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Iris Origo was one of the twentieth century’s most attractive and intriguing women, a brilliantly perceptive historian and biographer whose works remain widely admired. Iris grew up in Italy with her Irish mother after the death of her wealthy American father. They settled in the Villa Medici in Florence, where they became part of the colourful and privileged Anglo-Florentine set that included Edith Wharton, Harold Acton and the Berensons.
When Iris married Antonio Origo, they bought and revived La Foce, a derelict stretch of the beautiful Val d’Orcia valley in Tuscany and created an estate that thrives to this day. During World War II they sided firmly with the Allies, taking considerable risks in protecting children and sheltering partisans and Iris’s diary from that time, War in Val d’Orcia, is now considered a modern classic.
Caroline Moorehead has drawn on many previously unpublished letters, diaries, and papers to write the definitive biography of a very remarkable woman.
An affectionate history of the writer and charmer Origo (1902-1988), this biography offers lush descriptions of Italian landscapes and the social intrigues of expatriate life in Florence between the wars. But Moorehead (Bertrand Russell: A Life) ultimately fails to make the reader care about her subject, in part because she neglects to firmly establish her subject's place in modern literature at the outset. Origo (n e Cutting and later married to an Italian nobleman) was an aristocratic Anglo-American reared in Italy. Though an early acquaintance of such luminaries as Edith Wharton and Somerset Maugham, Origo did not launch her writing career until later in life; she had been sidetracked by family tribulations, her conversion of an arid Tuscan valley into a thriving agricultural community, her work with destitute children, the rise of Mussolini and WWII. And while Origo was certainly more than the sum of her literary contributions, it was primarily through her biographies, memoirs and criticism that she gained renown. Moorehead waits too long to bring the full force of Origo's literary ambitions and achievements to bear. Moreover, Origo's presence, admittedly reserved at times, is undermined by excessive scene-setting and a parade of lesser characters. In the end, the reader may depart with the sense of having visited Italy and the forgotten worlds of the idle rich and interwar intelligentsia, but not necessarily of having been permitted a dance with the remarkable marchesa herself. B&w illus. .