The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies is a story of women at war where trust, between women, between strangers, is at the core of everything. Although the book’s title refers to Contessa Sofia de’ Corsi this is also the story of Italian-American Maxine, recruited by English special services to the fight against fascism in Tuscany. Once there and charged with assessing the ability and armaments of Italian partisans, Maxine she finds the fight is not only against the Germans but between Italian groups suspicious of each other.
It is 1943 and in the exquisitely beautiful Tuscan countryside, trust is in short supply. Strangers may be spies or escaping Allied soldiers, the penalty for helping enemies has been followed by retaliation – massacres of villagers by the Nazis. Maxine, with her odd sounding Italian accent, must prove her worth if she is to do her job. She must also learn who to trust. When Maxine’s radio engineer James is wounded, he is sheltered by Sofia in her isolated castello. And so though very different characters, Maxine and Sofia find themselves on the same side; one is young, energetic and full of zeal, the other more cautious and concerned with protecting her husband’s legacy and castello. Neither can imagine the horrors they will see, and the risks they must take, before the war is ended.
The power of Jefferies’ story comes from the juxtaposition of the brutality and blood of war with the beauty of the Italian countryside. The stately villas of Sofia – Castello de’Corsi and in Florence – contribute both atmospherically and practically to the story, offering glimpses into the pre-war and wartime life, as well as hiding places and storage for contraband. And while the women hide their bottled fruit and vegetables, and knit secretly at night – jumpers and socks to keep the partisans warm throughout winters spent hidden in forests and caves – there is the uneasy feeling that some villagers continue to support the fascist cause and inform to the Germans. While Maxine goes on increasingly perilous missions with the partisans, Sofa must handle the unwelcome attention of a German officer whose smiles glint with the promise of sadism.
The book is the result of copious research and visits to locations and gives a clear and often difficult-to-read portrayal of real Tuscan villages during the German occupation. Jefferies shows the complicated moral dilemmas for Italians fighting first one enemy and then another, as the enemy hated at the beginning of the war becomes by 1943 the only hope of salvation. Every woman lives in a constant state of ‘not knowing’; not knowing who to trust, not knowing if a loved one is away fighting, injured, captured or dead. And meanwhile, daily life continues. Children are loved, babies are beget, love is declared and food is made and eaten. In the background is the gossip of reprisals and villagers killed, while in the foreground the women of Castello de’ Corsi continue to exist. As spring arrives with blue skies and beautiful wildflowers, the killing continues.
A moving story of women in wartime facing impossible odds, finding hidden courage and a dash of recklessness in order to fight the enemy. And the recognition of the line which, when crossed, means that your own life ceases to matter when the death of an enemy is preferable. Trust, between women, between strangers, is at the heart of everything.
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THE TUSCAN CONTESSA by @DinahJefferies #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4Xa via @SandraDanby