Moorehead concludes this excellent book, enhanced by vivid photos of her women, so many faces suggesting their piercing intensity of purpose: “The partisans, who had come home believing that Italian society would be like the one they had forged in the mountains, felt betrayed. They were strangers in a country they had helped to transform, but were no longer part of.”
She depicts a tragic fate that is timeless, of dreams forged in adversity, shattered by collisions with practical politics.
A House in the Mountains is a more ambitious and more interesting work than its presentation suggests. Its misleading subtitle, the pastel-tinted photograph of three gun-toting women on its cover, even Moorehead’s own preface, all seem to suggest that it will tell a story – agreeable to modern feminist sensibilities – celebrating a few brave women who left behind what one of them calls “the traditional life of a little woman with the needle and the broom as her emblems” to become freedom fighters. It does that, but it also does much more, giving a comprehensive, lucid and thoughtful account of a complicated conflict.
The reader lets out a sort of strangled cheer when we reach the moment in April 1945 when Mussolini is shot and strung up in Milan. But the madness didn’t end there. There was a frenzy of retribution and score-settling amongst the victors. I hadn’t known before that, as Il Duce’s corpse was about to be hoisted aloft, somebody rushed forward and stuffed a dead mouse in its mouth. This book is as replete with atrocities as any Jacobean play. The women it highlights might belong in classic drama or opera. The most moving scene involves Matilda de Pietrantonio, aged 21. In the final hours of the conflict she and an armed associate came across seven young Fascists, who raised their hands in surrender. Her companion raised his gun. “No,” said Matilda, “the war is over. You are not going to kill anyone in cold blood. Go home. Go. Run.”
This brilliant book restores women to the heart of the Italian resistance story, making clear that they performed all the same activities as the men, while facing precisely the same dangers, if with supplementary goals. ‘I hate neutrality in all its forms,’ Gobetti, who had a postwar political career, would later write. ‘You have to believe in something and then fight for it, not impersonally but with the greatest passion.’ Between 1943 and 1945, many other Italian women discovered that they too hated neutrality. This, at last, is their powerful story.
The book is sweeping in its scope, charting the history of the Italian Resistance from its birth in 1943 to the Allied liberation of 1945, following the threads of scores of partisans in separate factions and areas, with different views and methods but ultimately the same common cause.
Moorehead skilfully weaves these threads of individual stories together to create a web of interconnected lives, visiting and revisiting key individuals and relating them to one another.
Although it’s a well-known story, it has rarely – outside Italy – been told from the viewpoint of the women involved. Caroline Moorehead does so through the intersecting lives of four female friends in Turin who became staffette (couriers) in the resistance, delivering intelligence, letters and weaponry: Bianca (a communist law graduate and factory agitator); Silvia (a doctor); Frida (a literature graduate); and Ada (the widow of the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti)... Their transformation from studious, dutiful daughters into daring, scruffy, exhausted combatants is brilliantly and subtly told.... The melancholy coda, recounting what happened to the women – accidents, politicking, writing and addiction – completes a riveting read.
The ability to make a liqueur from apricot pips becomes heroic when alcohol is scarce and partisans are thirsty. The mundane becomes magnificent. Despite that unfortunate cover, Moorehead tries not to sensationalise this story; she recognises the importance of ordinary things. She appreciates that what made these women special was their resilience and fortitude. This is a sensitive and perceptive book founded on an appreciation of the role women play in any society, at any time. It is sober and serious, but still an easy read. Those looking for sensational tales of lascivious female warriors who fight and fornicate will be disappointed.
We continue to glamorise the French resistance while ignoring its far more effective and disciplined Italian counterpart. In the best book she has so far written, Moorehead corrects this imbalance with a narrative whose coherence perfectly matches its author’s admiration for her subjects’ redemptive idealism. Thanks in part to Allied obtuseness, fudge and compromise in the postwar political settlement of Italy, the new nation these women dreamed of never came into being. Crowds still flock to the Duce’s birthplace, a neo-Fascist minister has recently dominated the government and a degenerate school of pseudo-history seeks to sanitise the dictatorship rather than celebrate the heroism of those who fought against it. Moorehead thus needs to be read by Italians themselves. Over here, meanwhile, she deserves every prize going.