Images and Shadows Critical Context - Essay

Iris Origo

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Marchesa Iris Origo is known chiefly as a biographer. Prior to the publication of this book, her scholarly reputation had already been established by works on such people as George Gordon, Lord Byron; Giacomo Leopardi; and Francesco Datini. Her choice of subjects demonstrates an interest in a wide variety of personality types. The bulk of her scholarship, however, clearly falls into two categories: studies of fourteenth and fifteenth century figures in Italy and nineteenth century figures in England and Italy.

Images and Shadows is linked to her biographical studies insofar as it sheds light on her approach to the genre of biography. She took up writing after the death of her son Gianni partly to distract herself from her grief. Her choice in the direction of biography was deliberate. It was also astute with regard to her abilities: She had not the gift for poetry and she lacked what she calls “the creative imagination” and “the sharp ear for dialogue” required of a good novelist. Furthermore, she had preferred, for many years, memoirs and letters as her reading material. All of her discussions on the writing of biography—its joys and its sorrows—illuminate the mind-set with which she approached the writing of her works.

Origo’s autobiography is moreover linked to her other works in that it directly comments on some of them. She explains why her original book on Leopardi, Leopardi: A Biography (1935), was revised and expanded eighteen years later into Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1953). She chronicles the obtainment of the private letters of Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. In an honest revelation of the genesis of some of her books, she admits that her interest in Lord Byron and Francesco Datini was not the result of “any personal liking for either of these men . . . but largely to the accident of stumbling upon some irresistibly good material.” She is unabashedly critical of her past work. In short, in this autobiography she is her own critic—a critic of her life and of her work.