Archive for the ‘Caroline Moorehead’ Category

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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Iris and Virginia

Iris Origo at La Foce in the 1930s (via www.lafoce.com)

Iris Origo at La Foce in the 1930s (via http://www.lafoce.com)

One of the great delights of reading Iris Origo by Caroline Moorehead this week has been discovering how well connected Origo was. Born to an American father and an Anglo-Irish mother, Origo grew up outside Florence in the vibrant Anglo-Florentine community. In her early twenties, she married Antonio Origo and together they bought La Foce, the estate in Southern Tuscany that remains famous for both its garden (designed by Cecil Pinsent, who had known Iris since childhood) and for the work Iris and Antonio did there during the war, recorded in Iris’s famous war diaries (War in Val D’Orcia).  But, particularly before the war, Iris travelled widely and in the 1930s she stumbled across the Bloomsbury set.  Iris was used to the company of intellectuals and writers from childhood (Edith Wharton, among others, was a family friend and Iris’ stepfather had an affair with Vita Sackville-West) but as a young married woman she had been isolated from the rich intellectual world she grew up in.  Bloomsbury was a welcome change from the more prosaic concerns of her life in Tuscany:

In Florence, she [Iris] had pined for the company of intelligent women friends; in London there was everything that attracted and amused her, particularly people who talked her language and read the same books. Iris called at the Hogarth Press offices to see if Leonard Woolf had accepted Allegra [Iris’ book about Byron’s daughter], as she was leaving, she heard Virginia’s voice from upstairs, shouting to Leonard to bring Iris up to see her. Iris found this first encounter extremely disconcerting. ‘What does it feel like,’ Virginia immediately asked, ‘to wake up in the morning in a Tuscan farmhouse?’ Iris was too confused to answer, not knowing that this was the sort of question Virginia put to everyone. (She was reputed to have asked a seller of apples: ‘What do you feel, in the dark, in fog, selling apples?’) All Iris was able to say was: ‘Come and see’. At the time, as Iris wrote many years later, ‘Virginia was writing an essay on Highbrows and Lowbrows, saying “Look what a mess the Highbrows make of their lives; when I sit in a bus I always sit next to the conductor. I try to find out what it is like to be a prostitute, a working class woman with seven children…All the things, in short, that I am not able to do for myself.”’ Iris came away impressed by what she considered to be Virginia Woolf’s ‘intense desire to enter into the minds of others, but often as if looking down a microscope, through glass.’

Virginia called Iris ‘a gifted, sincere and I think rather charming young woman’ and through her Iris met T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, and, most significantly, her future lover Leo Myers.

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Tuscan Living

Fiesole.  Villa Medici by Joseph Pennell

Fiesole. Villa Medici by Joseph Pennell

I am on vacation this week and while I am basking in warm desert sun, surrounded by mountains and palm trees, my mind is on the hills around Florence and the fascinating Anglo-Florentine community who made their homes there in the early part of the 20th Century.  I am reading Caroline Moorehead’s excellent biography of Iris Origio, who, following her father’s early death, grew up with her mother in the Villa Medici in Fiesole.  They were part of a vibrant intellectual ex-pat community, which was also riddled with gossip, adultery and vicious feuds (all of which makes for excellent reading).  It is easy to understand why they were drawn to Italy: they had freedom unheard of in Britain and America, a stunning climate, extravagant accommodations, and it all came wonderfully cheap.

Living was cheap, as were servants, who could soon be taught to produce a mixture of Italian and English food, with all the advantages of vegetables that were not overcooked, and who were strangers to the English plague of “Sunday evenings out”.  Houses, villas, palazzi and even flats could all be rented cheaply, although they seemed disconcertingly under-furnished to people more accustomed to velvet curtains and fringed sofas.  Some took long leases for low rents, in exchange for repairing properties which were often primitive and long neglected by their owners.  And since it was possible to find small apartments, Florence in 1911 continued to attract single women, who swapped suburban lodgings in English seaside towns for top-floor flats with marvellous views over the city.

Florence or Bexhill?  Fiesole or Eastbourne?  Not a difficult choice, I suspect.

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