The high price of a pot shot


BIOGRAPHY:The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, by Frances Stonor Saunders, Faber and Faber, 365pp, £12.99

ROME. APRIL 7th, 1926. A frail Anglo-Irish woman, the Honourable Violet Gibson (1876-1956), makes her way determinedly through the enthusiastic crowd gathered to greet Mussolini, then a leader respected around the capitals of the world. She gets as close as she can, pulls out her revolver and fires. She is not lucky. The first shot is a misfire. She fires again. She neither hits nor misses but skims the front of Benito’s nose. Instead of ending his life and saving Italy years of Fascist dictatorship and Europe a million lives, her own life is effectively ended here. She is arrested (is lucky not to be lynched) and is taken off to prison. Mussolini, shocked, recovers and will use this and later acts of aggression against him to add ballast to his aura of invincibility, indestructibility and “unmitigated masculinity” and to introduce stringent laws to gain even tighter control over his unfortunate country. Gibson will spend the immediate period in an Italian prison before being returned to Britain on the guarantee that she will remain locked up. She will spend 30 years of her life in a spiritually numbing lunatic asylum in Northampton (a mansion of despair which would also be “home” to Lucia Joyce), taking her place among the residents who were society’s unwanted and discarded, mad and depressed.

Violet Gibson’s story is at the centre of this lively and hugely readable work by Frances Stonor Saunders. Ample space is devoted to Il Duce in what is a deservedly unforgiving portrait, but Violet, up to now no more than a mere historical footnote, is the main protagonist of the brilliantly crafted and tragic narrative, which is the fruit of meticulous archival research and shows great craft in its gradual revealing of information, following a largely chronological structure.

It might all have been so different for Violet, who got the best possible start in life as the daughter of Edward Gibson, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who became Lord Ashbourne in 1886. She grew up in comfort and privilege between Dublin and London but was rarely comfortable in this world and was too opinionated with regard to politics and religion to obligingly slide into an allotted good marriage as her sisters would do. As the Protestant Anglo-Irish power elite gradually dissolved, Violet anxiously sought something to which to anchor herself. She suffered great loneliness and sought a psychological prop in religion, flirting briefly with Christian Science before looking to theosophy. Following her brother Willie, she came to embrace “a form of ethical socialism” and converted to Catholicism. She subscribed to a liberal Catholicism which believed that the Church had become overly authoritarian and reactionary, that the true faith was to be found in the Gospels rather than in the dictates of Rome. Individual Catholic responsibility involved helping the poor and giving alms. Not surprisingly, Lord Ashbourne strongly disapproved of Willie and Violet’s chosen religious and life paths.

Although Violet’s life, especially her numbing 30 years in Northampton, are potentially unexciting, there is never a dull moment in this book, which lays out her story in the context of an extended family saga. It is narrated briskly against an almost cinematic backdrop of changing political and cultural realities: the Boer War, Anglo-Irish relations, the first World War, the Roaring Twenties, the rise of Mussolini in the light of weak international diplomacy, Victorian asylum-building and contemporary practices of psychiatry, women’s rights – all described with evocative, brisk yet penetrating brushstrokes.

In 1906, Violet made her first trip to Rome and began to read the lives of the saints and was absorbed by the “moral atmosphere” she found depicted in these tomes. It was around this time that her physical and mental health began to falter and she was troubled by a succession of painful events in the family, including the death of her father and the disinheritance of her brother Willie, now not only a Catholic but also an outspoken Irish Nationalist. Her reaction was to throw herself into her religious endeavours and her work as a peace activist in what was now a time of war. She offered her pain up, believing, a medical note reads, “that her poor health was a sacrifice to be made for her religious beliefs”. Her reading of the lives of the saints was becoming the basis for her own life of self-abnegation. At this time her confessor was Fr John O’Fallon Pope, SJ, an American-born convert. She took her confessor’s spiritual advice all too literally, noting that “the degree of holiness depends of the degree of mortification”. The more dangerous message that Violet took was that true believers were obliged to intervene in God’s name in human affairs.

At the same time, her attention was increasingly taken up by human affairs in Italy, a place she had idealised as the land of Dante, Fra Angelico and St Francis. She was acutely aware of the dangers posed by Mussolini and took it upon herself to eliminate him. Following her attempt, opinion was divided as to whether she had acted alone or was part of an international conspiracy. This book puts the latter theory to rest. It shows how the defence chose to play down conspiracy and play up lunacy in the hope of saving her. What emerges most clearly is a portrait of what might be called Violet’s lucida follia, set beside the lucid madness of Mussolini himself and the complacent underestimation by world leaders of the threat he posed.

Violet was, essentially, ahead of her time in identifying Il Duce as a totalitarian dictator. At the same time, she must be considered mad, at least some of the time, her mind overwhelmed by the tradition of martyrolgy and sacrifice, steeled in the belief that, as she told one of her jailers, “it was against the will of God that Mussolini should continue to exist”. But Mussolini too is shown to have lived “in the borderland of insanity” making similar decisions to Gibson’s for thousands of his victims.

Most of those who perpetrated heinous acts in Mussolini’s name escaped unpunished following his fall; in hindsight, and based on the evidence in this book, it seems singularly unfair that Violet Gibson’s punishment was a life sentence – not because the law demanded it – but because her custodians, her doctors and her family consistently refused to lend a sympathetic ear to her pleas to spend her final years in the relative freedom of an enclosed convent. Frances Stonor Saunders’s justified indignation at her protagonist’s fate – and her description of letter after letter Gibson wrote asking for help which her custodians never sent adds considerably to the power of this revealing and compelling biography.

John McCourt teaches at Università Roma Tre. He edited Joyce in Context for Cambridge University Press in 2009