The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I’ve no idea why I am reading so much stuff set between 1900 and 1950 at the moment. I’m not working on any ideas set then. Quite the reverse, in that I’ve broken the cardinal rule of being a writer and turned down the chance to pitch for a couple of collections because I simply can’t manage full time work, writing and being pregnant. The energy runs out. So I’m back to reading.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
Frances Stonor Saunders
(faber & faber, 2010)

My knowledge of Mussolini, prior to reading this, boiled down to his death and the myth that he made the trains run on time. That there had been attempts on his life was unsurprising. That the one that got the closest to him was a shot fired by an Irish aristocrat who’d turned to mysticism and religion was utterly surprising.

Stonor Saunders’ book takes the increasingly common format of a dual biography: she works backwards and forwards from the moment Violet Gibson shot at the dictator. How did these two very different people end up on that piazza? What became of them, afterwards? With Mussolini we know that twenty years later he is shot and then strung up ‘like prosciutto’. Violet, we discover, spends the thirty years after her attempted assassination locked away in a mental asylum. But was she mad?

Probably not, is the book’s conclusion. What Violet Gibson was was a non-conformist. Raised in the Victorian Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she chose to rebel in her choice of politics, religion and spiritualism (I always enjoy a book where Madame Blavatsky pops up – see my tweet of delight). She didn’t marry, didn’t become the stoical supportive spinster daughter one of her sisters became. Her thinking and romanticism of both Italy and martyrdom eventually led her to firing the shots. Chapters of the book are devoted to the realpolitik involved in getting her out of Italy alive and the decisions her family – and the British diplomats then loving Mussolini – made on her behalf.

Throughout the biography there are mentions of Virginia Woolf and other intelligent women who were constrained and sometimes physically restrained in order to maintain the social order they threatened. There are also multiple references to Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I get the impression that there is another book beneath this one where the focus would have been on the medicalisation of female independence and self-possession, but that for some reason the focus was shifted onto the Mussolini biography instead. There’s no doubt there are some interesting parallels between Mussolini and Gibson, not least that both remade themselves into radicals, but the glimpses of the other possible book left me wanting to have read that more.

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