misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Caroline Moorehead: lives of Lucie de la Tour du Pin and Iris d'Origo

Dear friends,

I've wanted to write about Caroline Moorehead's useful and moving biography of the life of Iris d'Origo, Marchesa of Val D'Orcia, for too long to try to remember. And now about two weeks ago I finished another marvellous biography by her: Dancing to the Precipice, the life of Lucie [Dillon] de la Tour du Pin, eyewitness to an era. Both bring to life the inner world of two profound women writers of memoirs.

Origo herself was a great biographer. Among Origo's memoirs is an acknowledged (by discerning critics and those who know Italian history and literature) masterpiece showing the extraordinary courage and strength of character she displayed on behalf of a large group of peasants, servants, friends, a memoir of her time as the lead woman running a mid-northern Italian estate during the worst years of WW2: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44. I've a hunch that Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is heavily indebted to this book for its depiction of war-ridden northern Italy (from the perspective of a person concerned with keeping a community going and held together might experience it). Origo wrote a great literary biography of Leopardi, A Study in Solitude, and a perception dual biography of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, The Last Attachment, which despite the perspective of the title (Byron's) is more about Teresa (who left a long memoir of her time with Byron which is very good).

Lucie Dillon, an eighteenth-century woman did not live in a milieu or time which would give her the opportunity to write great books of scholarship and she was apparently not prompted to write novels; instead in the last thirty years of her life she wrote a long memoir of her experience of life from her childhood to1814, which since she and her husband became attached first to the Bourbon, then the Napoleon, and then the Bourbon courts and governments includes a depiction of the French revolution, as well as the northern US (where she and her husband fled) and other European countries they wandered in as from time to time they were ejected or got appointments, were imprisoned, and finally retired. It was published posthumously and has been a major source for historians ever since. She also left reams of apparently superb letters, most of which have never been published.

For this blog I'll confine myself to Moorehead's books: a full account of her life of Lucie Dillon, and briefly about Dillon's memoirs and letters; a much briefer account of Moorehead's life of Iris Origo, prefaced by an account of one of Origo's books of life-writing, Images and Shadows. Origo is a well-known woman writer, but her Images and Shadows is not as valued as it should be.

These are comfort books for me: sustaining, thoughtful, sensitive

I'll begin with Lucie as she comes first in time (1770-1848).

Lucie Dillon in black: she and Lewes had ignored conventions and lived together as man and wife.; gym machines and swimming (hjave to ask Izzy if she wants to go). The movie who I read aloud this paper for. It is a revealing portrait, with a real face (instead of the doll's faces so common in the era). To me she looks intelligent and kindly. I will learn about the son I expect; I know all but one child predeceased her. Very hard.

The reviewers complained that the opening section had too much background. I disagree: the back Moorehead brings in is necessary to make us understand the world as Lucie Dillon saw it and the worlds beyond that she sensed but was kept from. That she sensed them is important for it gave her grandmother the upper hand to bully and mortify and make her life miserable through a vicious tongue. Lucie knew if cast out, she was lost. I've carried on reading this book and must say it's excellent. The flaws (to me) are her obviously (if quietly) siding against the revolution's principles or not be willing to be for them, so we are told of people liking Thomas Paine's ideas about the "rights of men." I would not make this distance of Paine's ideas about and I wouldn't put scare quotes around the rights of mena and women. Thus one must read what she says alert to her bias, but the bias does not prevent her from telling much that is important and insightful and is not often told about the French revolution in a larger history. Because she is dealing with a particular individual in each case when she gives a larger context I learn something.

The daughter of a weak mother dominated by a selfish harridan cruel grandmother whom Lucie had the courage to delineate honestly (no cant here), and of a man who travelled away from this "nest" and re-married, she was under the thumb of this grandmother who herself was the unacknowledged mistress of a bishop. A woman creates self-vision. The bishop was actually used to control Lucie; they thought they were doing her a good term. Lucie's mother's biological father and Lucie's grandfather. The grandmother had this positive side: she was determined the girl should be well educated and luckily to her mind this included book learning. She also, Lucie concedes, saw, as did the grandfather-Bishop, the girl's genius.

The early chapters are taken up with probable reading, the houses and places Lucie lived in, where and how she travelled (by coach) and the suitors that were brought to the house. Her father brought the man she eventually married and gave her the happy private life she managed; against him, the grandmother was determined, but Lucie won out, probably because she was not herself so very marketable. And she did not want to be a lady at court (insightful of and more power to her).

Frederic Serraphim de Gouvernet (eventually du Pin de la Tour) was an interesting man, well-travelled, given decent appointments (had been in America by this time. He too has a scandalous demi-monde background if we look at his parentage and less than kind relatives. But some of the better ones (more intelligent and decent and interesting) began to form a circle around Lucie once she married in. The title comes frmo Lucie's memoirs; she saw herself and all her privileged milieu as dancing near this precipice; ironically it was all brought back in the later 1790s. Her marriage enabled her to escape living with her grandmother. Moorehead (following her) goes on about her presentation at court as the Comtesse du Gouvernet by her new relative, the Princesse de Henin, but from this time there is this interesting drawing of her, suggesting she did like to write as well as read even when younger.

We get thumbnail portraits which leave the reader with a sense of this society: her nameless mother-in-law. The woman is not named by her first name in the text; you must look it up in the index and then a complicated family tree. We are told that sometime after her marriage her mother "shut her up on a convent" because she got into scandals. We are not told what these were, the implication is something sexual because we are told her husband was a narrow rigid soldier type (hugely rich from an ancient noble family). She is let out one day to go to her son's wedding.

From my reading of other books, and what I remember of women "shut up in convents" I get the feeling she couldn't cope with abrasive aggressive people, broke down rather like Sarah Lennox, and in France there were the cruel lettres de cachet.

Her sister, the Princesse de Henin was married off very young to an old man who had mistresses and hardly paid any attention to her. She got herself a lover type and spent her time networking in salons and going to court -- ordeals that took huge amounts of time and were about pecking order. We are to (I gather) admire this woman as she's so witty and competent in this corrupt heartless world.

Lucie's marriage to Frederic was against her grandmother's will as I suggested, and as I said the grandmother has perpetually "painful, hurtful tongue:" someone overfilled with spite. Lucie had not seen him before they bethrothed and stubbornly woudl not give him up to escape the grandmotehr and also to displease her. She was able to carry it off because Marie Antoinette approved. When she met Antoinette she didn't like her and we get a rare prosaic account which is neither laudatory nor supercondemning. The queen alternated between a kind of sentimental hypocrisy and unconscious arrogance.

And younger nieces and other girls of Frederic's families regularly "shut up in convents" is the phrase in their mid-teens and then hurried into marriages; the convent probably curbed their spirits and made them accept the marriage as a release.

Amid all this a couple of scenes between Lucie and Frederic when they first meet: already bethrothed. They sit down and have serious talk about books and social life; politics would come later. The value Lucie feels for him reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet for Darcy: intelligent, well read, amiable, and decently kind, she really does esteem him and feel gratitude. She is soon pregnant too :)

Lucie Dillon's husband was a military man and he was one of those sent to the provinces to put mutinies down. Moorehead explains that once the National Assembly was formed this encouraged all sorts of people suffering (for centuries really) from blatant ruthless injustices of all sorts simply to act against them directly: in the military where punishment was savage, promotion utterly corrupt (favoritism, cronyism, coteries dependent on family connections), the ordinary soldiers began to demand change and when they didn't get it, mutinied. The state government sent out ruthless officers and other men to put these men down. The fights were ferocious on both sides, but as today the government often had much better weapons and money: they acted the way governments do today when faced with hostage takers: refuse to negotiate and when they win (with time on their side and levers of all sorts) institute horrific punishments (executions, transportations). Moorehead tells the demands, the punishments and then that afterwards quietly these kinds of changes were instituted -- and in different areas.

Lucie herself does not register any wider guilt or understanding than her own interests, but Moorehead is continually providing such wider perspectives which explain much. I am learning about various counterrevolutions. "La nuit de Varennes" is retold accurately and with perception and insight.

The lack of salaries and rents for the first time to all these hanger-on courtiers is amusing to watch: to see them flee, have to deal with ordinary people and make money and also how theydo manage and keep their egoes and world views in tact is fascinating -- they were aided by the rich and powerful in the countries they fled to. But they would have to kowtow to local customs: like in Switzerland people travelling as sexual couples often ended up marrying one another as they would not have bothered to do in France.

Lucie and her close female relatives have now fled to Holland -- soon after "the great fear" (people realized all hell was going to break loose) -- where her husband got a job as an administrator. Connections and education are still keeping them going as aristocrats. As I've said, Moorehead gives us frank candid portraits in a perceptive context of the individuals in Lucie's life; these she mostly owes to Lucie's diaries -- but her own able research too.

Lucie Dillon was quite a woman. Arguably it was she who saved her husband's life, who had the social skills, original kind of thought (which allowed her to break social manner taboos), active nature and energy, to pull them both out the vortex into prison and death and across an ocean to the US. The story is complicated and it's obvious that she could not have done this without much aid along the way: some of it came from her husband's rank (in and of itself still enormously respected by those with it, all the more tenaciously as it was so violently and aggressively under attack), connections, money, property, and revealingly, his job and effectiveness as a military man. He was valuable to the revolutionaries too and played a game where he worked for them on the surface.

They had a long period of hiding out and she made a number of friends among people of lower rank who ran inns and had small houses: she lived in a cottage on the far edge of a village in Northern France (not that far from Paris I gather) and sent her husband to live far away from her so they would not be spotted as who they were. To this she remained consistently loyal and one accompanied her to and from America.

Again Moorehead to me takes sides (the wrong one) and I am invited to lament this or that aristocrat or wealthy person's bad diet. She will say so-and-so- was guitless meaning of the specific crime charged. Sometimes. Crimes are hard to prove of the underhanded type -- it's not in your interest to write anything down. But Lucie Dillon's husband was someone who had ordered the murder of the justifically mutining men I described earlier, and he was doing what he could to bring the king and his people back into power. As Carlo said, this plotting never stopped -- not even when the king was dead, though that demoralized the counterrevolutionaries. To them of course they were what they were, and her father and father-in-law were among those guillotined. Many many died (and this is a terrorizing way fo killing people) and many who lived lost friends and beloved people.

I am led to like Lucie for her personal character and behavior. She could herself throw off ancien regime ways -- which had made her miserable growing up. In the US she had managed to take many crates and a piano (!) across a hard trip and they still had assets and were accepted and socialized with the upper classes in the US with connections to France. So she managed to learn and buy a farm and with her husband farmed it. Unlike her husband and most of the emigres, she was reluctant to return -- most did upon understanding they were safe and had hopes or retrieving some of their property. She is doing much that she does while pregnant and giving birth again and again and some of her babies dying.

Lucie Dillon in America, buying slaves, French rococ style painting

liked her treatment of black people. She did buy four slaves -- reluctantly Moorehead claims, but two of them were the relatives of two (she bought one woman's husband and another man's father). She treated them well as things went: they had their own cabin and quarters. More important: when she left, she freed them. It's revealing to know that this was much disapproved of but she went ahead with it.

Of course there is Talleyrand's visit to her, and Moorehead takes out time to tell a little of his life in the US -- as she does other colorful or famous people. He was a survivor all right. He brought Lucie the right presents when she needed them, said comforting things; she characterizes him shrewdly and also (unexpectedly to me) labels him "worthless" by which she means amoral, not to be trusted. Amusingly to me, he managed to live a way of life closer to his own than others: he tooks a mistress, a mulatto and was irritated by censure. Moorehead doesn't say if she was a slave or not, doesn't tell her name and doesn't tell what became of her. Probably not easily found out, but if Moorehead does know this I would have loved to know too -- and what happened to her afterwards. Did it help her having been Talleyrand's mistress, or was it a wash?

Lucie Dillon surprised the French by sleeping with her husband -- they did love one another; she took to dressing American style while in the US and had little trouble coping as "Mrs Latour."

Of course I know this portrait is the product of Moorehead's reading of Lucie Dillon's diary and the times, but it rings true enough and tells a lot of what Moorehead admires. Iris Origo was similarly a powerful chatelaine at heart who during WW2 ran a stout-hearted community in Italy, keeping children, other women and men and people who came and went safe enough and going. She was also a fine writer in ways Lucie was not, but Lucie is of another time. Lucie's little boy does mean a lot to her and now that I know (from Catherine) he died young in a duel, I can understand what tragedy this was for her as well as her son.

I'm just loving this book. Is value for me comes from Moorehead's quotations from Lucie Dillon's memoir. When I read these, my spirit finds itself in deeply congenial veins of thought and I'm comforted or amused or made to feel something I've thought is right is indeed right. Moorehead did manage to quote Dillon referring to Madame du Deffand and in these passage she rises to the level of Madame du Deffand's insights on human nature, social life, how to survive. I find I do read women's memoirs precisely for this kind of thing. I don't care so much what they do in life (though I don't like treachery and ugliness) or even want any kind of model (in any case I often disagree with what's admired -- as I do here with Moorehead now and again); it's rather in these meditative passages I find what's alive and counts.

She had one good friend who she wrote to frequently; they fought and broke up and then came back together again: Claire de Duras. It is to her some of these passages were written; others to Stael (who she became friendly with after the Napoleonic era was over). And of course the memoirs themselves. We see a softer more reflective woman.

Moorehead has a larger view and fill outs much that Lucie Dillon could not see about herself and contextualizes the journals effectively. I praised the angle the perspective comes out of as joining the intimate point of view of the Dillon and La Tour families at the same time as channelling other individuals they knew and the larger picture. Moorehead has done a lot of research and reading and brings different worlds alive - including the places the emigres fled to and what it was like there.

What I do qualify is Moorehead's political stance. This is not to say that she is narrowly biased; again I said she does justice to the misery and realities of the vast mass of people beneath the grossly rich in the ancien regime, but she is also biased on behalf of the aristocrats or the establishment at the time - and probably now. I daresay many reading her would not see her as biased for her politics are centrist for our time. Were I write a review for a periodical I would be careful to phrase my critique because of this. But this is a listserv and we are talking among friends and so I was not careful and spoke out of my own deep sympathies for the revolutionary point of view and the excluded. She doesn't make Dillon's prejudices her own; rather her own outlook, centrist coheres or is partly coterminus with Dillon's. Mine is much less so.

She adds a lot and I recommend her; as Hayden White would say, all history is retelling from structures we inherit from previous histories and our own time and that's what's here. Probably anyone reading my reviews would find I
have a definite point of view too and might not like it.

Voltaire is quoted now and again about this or that and so too Diderot and Rousseau; very effectively too. Indeed after the stupid (there's really no other word for it) death of her son Humbert in a duel in 1816, just after her Memoirs end, she wore black for the rest of her life. I assume most or those reading my blog know of the ironies of this era: how the wealth\y and powerful who survived the guillotine were precisely those put back in power by Napoleon, and the re-jockeying that went on during the restoration. We talked of "progress" on my Trollope and 19th century list (whether there is any and how can we find any): as I contemplate this scene it's hard to see much -- the worst of the abuses of the ancien regime were swept away (but not slavery and not women's position), many areas of life were made more orderly in public. At any rate I can't summarize as there is too much. Dillon's life is also complicated and the poor women lost most of her children -- in young adulthood too, a time hard to bear. Her son sounds either semi-suicidal or stupid; he was given bad advice by the father -- who I can see is nowhere as smart as Lucie. She saves him and herself repeatedly.

I will just content myself with sharing one remarkable passage by Lucie Dillon written to her friend, Claire:

"to look inside your heart, see what needs destroying and then not have the strength to do it: that is more dangerous than useful; one grows accustomed to one's enemy, and by making a familiar one loses the desire to get rid of it . . . I want to persuade you that there are a number of things in life that one must pass by without looking at" (p. 323)

I find that strengthening. When I reached the end of the book i found myself moved by contemplating the life and character of Lucie Dillon. The book is good but not good enough: Moorehead's book on Iris Origo is better. I've outlined some problems: another is she begins to lose her grip on Lucie as the center of her book towards the last quarter: like others, Lucie in the last 30 (!) years of her life did nothing remarkable and went about with no Big people; on the other hand, what she did while living in a relatively meagre (very near real genteel poverty, no servants at times) was write these memoirs. So we do have a record of the last 30 years -- if not explicitly.

More to the point of Moorehead's problem, Lucie did stop her own memoir at 1814. However, there are many many letters between her and her niece, Felicie (well from her to her niece -- more on that in a bit), to her beloved friend, Claire de Duras (a difficult relationship but very important to Lucie as site for her to express her deeper thoughts); diplomatic letters of her husband and her last son (the only child who outlived her) left a memoir; plus letters to Germaine de Stael. Most of this is not published and lies in a Chateau de Veves, in the hands of relatives and those who inherited the house and papers. My complaint is that the last third of the book could have been more moving and private had Moorehead chosen really to give us the substance of these letters.

Contemporary picturesque illustration of chateau where Lucie's papers now reside

Instead she concentrates on the outer life, the politics, and colorful figures and happening. It sells a book but is not a life of Lucie in a true real way. I have published a book and know how publishers push you not to write close readings, at length about writing of any kind and about social events, but Moorehead could have done differently. My feeling is she didn't have it within her: Iris Origo's own memoir is vastly superior to Moorehead's book about her for this reason.

Among moving realities: all her children but one predeceased her. She threw herself into their lives and loved them; I've read how it shows Jane Austen's mother was a good woman because all her children survived; no such thing; she was lucky. Lucie Dillon has similar access to what doctornig and medicine there was and did as much. Her husband was finally (in my judgement) not that bright and he was rigidly monarchical and they kept going down and down; not fun; towards the end she spent time with him in a prison. It was not a bad prison -- like Sade', they were living in decent if humble rooms, but it was certainly humiliating hardship. Due to the husband in part the son who duelled did duel and get himself killed; the last son was so loyal to her but he also was involved in useless attempts to put the old Bourbon regime back and ended in Italy because had he gone back to France he would have been executed.

She turned to women friends for companionship and was disappointed. Claire just wasn't up to her friends ethical, senstive, passionate brilliant nature (she was a novelist and write rin her own right and I've read one of them). Endlessly is Lucie disappointed and hurt. Worse: the niece she finally came to depend on really apparently didn't care for her. It's the story fo Madame de Sevigne and her daughter: the older woman writes and longs for companionship and reciprocation and doesn't get it. A granddaughter, Cecile, meant a great deal but Lucie gave her up: she let her be taken back to Brussells by a cold grandfather who could find a world for Cecile to belong to and marry in. Lucie writes desperately how she has no contacts, connections, nothing to offer but herself; the girl apparently at first said she didn't want to marry and remained with her grandmother but the old man was adament and in the end she was much better off, happier with a life of her own. Moorehead only treats the relationship with Claire adequately; she doesn't the other. I wondered if she was afraid of offending someone. More likely here she herself had priorities and values which blind her to what makes for real contentment in a life and the tragedy of Lucie's was she was deprived of much of this.

Politics, money, class, rank, a lack of decent scientific medicine all threw heavy blows at Lucie. She stood up because she was strong and able to remain calm and kept up this stance of low expectations for herself. Any other way led to madness. I noticed how she had a decent library in Pisa (where she ended up) and that helped.

My criticism is that Moorehead has not quite conveyed the depth of emotion and variety of Dillon's inner life; she has stayed on the surface and given us social life when she ought to have gone in Dillon's letters and provided more of the partly hidden private consciousness; but she is judicious, full, and she gives the discerning reader enough to extrapolate from and she tells of the memoir, the letters, calls attention to Lucie Dillon (Mrs Delatour as she was called in the US) once again, and perhaps such a book may lead to a better edited version of the memoir and publication of a selection of Lucie's letters.

As with Lucie Dillon, Moorehead's Iris Origo, Marchesa d"Orcia is based on the eloquent and perceptive life-writing of its subject, especially the war memoir, War in Val d'Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 and Origo's last autobiography, Images and Shadows.

I'll begin with the autobiographies this time: Images and Shadows and a little of War in Val D'Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44. Iris Origo is an intensely intelligent and stylish writer who really gets to the pith of things. It's her autobiography upon which Caroline Moorehead relies for the biography. Origo's is the deeper satisfying book: she goes into how memory works in the imagination of the older person returning to the past (so there's a Proust feel here). The images are the houses she recalls and all they evokes; the shadows are the lost people.

It's deeply felt and deep-musing; Origo says for this book she takes off a mask. What I'd like to say that is relevant to both Trollope-l and WW is that Origo depicts the familiar Trollopian world of the later 19th century, the top 10,000. Some of the behaviors that seem strange (girls who are forbidden to see a manfor years and hold out and how the young couple slowly gets to marry), values (the high aristocratic urbanity), the uses of ceremony, the big houses and toleration for real difference in individuals within families (not brought out in the novels) are found here.

I recommend this one strongly as a remarkable depiction of a world which has been erased, probably to some extent for the good (as it was dependent on much misery for vast amounts of people), but one which in imagination we seek when we read 19th century novels and watch film adaptations and costume dramas based on these.

Iris as a child in Italy

Images and Shadows begins to fall off as Origo hit adolescence and especially young womanhood. Nothing about sex are
we told. She marries inside three paragraphs, hardly anything about her new husband: he's explained as a philosophical choice :). So perhaps one reason autobiographies often do fall off after childhood is people are unwilling to tell of their
hard growing up and painful experiences for which they may not find the sympathy or understanding they'd like to create; and then they'd have to expose other people (or their friends) who might get back or complain bitterly in print. But then the book picks up on La Foce and the war years in Italy and she's back in stride again. She can tell of these experiences.

The children Iris started and maintained a school for at La Foce

One part of the book more relevant to Last Attachment occurs in the section called "Writing." Origo tells how she came to be a writer: she had always written, but when her son died, she had to throw herself into something. Leopardi came out of the heart: she had translated his poetry and loved his spirit as what she felt was congenial to hers (this does not quite come out in the book where she is stern against his solitary life); but the book on Byron and Datini (really about the 14th century world through documents) were a result of serendipity: she came across through friends a cache of documents no one had seen, much less published. The story of her meeting with Teresa's great-great nephew, his sudden decision to trust her, and then putting all the papers and things and relics he had in a big room in her car without wanting to know any more is comic and touching. He trusted her because she was not famous at the time; because she seemed to have a spirit that was genuine and he could recognize as able to be true to the people whose lives he was (in effect) in paper entrusting her with. So Byron was not a big interest of hers, and we can see this from the book. Before writing.

She had wanted to write a book called Poets Children and it was to be about the children who were born, tagged along, sometimes died, and sometimes managed to flourish in Italy or England later on. She wanted to tell of the Hunt children, of Mary Shelley's son, of EBB and Browning's son; in the event, she wrote a book on Allegra which Diana has told us of. Again this is connected to the vulnerability and death of her son.

I was much surprised by the ending, though I should not have been. The ending tells of how she would like to believe in an afterlife and some sort of supernatural presence, and she tells us the reason directly: the death of her son, Gianni, at age 7, is one she has never gotten over. This reminded me of Rosamond Lehmann's late life adherence to spiritualism as a result of the death of her daughter (here is another woman whose novels I meant to write about under the sign of Austen). Origo also tells of an older woman friend of hers, Elsa, who meant very much to her, and died years before (though old by that time), a kind of mother figure, intellectual but not ambitious, who Origo buried in La Foce's graveyard. Origo presents a kind of sequence of deaths from her father to her son to this friend. So here we see the shadows. Throughout she has not been as open or intimate about herself as she may seem -- particularly over her husband.

Now for Moorehead's biography: it's splendid. Moorehead adds much essential information and perception not included in Images and Shadows. It's like a continuation by a far less poetic spirit. I've learned a huge book of letters between Origo and one of her lovers, Colin Mackenzie; of Origo's deep relationship with her young son, who died at age 7 of meningitis (still a dangerous disease). The depiction of Italy in the later 1920s through early 40s (what I've read through) is insightful: I realized how 20 minutes fro a sophisticated city like Florence you could find worlds where people's outlook and illiteracy matches that portrayed of Europeans in the middle ages. It seems she was so lucky to be in contact with the best minds in art and literature in the Anglo-Florentine community and some of the cultured circles of England, but she talks of her experiences as fraught with spite and disappointment; she ever wanted to return to Val d'Orca.

They were reviews praising of Caroline Moorehead's biography of Origo highly. Here is one which sums it up very well: Benita Eisler, "Tea with Mussolini," Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 August 2002):

Caroline Moorehead's Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia (David R. Godine, 374 p., $35). It's a biography of a biographer (words I expect to become very quick at typing during the fall's group read). She was born Iris Cutting in London, 1902, heiress to her American father's railroad fortune. When he died, her English mother Sybil moved with her only child to Florence, "to escape both families," says the review. She lived in Italy the rest of her life, wrote biographies (though her husband "loathed 'literary' women") of a fascinating variety of subjects (Giacomo Leopardi, Byron's daughter Allegra, San Bernardino, Teresa Guiccioli), knew Mussolini well socially but hid and fed Allied troops on her Tuscan estate, married an "arch-conservative, monarchist and anti-Semite" philanderer, mourned the death of her only son from meningitis, organized a primary school in a nearby village, arranged housing and medical care for working families, etc.

The last line of the review rivets me: about dissatisfaction, despair, retreat: "If there is an absence at the heart of Moorehead's book, it is there within Origo--hers a restless and incomplete life, fleetingly consoled by art." This is at the heart of women's memoirs at their greatest, including those written from the perspective of war (I'd link the two 17th century autobiographers who lived through sieges and wars to Origo: Brilliana Harley's letters and Lucy Hutchinson's life of her husband).

Predictably, the marriage was unhappy from the start. The pair had nothing in common, and although [Caroline Moorehead] describes Origo as a "sportsman," his athletics were confined to the usual pastime of men of his class: philandering. Iris, too, soon found consolation elsewhere. What kept them together more than nominally was their purchase of an unpromising parcel of arid land in Val d'Orcia, a remote corner of Tuscany. "La Foce" was a miserable collection of hardscrabble farms where the peasantry eked out a subsistence living from the thin-soiled steep cliffs--"like a lunar landscape" the new owners said happily--virtual slaves to the ancient system of tenancy called patronage.

Cover for her Italian diary, idealizing one, for the diary is about the time of war

Settling in La Foce, the Origos reinvented themselves as model landowners and agrarian reformers. With the wedding present of a pipeline from a [Bayard Cutting] aunt, water from the valley turned the chalky terraces into flourishing farms. (What God could do if He had money!) Iris' investment in reclaiming Val d'Orcia provided an incompatible couple with complementary roles. Antonio presided over the agricultural innovations: new tractors, irrigation, livestock; Iris applied her intelligence and energy to organizing a primary school, decent housing and medical care for the workers and their families. Then, in June 1924, as if to bless their collaboration, the Origos' first child, a son, Giovanni "Gianni" Clemente, was born.

Moorehead's treatment of the political dimensions of Origo's life, evenhanded and honest, is only one of the virtues of her exemplary authorized biography. She captures the giddiness of pre- war Florentine society, its musical beds and warring salonistas, along with the deep sadness of Origo's last years, which neither two daughters, her own last attachment of friendship with a great and noble woman, reconciliation with Antonio nor conversion to Catholicism could assuage. If there is an absence at the heart of Moorehead's book, it is there within Origo--hers a restless and incomplete life, fleetingly consoled by art.>

Elsa Dallolio, a close, Iris's best friend from her later years, a reading and writing woman who never published, lived on a tiny income and remains unknown but for the records of her in Iris's life

I really do feel reading this masterpiece of a memoir-biography -- it's not really a full biography but rather a memoir, a book about a person from a specific portraiture angle about one portion of his life --- this masterpiece, and remembering the Leopardi, I've met yet another new woman author I want to read more and learn more about. You can see why Origo would do so well in describing the inner life of the household of Byron and Teresa as well as the strangulation of Leopardi in his family -- why like Emily Dickinson he had to live apart.. Simply put, Origo is remarkably insightful about daily life in a large household -- since she came from one and that Moorehead captures that here.

And for future, a related memoir: I mean to write about Vittoria Colonna's great-great-great aunt, of the same name, the Duchess of Sermoneta who wrote a decent (not great) memoir of her life as an Anglo-Italian the first half of the 20th century

Tags: 20th century, women's memoirs

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