Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
The first part of the title of this book alludes to Plato’s allegory of the cave. The epigraph to this book consists of excerpts from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of book 7 of Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; The Republic) which capture the essence of the allegory. “The truth,” to the people in the cave watching shadows on the wall, “would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” In Plato’s scheme, when a person emerges into the upper world, he first sees shadows, followed in turn by reflections, the things themselves, the light of the moon and stars, and finally the sun. This sequence becomes a paradigm for Origo as she interprets her progressive awareness and understanding of people and events in her own life. In her epilogue, she asserts that her record of events “has only been a means” through which she has come “to perceive, however imperfectly, some faint ‘intimations of immortality,’ a foretaste, perhaps, granted to the short-sighted of another, transcendental love.” The subtitle of her book, which initially seems to imply that this autobiography covers only a particular phase or aspect of her life, is, instead, a commentary: No person’s life can be fully recorded through the medium of words, and Origo admits at the onset that she “will not try to be complete.” Nevertheless, the book does cover the scope of her life up to the age of sixty-eight, at the time when she began writing this book.
The division of this work according to these major stages, ancestry, childhood, and maturity, functions as more than an outline for the account of her family history and personal life. Each of these stages coincidentally parallels what she calls “the three totally distinct periods of civilisation” through which she has lived: the period prior to World War I, the period between the two wars, and the period of World War II and after. The account of her life, then, is consciously set within the context of these different eras. As such, part 1 is designed to convey some of the atmosphere of Edwardian England and turn-of-the-century America; part 2 portrays the aristocracy abroad in prewar Italy; part 3 chronicles the shifting conditions of life for the inhabitants of the northern Italian countryside during and after World War II.
The structure of her threefold division of the book is underscored by the fact that each section has a somewhat different stylistic approach. When portraying her ancestors, Origo relies chiefly on biographical kinds of data rather than on personal reminiscences. The depiction of each of her relatives (except her mother) occurs primarily through letters, others’ accounts, and factual listings of their accomplishments in the public sphere. By contrast, when discussing her childhood the narration primarily consists of subjective and personal impressions and reactions. Thus, her own personality is portrayed in detail, while the people who appear in this section are only obliquely and briefly sketched. In the final section, Origo objectively documents the history and development of her Tuscan farm and the effect of World War II on country life in general. There is, in this section, a minimum of personal commentary: She shares some of her thoughts but rarely her feelings. There is, for example, almost a total absence of discussion of her relationship with her husband and children. Although she defends this deliberate omission by noting that “no part of one’s life is more complex, as well as more private, than one’s family life,” it is also true that her intention here necessarily eliminates emphasis on the private and personal. The brevity of her remarks on her war experiences here is accounted for by the publication of her war diary in 1947, War in Val D’Orcia: A Diary.
Despite the stylistic variety in which she presents various personalities, her sketches—and even her occasional references—are of interest, on one level, because they often concern public figures. Her father had come to know George Santayana when he had studied under him at Harvard University, and he was friends with Edith Wharton. Origo’s widowed mother was married to Geoffrey Scott, an architect who authored two volumes of poetry. Visitors to the Villa Medici included the famous art critic Bernard Berenson as well as Robert Calverley Trevelyan and Sir Compton Mackenzie. Her own husband was the son of Marchese Clemente Origo, the painter and sculptor at whose home Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote some of his poems. Origo’s descriptions and impressions of these people are often structured as vivid flashes which quickly and deftly reveal some aspect of the person. By using a quote or mentioning an idiosyncrasy, she makes many of these public figures come momentarily alive. The reappearance of many of these people throughout the book contributes in communicating to the reader the quality of the literary and artistic atmosphere in which she was reared.
Origo’s assessment of the unusual contours of her life is generally sound. She is aware, with discomfort, of “how much it has been a life of privilege: . . . unfair advantages of birth, education, money, environment, and opportunity.” Nevertheless, there was a price to pay. Her multifaceted inheritance was “responsible for a sense of rootlessness and insecurity during [her] youth” and for cutting her off, throughout her life, from many people with whom she could have become friends.
By her own admission, however, hers was a good life. The images and shadows, now seen from afar and through the filter of affections, take on new shapes, for it is in memory that the true essence remains. Looking back on the pattern of her life, she concludes, “I have seen and believe in goodness . . . [and] in the existence of a mystery.” Origo’s life itself exemplifies her belief that “every life is not only a string of events: it is also a myth.”