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Although some sections of Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows could be classified as meditative and other sections as biographical, the book clearly fits the genre of autobiography. It is divided into three main sections which follow a general chronological pattern. Part 1 deals with her family tree. Part 2 deals with her childhood, ending with her engagement to Antonio Origo. Part 3 focuses on her married adult life.

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The three primary sections of the book are of unequal length. The first two are each approximately one hundred pages and the last is half that length. The longest sections, parts 1 and 2, are each subdivided into four chapters, while part 3 is a single unit. Each chapter is organized to focus on people, places, or themes. This system leads to unity within each chapter but often to the absence of chronological sequence from one chapter to another.

In addition to the three main sections, the book includes an introduction, an epilogue, an index, and illustrations. The introduction and epilogue are meditative in tone and set forth some of her personal beliefs about life and the nature of autobiography. The index is very useful because most of the people who appear in the book—family members, literary figures—are mentioned in several places. The black-and-white photographs are interspersed throughout the text so as to accompany and illustrate the text.

The four chapters of part 1 discuss, in turn, her American ancestors, her AngloIrish forebears, her father, and her mother. The first two chapters are entitled “Westbrook” and “Desart Court” not only because these homes are symbols for the families but also because these chapters describe the history of these family estates. Westbrook, the country house on the southern shore of Long Island, was the home of Origo’s paternal grandparents, both of whom were part of what she calls the “selfappointed little aristocracy of ‘Old New York.”’ William Bayard Cutting, who was president of the St. Louis, Alton, and Terre Haute Railroad and director of the Southern Pacific, was also one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera Company, and the New York Botanical Gardens. In accordance with her grandmother’s will, the estate has been made over to the state of New York. The grounds are currently a park, with botanical gardens open to the public, and the house has been made into a central office and tearoom.

Desart Court, the country house in County Kilkenny, Ireland, was the home of her maternal grandparents, the Hamilton Cuffes. Cuffe, after the death of his elder brother in 1912, acceded to the peerage, taking part in the debates on Ireland in the House of Lords, and was later appointed a member of the Privy Council. Lord and Lady Desart’s home was burned by raiders from Tipperary in 1922.

Like the first two chapters, the content of the last two of part 1, which describe her parents, is primarily factual and historical. William Bayard Cutting, Jr., moved to London when he became private secretary to Joseph Choate, the American ambassador. In that capacity he met, and became good friends with, Lord Desart and his daughter, Sybil Cuffe. Bayard and Sybil were married in London on April 19, 1901, and, on August 15, 1902, Iris Cutting was born. After first experiencing symptoms of tuberculosis three months before Iris’ birth, Bayard spent the remaining eight years of his life traveling with his wife and daughter from one country to another, frequently crisscrossing continents, in pursuit of a cure. He died in Egypt at the age of thirty, leaving his wife to care for their only child, a seven-year-old daughter.

The four chapters of part 2 are the most revealing about the interior life of Origo. “Childhood at Fiesole” describes not only the Villa Medici, which was her primary home for fourteen years, but also her personal reactions, impressions, and anxieties during this time. “Reading and Learning” describes not only the governesses, tutors, and professors with whom she studied but also the reasons for her interests in classical and Renaissance literature and history. “Growing Up and Coming Out” honestly assesses the difficulties and anxieties that beset her as, with few friends of her own age, she tried to accommodate herself to her family’s aristocratic literary and political circles in the three countries—the United States, England, and Italy— that were home. This chapter also chronicles the confusion she experienced as a three-time debutante (once for each country) and her disappointment that she was not a student at the University of Oxford during this three-year process. “Writing” focuses on her development as an author and the genesis of some of her biographies. It also includes reflections on the art of writing biographies—its difficulties and its rewards—and on writing in general.

The title of the only chapter in part 3, “La Foce,” refers to the 3,500-acre villa and farm in southern Tuscany which she and her husband, Antonio Origo, bought six months before their marriage in 1924. Although there are some glimpses of her inner life in this section, the chapter focuses chiefly on the life-style she and her husband adopted as landowners and on the development of a farm that badly needed repair and renovation. Origo chronicles here the changes that were brought about by World War II and its aftermath of the system of mezzardia (the profit-sharing system between a landowner and his tenants which had been in existence for six centuries in Tuscany). She ends with a description of the farm as it was in 1970.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69

Chapin, Katherine Garrison. “A Twentieth Century Renaissance Woman,” in The New Republic. CLXIV (May 8, 1971), pp. 25-28.

Freemantle, Anne. “The Best and Worst of Her Life: Images and Shadows,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVI (May 23, 1971), p. 49.

Gersh, Gabriel. Review in Saturday Review. LIV (May 8, 1971), pp. 27-28.

Lindbergh, A. M. Review in The American Scholar. XLI (Winter, 1971-1972), p. 163.

Weeks, Edward. Review in The Atlantic. CCXXVIII (July, 1971), p. 101.

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