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.