A shot to nothing – An Irishman’s Diary on the Dublin woman who tried to assassinate Mussolini
Violet Gibson toward the end of her incarceration
For such a simple inscription, her gravestone in a Northampton cemetery is unusual in having both a comma and a full stop. Neither is strictly necessary, but they do add a certain grandeur to the otherwise minimalist tale. It reads in full: “Violet Gibson, 1876 - 1956.”
There is no mention of her birthplace – Dublin. Nor is there any reference to the event that had once made her briefly famous. But then again, towards the end of her 30-year incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, nurses struggled to believe that the frail old lady had once shot Mussolini.
She had, 90 years ago this week, on April 7th, 1926. Alas for Italy, it was only a comma, not a full stop, in Il Duce’s career. Greeting admirers on a Rome walkabout, he turned his head just as she levelled the revolver. Her shot merely grazed his nose.
As for Mussolini, the near-miss only encouraged him to “guide the destinies of Italy with a hand of iron”. His return to parliament in late April earned a “wild ovation” lasting several minutes. He was already affecting to find talk of the assassination attempt “tedious”. Even so, he kept the bandage on his nose for months.
Gibson probably was what people called “mad” at the time, although since Mussolini was officially sane throughout his life, the definitions clearly needed revisiting.
Born into Ireland’s old ascendancy class, she had joined her brother Willie in adult conversion to Catholicism. He became an ardent nationalist, speaking Irish in the House of Lords. She developed a religious mania that led her to Rome, convinced of a divinely inspired mission to kill.
A year before her attempt on Mussolini’s life, she appears to have made one on her own, also with a gun, in a Rome hotel.
Soon after the 1926 incident, the London Times quoted well-placed sources saying there was no question of prosecution, since she was “wholly irresponsible for her actions and should never have been allowed about alone”.
By sad coincidence, Gibson would share her last years at St Andrew’s with another notable patient of Irish origin, Lucia Joyce. That was the culmination of an even more torturous family tragedy, one begun in 1930 when, romantically rejected by Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s daughter had first shown signs of mental illness.
The nature of her condition is still debated. But it was inextricably linked to a complex relationship with her genius father, and exacerbated by the time and energy he spent working on his last masterpiece Finnegans Wake.
Joyce was extremely protective of his troubled child. After her temporary stay at St Andrew’s in 1935, he vowed he would never leave her “incarcerated among the English”.
But he was surrounded by friends and patrons desperate for him to finish the great opus, people who saw his constant worry about Lucia as the enemy of art. So as she grew evermore volatile, she was incarcerated anyway, first in France and later (after her father’s death) back at St Andrew’s, where she too lived out her days.
In the view of one biographer, Lucia was “the price paid for a book”.
I have also seen it argued that she was no more insane than some male writers and artists of her era, and that a man behaving as she did would not have been committed.
This may be true, although I’m reminded of another contemporary genius who did indeed spend years in a psychiatric institution, despite being both male and a friend of Joyce. His name was Ezra Pound. And not only was he Joyce’s friend, he admired him to the point of idolatry.
In the early 1920s, he even invented a calendar in the Irishman’s honour. It was notionally founded at the moment Joyce wrote the last word of Ulysses. Thereafter, Pound took to dating letters on the basis that midnight on October 24th, 1921, was Day 1, Year 1, “p.s.U” (post-scriptum Ulysses).
The novelty soon wore off. Later, Pound adopted another new calendar, inspired by another hero – Mussolini.
The starting point was the “March on Rome” in 1922, although the calendar had to be backdated from its formal adoption in 1927, after the “Era Fascista” had survived by the skin of its nose.