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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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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