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Iris Origo: The woman who picked her feet up

Iris Origo (1902-1988) was a British-born writer who lived in Italy on an estate in Tuscany that she purchased with her husband in the 1920s.


Sean Sheehan


Her memoir “Images and shadows” tells the story of her interesting life and “A chill in the air” is a war diary she kept in the first two years of World War II.

Origo wrote a number of biographies and in an essay about this kind of writing she advises the would-be biographer to be humble and not jump to conclusions about their subject.

Source material should be read and at some stage ‘a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it’; such a moment comes ‘as suddenly as, at a turn in a passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.’

There are moments in “Images and shadows” and “A chill in the air” when the reader glimpses the ‘living face’ of Iris Origo but they do not jump out of the page. This is a virtue of her writing, not a criticism, because she does not force her personality on the reader. Her father was a rich American who died when Iris was a child and her mother was a daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Irish aristocrat.

There were also Scottish and French links in her family background and she described herself as ‘a complete mongrel’.

When her father was dying he wrote to his wife and alluded to the objections his family had made to his marrying an Englishwoman.

He went on to say that he wants Iris to grow up ‘free from all this national feeling which makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong then she can’t have it.’

This is what happened and, although her upbringing was a highly privileged one, it did not prevent her from caring for people who were suffering hardship.

The estate in Tuscany was on poor land, ‘a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman’, but with her husband it was slowly transformed in ways that considerably improved the hard lives of their sharecropping tenants.

They provided schools and clinics, irrigated and reclaimed the land.

Experiences of terrible loss are often not easy to express and this was the case when, in 1933, their seven-year-old son, Gianni, died of meningitis. Only much later in life was she able to talk about it.

Iris and her husband lived under the rule of Mussolini but during World War II they sheltered partisans and Allied soldiers, risking their lives. In her war diary, Iris records the turmoil of those times and the way propaganda passed for the truth.

Virginia Woolf described Iris as ‘tremulous, nervous – very – stammers a little…but honest eyed; very blue-eyed. She’s clean and picks her feet up.’  What she meant about Origo’s feet  is unclear but Woolf liked and respected her. The reader of her books will probably feel the same.

“Images and shadows” and “A chill in the air”, by Iris Orogo, are published by Pushkin Press.

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