The British-born writer, and biographer Iris Origo is perhaps best known for War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944 – a remarkable account of the impact of WW2 on a small rural community in Tuscany, published in 1947 to great success. Prior to this, Origo kept another diary, a private record of developments leading up to Italy’s entry into the war in 1940. This earlier journal — A Chill in the Air — covers the period from March 1939 to July 1940, ending with the birth of Origo’s second child, Benedetta.
First published in 2017, long after the author’s death, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating text, an intelligent, clear-eyed account of Origo’s reading of political and diplomatic events across Europe from her viewpoint in Italy. While her overriding aim was to document events as simply and truthfully as possible, Origo also captures the prevailing moods of the various circles she moves in, giving the text a richness and vitality that really brings it to life.
Origo herself was supremely well-connected. Born to a British mother from the aristocracy and a wealthy American father, Origo spent much of her childhood living a life of privilege in the Italian town of Fiesole. In her early twenties she marries the Italian, Antonio Origo, also from aristocratic stock, and together they buy a dilapidated Tuscan estate, La Foce, which they restore over the next ten years. Following periods of foreign travel and separation from Antonio, partly prompted by the tragic death of the couple’s young son in 1933, Iris returns to Italy in 1938, ready to re-engage with her marriage and the continued development of La Foce. And it is here on the estate that she writes most of her diary, with occasional entries from trips to Florence and Rome.
With her godfather, William Phillips, working as the American Ambassador in Rome, Origo has connections to the innermost political and diplomatic circles – a position that offers an insight into Mussolini’s strategy and intentions. Nevertheless, Origo does not restrict her interests to the privileged classes; she is also in touch with plenty of ordinary Italians, people from all walks of everyday life, from farm workers and peasants to governesses and typists. In short, this multifaceted network of connections gives Origo’s diary a fascinating range of perspectives – it is, in effect, a combination of hypotheses, rumours and news reports (sometimes fake, sometimes genuine), all filtered and analysed by Origo in her characteristically perceptive style. Moreover, she casts her net as widely as possible, encompassing newspaper reports and radio broadcasts from a range of sources including the Italian, British and French press, with occasional bulletins from Germany, too.
A consummate observer with a sharp eye for detail, Origo is especially alert to the authorities’ widespread use of damaging propaganda at various points in the campaign. From an early stage, the possibility of war is ‘positioned’ to the people as a means of redistributing colonies and wealth, a battle between the rich and the poor in the name of Fascist revolution.
It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e., the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion. Germany and Italy must fight or submit to suffocation. (p. 31)
Furthermore, the propaganda extends to trying to convince the general public that the Fascist countries are interested in ‘peace and justice’ rather than war. ‘The real warmongers and alarmists are on the other side.’ Therefore, if war does break out, people will be led to believe it is the democracies who are responsible for the conflict – the Fascist countries will have been forced to act in self-defence, ostensibly as a means of ‘safeguarding’ the peace in Europe.
At first, there is little appetite amongst the Italians for war. The majority seem to believe that Mussolini, whom they have trusted for years, will not lead the country into battle. He will find a way of keeping Italy out of it, irrespective of developments elsewhere. Nevertheless, by August 1939, the picture feels a little different. While educated Italians remain anxious about the possibility of war, the general impression among the broader population is that a lull in the proceedings has descended, prompted by a blinkered faith in Mussolini’s abilities.
But it isn’t exactly calm. It is a mixture of passive fatalism, and of a genuine faith in their leader: the fruits of fifteen years of being taught not to think. It is certainly not a readiness for war, but merely a blind belief that, “somehow”, it won’t happen. (p. 72)
Origo is particularly adept at capturing the mood of the people she encounters at various points from March 1939 to July 1940. By October 1939, the atmosphere in Florence is menacing and unsettling. Fear and suspicion are rife, to the point where even the newspaper one is seen reading can lead to warnings, animosity or suspicious looks from others. As the months slip by, the fear and uncertainty mounts as the Duce moves closer to the Germans, and the prospect of Italy’s entry into the war looms large on the horizon. In effect, it appears as if Italy is moving ‘from one absurdity to another’, a falsification of its position by furthering a ‘forced alliance with Germany’ – with the possibility of Italians being called upon to fight on the side of a regime they despise.
Alongside the major political and diplomatic developments of the day, the diaries are peppered with illustrations of the impact of events on people from various walks of life.
One young woman, who is just expecting her first baby, prays daily that it will be a girl. “What’s the use of having boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them? (p. 29)
We learn of a governess, a native of Alsace-Lorraine, who finds herself deemed ‘an enemy alien’ for the second time in her life, simply because of her nationality. Now she has been told by the authorities to leave Italy, with little money and no family to turn to. Just one of many innocent casualties, caught up in the turmoil of the approaching war.
The announcement of Italy’s entry into war is brilliantly captured by Origo – a strained, hoarse Mussolini, speaking from Rome’s Piazza Venezia, prompts little emotion from the farm workers at La Foce – a defence mechanism, perhaps, as is the stoic labourers’ way.
I look again at the listening faces. They wear the blank, closed look that is the peasant’s defence. Impossible to tell how much they have taken in or what they feel – except that it is not enthusiasm. (pp. 151-152)
In summary, then, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating book, a remarkably insightful account of a country’s inexorable slide into war. With her links to a wide network of individuals in various key positions, Origo has few illusions about the wisdom (or otherwise) of events unfolding around her – a sharpness that really comes through in the text. My NYRB Classics edition comes with an excellent introduction by the historian and writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett and an equally illuminating afterword by Origo’s granddaughter, the journalist and translator Katia Lysy – both of which position the book in the broader context of Origo’s life. Very highly recommended indeed. (This is my first review for Karen and Lizzie’s #ReadIndies event, more details here.)
What a fascinating writer she was, and what an interesting life she led! I have read some of her work, and will definitely seek out this volume.
Oh, terrific! Yes, as you say, a remarkable life. I definitely want to read more of her work.
She does sound very perceptive, and I like the range of views captured in those very unsettling times.
I think it’s one of the real strengths of this book, the range of perceptions she was able to gather from the working classes to the various movers and shakers in the diplomatic sphere. And you get the impression that she treated everyone with the same degree of humanity and respect, irrespective of their position in society.
This sounds such a fascinating record of the time. And so important in showing how we can’t take anything for granted, at any time.
Yes, it’s a real eye-opener, especially as we’re able to see the situation from a different angle to those offered by many other accounts of the Second World War. It’s frightening to see how much faith many Italians placed in Mussolini at the time…
Wonderful review Jacqui – the book sounds excellent. I’ve been aware of her name for some time, on my radar to potentially explore, and now I’m convinced. To have that clear-eyed witness view must bring real insight to her book, and her comment about the years of being taught not to think rather resonates with how things are in this country at the moment. A great choice for #ReadIndies and I’ll most definitely keep her on my wishlist! :D
Thanks, Karen. Yes, I genuinely think you’d find this account a fascinating read. And the follow-on diary, War in Val d’Orcia, is considered to be even better! Between this and Ginzburg’s Little Virtues essays, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in 20th-century Italy recently with rewarding results. The two books complement one another to a certain extent, especially considering what happened to Ginzburg’s family during the Second World War. I hope you get a chance to try both of these writers at some point, they’re so good.
I spent a day at La Foce and stood where Iris watched the Germans approach across the valley. Chilling.
Oh my goodness, I can imagine! A genuine shivers-down-the-spine experience, no doubt…
Sounds brilliant. I was aware of her reprints in 2017-ish, which I think Faber did, and would love to read her!
Yes, you’re right, they’re under a different publisher in the UK (Pushkin Press, I think?), but I’m a sucker for these NYRB editions – they’re too lovely to resist!
Pushkin!! That’s the one. (NYRB classics are *gorgeous*, I completely agree.)
I usually try to seek them out. :-)
Any alleged expert who talks about “democracies” AS IF a real democracy ACTUALLY EXISTS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD (or has existed at any time) is evidently living mindlessly and blindly in the propaganda world fed to them since a kid and/or is part of the (unconscious, ignorant, naive, willful) crowd who disseminates this total lie — see “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” … https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html
“All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie. With their different motives, those who need experts are falsifiers and fools. Whenever individuals lose the capacity to see things for themselves, the expert is there to offer an absolute reassurance.” —Guy Debord
Isn’t it about time for anyone to wake up to the ULTIMATE DEPTH of the human rabbit hole — rather than remain blissfully willfully ignorant in a narcissistic fantasy land and play victim like a little child?
“Separate what you know from what you THINK you know.” — Unknown
Most interesting review. I am off to look up more information about Iris Origo and her oeuvre right now.
Oh, cool! She must have lived a fascinating life if this diary is anything to go by. I’d never heard of her until NYRB and Pushkin Press issued these volumes…
La Foce, the estate she and her husband developed in Siena is amazing. An impressive woman.
I must look it up!
Wonderful review as always, Jacquiwine! I seldom read memoirs or diaries (we all have our blind spots) but I actually have a copy of this, thanks to a flash sale by NYRB Classics! I was spot reading a few pages and found it fascinating; hopefully I’ll get to the whole thing at some point!
Oh, excellent! I’m glad you have a copy.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Kim McNeill (@joiedevivre9 on Twitter) is running a 2023 readalong project covering various women writers published by NYRB. They’ll be reading this diary and War in Val d’Orcia in April, so it might be a good time to read it? I’m hoping to join for Val d’Orcia as I like to leave a bit of spare between two books by the same writer – hopefully a two-month break will be just about right!
Thanks so much for the information, the reading schedule does look quite tempting (I’ve actually read a few of these; loved Dermouth’s Ten Thousand Things). Also, thanks to all those flash sales, NYRB is well represented on my shelves! I’ll definitely keep it in mind . . .
Very welcome! (I’ve already read quite a few, too.)
A few years ago, NYRB published Images and Shadows: Part of a Life with her granddaughter’s Afterward, and Katia Lysy signed my copy – In loving memory of my grandmother Iris, NYC October 4, 2019.
Oh, how lovely! That sounds like an excellent book.
Decades ago I read “War in Val d’Orcia” but not this. You have tempted me back to Origo-land.
Oh, that’s great to hear! I really hope you like it, Funnily enough, I saw a review elsewhere that described this book as being a little dry (and of academic interest) compared to Val d’Orcia, but I found it fascinating – a very involving read!
I will add my “fascinating” to the chorus. Will be looking to see if “A Chill in the Air” is available through interlibrary loan. It always amazes me how clear-eyed some writers can be, how much they can see when most folks turn away.
Isn’t it just? I think these diary entries are remarkably perceptive and measured, especially considering they were written in real time — in the heat of the moment so to speak. It must have been very tempting to vent (or turn away) every now and again, but I’m impressed at how clear-eyed Origo remained throughout.
Most writers can really see, but Origo seems to have had a special talent for it.
This sounds excellent, a thoroughly immersive portrayal of these extraordinary, frightening times. I like the fact Origo casts her net so widely, focusing on many kinds of people from various backgrounds and professions. I don’t think I have read any accounts of WW2 from an Italian perspective.
Yes, I love that aspect of it too, the sense that Origo is able to take all these radically different perspectives from a wide range of sources, analysing and sifting them to form this picture of events. Like you, I can’t get enough of books about this period, especially when they combine the personal and political/historical in such an absorbing way!
This does sound fascinating and a very interesting contrast to all the Mass Observation diary volumes we have covering the run-up to the war here.
That’s an interesting connection, Liz! I read Becky Brown’s Blitz Spirit a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Such a fascinating collection of insights from a wide range of people. I loved the honesty of the entries, especially when the diarists used them as opportunities to vent!
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What would I do, stuck here in Rural S/C Ohio, without book bloggers to clue me in to amazing books? This is right up my alley.
Great. I’m glad you like the sound of it. I definitely want to read her other war diary now, War in Val d’Orcia.
Diaries are a favorite of mine though I rarely read them cover to cover all at once. I have 2 “going” right now