Iris Origo was born in 1902 and was instantly catapulted into a life of "unfair advantages of birth, education, money, environment and opportunity." But she used this birth-right wisely, and her legacy includes a string of books apparently beloved and admired equally by historians, biographers, and readers.
Iris spent her youth in the ancestral estate on Long Island and in her grandfather's castle in Ireland. Her father died tragically when she was eight, and she continued her peripatetic life with her indefatigable mother and beloved governess. A woman who always knew her mind, in 1923 Origo bought La Foce, an entire valley, almost feudal in organization, in the Val d'Orcia of Tuscany. There for fifty years she worked tirelessly with her (Italian) husband, improving the land and the lot of the peasants, saving endangered children from the brutal incursions of the Nazis, and writing history and memoirs that are still considered classics of the genre.
Origo was at once a woman of action and introspection, of boundless curiosity and endearing innocence. She writes beautifully, thoughtfully, and lucidly.
Her proper British mother, for instance, insisted on Origo's private education by governesses and tutors, opposed her desire to enroll in university, and committed her to a tasteless, nauseatingly ``healthy'' diet. In hindsight, Origo considers her period of ``coming out'' into high society a considerable waste of time. Readers, however, will appreciate her colorful accounts of balls and theater visits as a glimpse of elite diversions in bygone days. Origo's descriptions of early 20th-century American magnates and patrons of the arts and her detailed reconstruction of Italian landowners' traditional life are among many other engaging passages. Sketching her own character in an irreproachably modest tone, she commands respect for her ability to apply her superb education, knowledge of the world, and financial means to worthy causes. She helped modernize devastated farmland in Tuscany, volunteered in the Red Cross during WWII, and sheltered orphaned children at her home after the war. This active, creative attitude arises out of Origo's profound sense of being ``singularly fortunate,'' despite some personal tragedies a rare and therefore doubly appealing trait. Along with its exquisite style and thought-provoking digressions on the philosophy of writing, this autobiography documents fascinating experiences of the modern European and American aristocracy.
She is marvellous at nuances of place and personality, writing with a subtle mingling of candour and affection that lingers in the mind.
Images and Shadows seems to be one of a few of her a books which are still in print (or rather reprinted in a lovely 1999 Nonpareil edition). It is time her other books saw the light of day again eg her 1953 biography of the Italian poet Leopardi whose proliferous Notebooks have just been published in a huge translated version,