Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
Iris Origo might be the most self-effacing writer ever to gain renown as a diarist. Her reputation rests on her unique perceptions of others. As an aristocratic landowner in mid-twentieth-century Italy, she bore witness to all strata of Italian society during the long rise and precipitous fall of fascism.
The external circumstances of her life were unquestionably extraordinary. She participated in the final glittering years of prewar Europe’s cosmopolitan society; transformed a region of Italian countryside into a home still visited today for its beauty; and housed, during World War II, escaped prisoners and fleeing refugees. Her writing about this time evinced truths rarely seen in the narratives of historical texts, and did so through illustrative anecdotes that captured the people of the period and what they were feeling. In her diary of the years leading up to the war, A Chill in the Air, there is, for instance, an ever-increasing sense of being shut off from the rest of the world. Letters from England arrive a month late. What little reading material people can access becomes restricted. Origo recounts meeting, at a dinner party, a grad student who spends his nights, with fellow students, sitting up copying by hand an illicit New Republic essay about dictatorship. Iris writes of him, “I wish I could convey his odd mixture of childish pride at belonging to ‘the minority’ of real intelligence, and of something very sincere and tragic.” More than simply remain an anecdote about censorship, her observation captures the tragic paradox of this young man’s pride and sincerity, and his powerlessness in the face of what is to come.
A Chill in the Air and the diary that originally made Origo famous during her lifetime, War in Val d’Orcia, both belong to a retinue of Origo works being reissued by New York Review Books. The NYRB has followed up the diaries by publishing Images and Shadows, Origo’s autobiography, this month. Both volumes of diaries were reissued in 2018, two years after Donald Trump’s election and amid the widespread sense that Americans stood to learn something from the rise of fascism. Origo shows us the complacency of the upper classes, the questions over what news is true or false, which bears uncanny resemblance to our own era.
Origo’s autobiography shows that her reticence on personal matters ran deep. Comparing it with Caroline Moorehead’s definitive biography, Iris Orgio: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia, displays an extensive gallery of omissions. Origo had, over the course of her life, three passionate and protracted affairs with men who get no mention in her autobiography. But her hesitation to talk about these relationships is not simply out of propriety; Moorehead also uncovers an intense friendship with a woman named Elsa Dallolio that was a major part of Origo’s late life. Her unwillingness to allow her intimate relationships into her autobiography exemplifies how Origo was always least interested in herself as a subject. She shifted her focus entirely to the people around her, and it was as much a benefit to her diaries as it was a detriment to her autobiography. But ultimately, her reserved narrative voice produced empathetic, sensitive work that uniquely illuminates a crux of modern history.