Book Review: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini: Frances Stonor Saunders – Faber and Faber (London 2010). 375pp
This is an unusual book. It deals in detail with a dramatic (if overlooked) historical event and offers a thoughtful treatment of insanity in the early 20th century. In the excellent first chapter we are treated to a cinematic frame-by-frame portrayal of the moment at the core of the book. It is Wednesday April 7th 1926 on Rome’s Campidoglio – an inconspicuous woman steps from the cheering crowd to shoot Mussolini in the face. From this dramatic opening Saunders skilfully leads us forward through the immediate repercussions, and back through the career of The Hon. Violet Gibson, daughter of the first Baron Ashbourne. Clearly not a traditional ‘whodunnit?’ the book considers why this woman chose to carry out this particular attack.
Violet is a fascinating character, an Anglo-Irish convert to Catholicism with all the zeal which that implies. To learn why she wanted to kill Mussolini, we must first learn her story. Through loyal support for the Unionist cause her father, Edward Gibson, gained his baronetcy and the Lord Chancellorship of Ireland. A photograph of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) visiting the Gibsons at Howth Castle illustrates the family’s elevated social standing. Behind their respectable front door, however, the family appear to have been an odd and unpleasant lot. Violet’s domineering mother joined the fashionable Christian Scientist movement, bringing her daughter with her. When the promised health benefits failed to materialise, Violet left the Christian Scientists and took up with Madam Blavatsky’s theosophists. Saunders’ description of this ‘amalgam of rubbish wrapped up as an appealing obscurity’ would hardly have appealed to the many Anglo-Irish artistic and literary figures who followed its teachings. It was Violet’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism that led to the most serious rift with her family. The atmosphere of anti-catholic bigotry among the establishment, linked as it was with class and political considerations, produced the attitudes that would govern Violet’s future. On her conversion to Catholicism her parents and most of her siblings disowned her; the perceived betrayal of class and clan values continued to influence events up to her death in 1956.
Alongside the account of Violet’s early years, Saunders recounts the career of the young Benito Mussolini. The author can be forgiven for making the most of the rather slight parallels between the two, especially when the narrative shifts to their individual mental states in later life. This shift in emphasis appears at first to be a digression, but it introduces a discussion on the nature of insanity – surely a relevant debate when dealing with political leaders of the 1920s and ‘30s. Regrettably, psychiatrists focussed on the ordinary citizens instead of their political masters. Prejudice towards non-conformist women, and the traditional beliefs surrounding female ‘hysterics’, were alive and well even in progressive medical textbooks of the time. In a chilling quotation from Psychological Medicine (1905) we learn that insanity was defined as behaviour that ‘interferes with society’. Psychiatrists and eugenicists from Nazi Germany to the United States could not have asked for a broader mandate to sedate, incarcerate (and even sterilize) thousands of individuals.
The shooting on Campidolgio triggered a wave of popular support for Mussolini. This helped to create an atmosphere of nationalist paranoia, which the Fascists used to introduce a raft of oppressive legislation. This virtual coup d’etat, Saunders argues, was accompanied by the elevation of Mussolini to the status of a saint. Mussolini had good reason to believe that he was protected by providence. He had survived the blast from a faulty Italian mortar shell during the Great War and three attempts on his life either failed or were foiled during his political career. Fascists made much of these providential escapes believing that Il Duce was being spared for a higher purpose. Inconveniently, however, others also claimed to have a divine mission. Violet Gibson planned to kill Mussolini for his betrayal of socialism and for traducing her idealised vision of Italy – the land of Dante, Fra Angelico and St. Francis. Having survived cancer, and a botched suicide attempt, she was convinced that God had called her for this task. She may also have planned to kill Pope Pius XI for his endorsement of the Fascist regime, and for rejecting her particular brand of Catholicism.
The title of Saunders’ book captures two significant facts – Gibson’s gender, while important to the actual shooting, was absolutely crucial to the judicial, diplomatic and medical responses to it. Significant too was the fact that a woman was the only would-be assassin to actually hit the Italian leader. Two men imprisoned for attempting to kill Mussolini were released from prison when the regime fell, a third was lynched by a mob before police could intervene. Violet, in contrast, was moved from an Italian jail to an English asylum where she remained for the rest of her days. Her gender, combined with her extreme religious convictions, meant that her actions were attributed to lunacy rather than politics. However, the author points out that Violet paid close attention to Italian politics. The violent suppression of dissenting voices is laid out in clear and brutal terms throughout the book. Horror at the abduction and murder of Giacomo Matteotti, Mussolini’s most able opponent, may have prompted Violet’s attack. Although any one from the litany of beaten or murdered politicians, academics and clerics might have served just as well.
The structure of the book reflects Violet’s intense piety. Divided into three parts; Revelation, Acts and Lamentations, the chapters touch on the religious themes of martyrdom, confession and heresy. This provides a fitting backdrop to the action, constantly suggesting Violet’s state of mind. But is religious zeal a form of insanity? Her legal and diplomatic defenders in Rome argued that Violet’s statements and behaviour were obvious signs of lunacy. However her astute management of her financial affairs, and her manipulation of the interrogation sessions, suggest a robust mental capacity.
Forgotten aspects of diplomatic history (to this reviewer at least) come to the surface as the story unfolds. The broad international approval for Mussolini’s policies was surprisingly strong. British trading interests led to a warm diplomatic relationship with the regime. Following a royal visit in 1923, George V presented Il Duce with the Order of the Bath. The prospect of a valuable concordat with the Italian state drew an enthusiastic endorsement from the Catholic Church. Following the shooting European monarchs, the American president and W.T Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, congratulated the Italian leader on his lucky escape. ‘I send you my most earnest wishes for your speedy recovery. The infamous attempt has caused much indignation here’, wrote Cosgrave from Dublin. Violet’s transfer from jail in Italy to an asylum in England was secured largely on the strength of the cordial diplomatic ties (which she detested) between Rome and London.
An amusing detail emerges in the diplomatic fallout from the shooting. An Italian government investigation into the staunchly conservative Gibson family sought signs of Bolshevik affiliations. Violet’s brother-in-law, the Conservative MP Lord Bolton, had to attest that he was not, nor had he ever been, a Communist. His humiliation was surely compounded when he had to produce verification of his Tory credentials from both the Carlton and the Kildare Street Clubs.
More than either a biography or political thriller, the book deals with events of the 1920s and ‘30s and considers the nature of sanity and psychiatry. Occasionally however, the combination of subject matter and the rather different writing styles involved make it feel like two separate projects. This is especially true when Saunders introduces a cast of cultural figures, many of them quiet extraneous to the story, to illustrate her comments on asylums. References to Wilde, Yeats, Nijinsky, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan’s brother and (repeatedly) Virginia Woolf, interrupt the flow and appear to belong to another work entirely. In fairness, the fact that James Joyce’s daughter Lucia ended up in St. Andrew’s, the same psychiatric home as Violet, is too curious a coincidence to leave out.
That criticism aside, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini is a fascinating and engagingly written story. Saunders combines the quirky individuality of the Anglo-Irish, deep sectarian and class identities and inter-war politics to produce a very enjoyable and often surprising read.
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