Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated English biographer, Iris Origo. She spent most of her life in Italy; there she married, and there, with her husband, she developed a ramshackle farming estate at La Foce, in Tuscany. Famously, during the Second World War, the estate took in refugee children and sheltered escaping prisoners. Her diary of that time has become a classic of war literature.
Iris Margaret Cutting was born on 15 August 1902 in England, the child of an Anglo-Irish mother and a rich American father. She was educated privately in Florence, Italy, and, with inherited wealth, spent much time in her youth travelling. She married an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo, and together they developed a rundown farming estate, La Foce, some 150km north of Rome. They had one son who died young of meningitis, and two daughters.
In the 1930s, Origo turned to writing, publishing biographies of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and Cola di Rienzo, a fourteenth century Roman politician. During the war, the family stayed at La Foce where they secretly took in refugee children and helped escaping Allied prisoners. After the war, the Origos lived in both Rome and La Foce, and Iris continued writing biographies and autobiographical books. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died in 1988.
Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Florentine, and articles in The Guardian and The New York Times (which calls Origo ‘a true cosmopolite of vast energy and stunning intelligence’).
Origo’s first published autobiographical work was a diary she kept during the war - War in Val d’Orcia (Jonathan Cape, 1947, but reissued in 1999 by Allison & Busby). The book’s publicity material says that even with German troops occupying her manor house, Origo wrote, burying the journal in the garden and writing in secret at night: ‘the result is a book which is an affirmation in itself of courage and resistance, an unsentimental and compelling story of civilian life in wartime’.
9 June 1943
‘At four am in the Clinica Quisisana, my second daughter, Donata, is born. During the long night before her birth I heard from the room, through my own pain, the groans for morphia of a young airman whose leg had been amputated.’
10 June 1943
‘The third anniversary of Italy’s entry into the war. No celebrations. A rumour had spread that there were to be air-raids all over Italy, and all day many mothers have kept their children at home. Nothing, however, occurred until six pm, when a few enemy planes flew over the town - and a few more during the night. The air-raid warnings in the hospital (even though nothing happens) are rather uncomfortable, owing to one’s enforced immobility and the jumpiness of some of the patients.’
24 January 1944
‘The German officer turns up: a parachutist, covered with medals of both this war and the last, in which he served as a volunteer at the age of sixteen. He inspects the Castellucio, is unfortunately delighted with it, and a notice, stating that the castle has been requisitioned, is placed on the door. Mercifully, our own house is not required - as yet. In the afternoon we walk up to Pietraporciana - a lonely farm on the hill-top at the top of our property - to see if we could take all the children there, if we are turned out. There would be thirty-six of us.’
26 January 1944
‘Spend the day sorting furniture and books to be hidden in outlying farms. Schwester Marie, the babies’ charming Swiss nurse, who was to have returned home at this time, decides to stay on with us and see us through, in view of the possibility of our being arrested and the children left alone. Our relief is very great, but she may soon be completely cut off from her home.’
29 June 1944
[. . .] The Germans have gone. [Later] Not only have they gone, but the Allies are here! The first good news came to Antonio, who (while standing beside one of the Germans who are still left in town) was hurriedly summoned by a partisan: some English soldiers, he said, were looking for him. He accordingly hurried down into a wheatfield, and there found a small patrol, headed by a subaltern in the Scots Guards, who had actually come from La Foce. He wanted information as to the number of Germans who are still in town, the lie of the land, the bridges that had been blown up, and so on, all of which Antonio gave him, and in return, he gave us fairly good news of La Foce. The house has only been hit in two or three places, and though the damage inside is considerable, it is not irremediable. All this conversation took place hurriedly, hidden in the wheat, with sentries posted, and just as it was over, a pretty peasant-girl came up with a basket on her head, on her way to town. What next? She said she would hold her tongue, but it seemed safer for the soldiers to take her off with them for a few hours, to which indeed she agreed very willingly. The plan is for the regiment to occupy the town this afternoon. Meanwhile, we are having some German shelling for a change, and Palazzo Ricci and some other buildings have been hit. La Foce has had the honour of being mentioned in the midday bulletin as ‘liberated’ - together with Pienza and Montalcino. But we can hardly listen to the news now: we want to see with our own eyes. Every minute, now, the Allies may arrive!