A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a fascinating book, written during the year or so preceding Italy’s entry in to the 1939-45 war, when whether she would join – and even in some people’s minds, on what side she would join – were open questions. Iris Origo was a young woman at the time, an Anglo-American who had spent much of her life in Italy and had recently married an Italian nobleman. She is now well known for her memoir of a later period in the war, War in the Val d’Orcia 1943-44, but that was published in 1947 while A Chill in the Air had to wait until 2017, after it had been discovered in her papers after her death.

Her approach, both in life and writing, appears very matter of fact and she did not claim any special status for her writing or her work during the war. This book does not describe very much of her war experience, as does War in the Val d’Orcia, but a quotation from the latter book gives an idea of her mindset, her self awareness, and her modesty: ‘The experiences recorded in this diary have been in no way exceptional: thousands of other Italians have had similar ones, and many have had far worse. Indeed, the events here described are, as the reader will see, singularly undramatic and unheroic.’

Origo seems to have known everybody, and while she was living on a farm, reporting the views and fears of local villagers, she was in close touch with many close to power, both Italians and men like her godfather, the American ambassador William Philips, so her memoir provides an interesting overlay of high politics and the vox populi. It is well written, spare and unadorned, and it is pretty frank – it’s discovery would not have done her any good with Mussolini’s supporters. But it is not at all personal; in the whole of her book, her husband is not mentioned once that I can remember, and it is only in passing, very close to the end of the book, that we discover she must have been pregnant through most of the period she is describing. This is a perceptive, nuanced account of difficult times, but it is ironic, detached, remote. And although it is not really clear at first, it describes a period when she must have been going through a period of self doubt about what she could do, because it ends very abruptly, with the decision to throw herself into Red Cross work – and here is the last proper entry, and the farewell:

23 July [1940]: Last night Lord Halifax’s speech [Halifax was British Foreign Secretary at the time, and in this speech he said “we remain unmoved by threats … in every part of Britain, in great towns and villages alike, there is only one spirit of indomitable resolution”], removing any last doubt as to how England has received Hitler’s proposals. We sat in the American Embassy listening to it gloomily on the American radio: two Italians, one Belgian, three Americans. At the end: ‘Do you think the door to peace is still open?’ asked one of the Italians. ‘Shut and barred,’ said the other.

This diary was interrupted at this point by the birth of my daughter on August 1st. In the autumn I decided, having a wonderful Swiss nanny to help me with my baby, that inaction was no longer bearable. Surely there must be some work, directed towards the relief of suffering rather than any war aim, which even I, an Anglo-American and a non-Fascist, could find to do? In the autumn of 1940 I began to work in the Prisoner’s Branch of the Italian Red Cross – and until the spring of 1943 had no more time for writing.

What was very striking to me was the historical ambivalence; I had always assumed, in spite of the contrary experience of the 1914-18 war, that Italy was somehow bound to join with Germany in a Fascist axis against the liberal powers, and certainly Mussolini and Fascist party rhetoric seems to support that view. But there were many who were convinced that somehow Italy would stay out of the war – a high regard for Mussolini’s achievements to date giving people confidence in his skills to what now seems an unutterably unreasonable degree. Some seemed to think he would stay out altogether, others that he would continue to ally himself with Hitler – but as the senior partner, which seems absurd now – but would restrain his excesses, for example as regards policy towards the Jews. There was also a strong sense of muddle. Nobody seemed to know what was happening, and this is clearly true of local authorities and the local party, as well as ordinary people. And gradually it dawns on them all that this is also true of the very top of the leadership chain. The intensity of the anti-French and anti- English rhetoric, aimed at countries widely esteemed in Italy and alongside whom many Italians had been fighting only 20 years before, gradually made it clear that the only option was alignment with German aims and ideas, but this was strongly resisted until the very last moment.

I was also struck by the ease of movement and the lack of restrictions on Italians in the months before the war; admittedly the author had a special status and high rank, not to mention apparently knowing everyone, but it seemed to be no great problem to travel here and there, until the last minute, when foreign travel became more difficult. Italy was a more normal country than we might realise, actually before and throughout the war, at least until the German army arrived.

And to end, an extract which will perhaps give some flavour of Origo’s style and detachment, the first air raid she experienced, in Rome in the summer of 1940:

3 July: My first air raid last night. The sirens began just after midnight; I was still awake and was joined by William Phillips. We sat talking pleasantly in the dark for about one hour, heard one distant burst of fire and then the all-clear signal. Altogether a singularly unalarming experience, except apparently to the lions in the Zoo, who went on roaring all night. But, as the first wail of the sirens was heard, my thoughts went to England and France.

Iris Origo, A Chill in the Air – An Italian War Diary 1939-40 (Pushkin Press, 2017). 978-1782273554 184pp, hardback.

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