Brave, Literate Marchesa Who Wrote history.(BOOKS)(ON BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin Walters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It is a good general rule that if you won't read - and read incessantly - you'll never make much of yourself intellectually. The reason why is that you will never know enough to keep up with the people who are reading every spare minute they can find. You may wind up highly trained technically, but the life of the mind as it has been accumulating over all the millennia ofWestern civilization still will have eluded you. You may think you know how the world works, but you won't.

Iris Origo, or Iris Cutting as she then was, was at age 12 studying with girls three years her senior. In her teens she was translating the poems of Giacomo Leopardi. She did it mostly by reading, having had governesses but not very much regular schooling, for Iris' mother, the hypochondriacal but appealing Sybil Cutting, was forever dragging her child about, between the Cuttings' American estate, the home of Lord Desart, Sybil's father, in Ireland, and Italy, meaning Anglo-Florentine society with its bases of villadom at Fiesole and Settignano (Michelangelo's birthplace). Despite all this Iris Origo's literary output as a self-trained historian was prodigious.

Hers is an Italian story in the main, for Origo, despite her particular affection for London and friends there, spent most of her life in Tuscany and Rome. Caroline Moorehead, biographer of Sidney Bernstein, Freya Stark, Bertrand Russell and author of other books, tells the tale elegantly and affectionately, but not in hagiographic vein, in her "Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia."

Reading the book, I have been trying to remember where I first heard of Iris Origo, and think it was a short essay in a collection by Louis Auchincloss a few years back. This makes sense, because Mr. Auchincloss sat at Edith Wharton's knee, and she used to visit Fiesole, and Percy Lubbock, friend of Wharton and author of "The Craft of Fiction" which pretty much got formal literary criticism off the ground in the 1920s, married Sybil Cutting and became Iris' stepfather. The couple lived on the water at Lerici, which is where the poet Shelley had his last home before drowning.

I digress, but with Iris Origo, and with Italy for that matter, digression comes naturally, it seems to be the rightful order of things in that adorably haphazard country. I have a first edition of what I had thought to be the marchesa's first book (though it now looks to be her second after her "Leopardi"); either way, "Allegra" was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1935. It is a slight volume in, now fading, canary-ochre cloth-covered boards, but a sensitive telling of the short life of the little girl who was Lord Byron's daughter by Claire Clairmont.

My copy of Origo's "The Last Attachment" also is a first edition, published in 1949 by Jonathan Cape and John Murray, the descendant of Byron's publisher. It is a much more ambitious work than "Allegra," founded upon the author's gaining access to the box left by the Contessa Teresa Guiccioli containing much of the correspondence between her and Byron. Theirs is one of the great love stories of the Romantic age. A lovely, pretty girl married off to an old man, Teresa met the poet, at that time living in Venice in self-imposed exile after leaving England when his wife left him, angry about his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. When Teresa found him, Byron was still having his affair with Margherita Cogni, "La Fornarina" or baker's wife of famous story. But I digress again.

This book is about Iris Origo, not only the wonderful books she wrote. …