BOOK REVIEW: A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

By Iris Origo

ORIGOWhen a complimentary copy of this book arrived in the mail from Pushkin Press, I immediately noticed that the introduction had been written by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War – a brilliant, multi award winning biography of the notorious Italian poet and playwright. This certainly boded well in my mind for Iris Origo’s diary, which covers the months leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War.

English born Iris came from a privileged background and lived in Italy for most of her life, marrying the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo in 1924. Together they purchased a 7,000 acre estate in Tuscany and brought prosperity to a poverty stricken region. During the war she sheltered innumerable refugees and helped Allied prisoners escape from the fascist regime. She was appointed DBE in 1976.

Origo was already known to me as being one of the finest diarists of the twentieth century for her moving and compassionate journal detailing Italy’s disastrous involvement in the same conflict, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, first published in 1947. Aware that her book had been a critical success, I had coincidentally just been reading extracts from it in Irene and Alan Taylor’s The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists.

Published this month for the first time ever, A Chill in the Air details the extraordinary events to which she was witness during a most peculiar period in Italy’s history. She writes next to nothing about herself or her personal life but records the discussions she had with, among others, peasants, farm workers, friends, members of the aristocracy and her godfather, William Philips, the US Ambassador in Rome – and it is plain to see the incredulity of the ordinary people as Mussolini dragged them to war.

Unable to leave Italy for the duration of the war, Origo was a resident alien, but she was also an astute observer with an excellent understanding of Italian politics, and put her time to good use. However, while her more famous diary vividly records a rural farming community surviving the horrors of conflict, this is a very different document, which is likely to appeal to historians and those with an academic interest in the period rather than the general reader. It does, nevertheless, add to her fascinating oeuvre and is worth perusing in tandem with War in Val d’Orcia.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for  gifting a copy of this title.

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