shared everything they had with the partisans and escaping prisoners-of-war, and were often heart-broken when these temporary guests continued with their journeys. She tells touching stories of individual kindnesses and of good triumphing over evil, but there was plenty of treachery and violence to balance the locals’ humanity: if a German was killed by a group of partisans, there would be savage reprisals in the neighbouring villages. The action builds up to a climax in June 1944. With agonizing slowness the English and American forces fight their way towards Tuscany, driving the Germans back. Planes drop bombs all round the estate, and the Germans demand that the children be removed to make room for their own soldiers. All their spare food is commandeered and, deprived of any means of transport, they decide they must walk to Montepulciano for protection. This is a thrilling narrative, and it seems hardly credible that the whole motley party should survive with shells bursting around them all the way. When at last they reach the town to a cheering welcome, it is hard not to weep with relief. War in Val d’Orcia was published in 1947. It didn’t need many explanatory footnotes and there wasn’t enough of a gap between the end of the diary and publication to justify an afterword. It has, of course, been invaluable as a source for later historians for its graphic account of events day by day. When I recommended the book in 1985 as a reprint for inclusion in Century’s Lives and Letters series, the publisher was particularly taken by the cinematic quality of the children’s final escape from La Foce. He must have found an American to bid for film rights because the commission for a scriptwriter was given to Robert Benton in New York. He found it tricky because he couldn’t grasp what Iris Origo was really like and he asked if there was any possibility of meeting her in Rome. By then she was in her late eighties, but she agreed to an interview on condition that it lasted no more than an hour. This posed a further problem. What questions could he most usefully ask? Caroline Moorehead’s admirable biography had not yet been written, and Images and Shadows concealed as much as it revealed. A mutual friend, possibly Shirley Hazzard, suggested that Benton should talk briefly to me on his way through London. I told him as much as I knew and asked him to report back on his return. The interview took place and proved useful, but the Marchesa made it clear that she was getting tired after fifty minutes. At this point Benton asked if she had any questions for him. ‘Yes,’ she said after a pause, ‘who will be playing me in this film?’ He stammered that this was nothing to do with him, he was merely the scriptwriter, but had she any ideas? Another pause, and then: ‘I think I could be played by Muriel Stroop.’ Sadly, the film was never made, but the book is still in print and well worth reading.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 20 © John Saumarez Smith 2008


About the contributor

John Saumarez Smith reread War in Val d’Orcia in Rome this summer. For the long period when he worked at Heywood Hill, rereading was something of a luxury. He is now hoping to keep up with the new books he wants to read and to go back to some favourites.

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