Iris Origo is long overdue for revival.
Her celebrated diaries, War in Val d’Orcia, first published in 1947, have never gone out of print, but remain as elusive as their author, an elegant woman – half Irish, half American – who baffled friends and family alike by marrying an obscure Italian aristocrat and moving into a decaying Tuscan osteria between the two world wars.
That felicitous decision, which resulted in the slow, but steady metamorphosis of house and grounds alike, has made their property into a Tuscan landmark. La Foce, itself the subject of a book, published, improbably, by the University of Pennsylvania Press, remains one of the finest gardens in Italy, and continues to host an annual music festival of ever improving stature in quite extraordinary surroundings.
The Marchesa’s diaries, however, are quite another matter. Depicting two short years in her life at La Foce, she and her husband, Antonio, risked all by harbouring a steady procession of escaped Allied POWs, orphans, evacuees, partisans and even deserters at the height of the Second World War.
Driven by their “shared youthful dream”, as she put it – a burning wish to improve the world immediately around them – their resolve to do what they deemed morally correct, rather than what might have been expected of their class, not only left an indelible legacy, but made them one of the few such families in the country. With an estate to run, two girls to raise, gardens to design and a demanding husband, she still found time to write and travel.
The diaries remain a classic; but so, too, does Images and Shadows, the lesser known, but equally well written autobiography of the years leading up to her “coming out”. Alternating between her paternal grandparents’ estate at Westbrook, Long Island; her other grandparents’ home in England; and her mother’s home at Villa Medici in Fiesole (her father having died when she was seven), this remarkably enjoyable memoir of childhood, first published in London in 1970, provides yet another glimpse of a bygone era, but one involving three continents and an approach to privilege that would explain much of what ensued at La Foce.