The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Very occasionally, I come across a book that is so interesting that I read it in one sitting and this is one of these. The subject matter is a virtually forgotten incident which occurred in 1926 and its protagonists are Violet Gibson, an aristocratic British spinster and Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. If events that morning had gone just a little differently, the whole course of twentieth century history might have been very different.
On that long ago Wednesday Violet Gibson had set out from the convent where she was staying in Rome carrying a pistol, a stone and a scrap of newspaper on which she had written "Palazzo del Littorio", the address of the Fascist Party headquarters where she intended to carry out her deed in the afternoon. But instead she stopped at the Campodoglio where a crowd had gathered because of Mussolini's presence and, seeing him emerge from the Palazzo dei Conservatori, she shot him at point blank range, injuring the tip of his nose. Violet Gibson got as close to her target as Jack Ruby got to Lee Harvey Oswald 37 years later, murder, as the author of this book points out, sometimes being " a very intimate business".
At this point you may well be asking yourselves, as I did, why you have not heard of this incident before and the answer seems to be because it suited both the British and Italian governments to hush it up. It made the newspapers in both countries, of course, and Mussolini's supporters bayed for Violet's blood but both sets of diplomats were only too happy for Violet's family to take her back to Britain and have her quietly shut away. That is what happened and Violet remained in what we would now call a "private mental health facility" for the rest of her life.
Two questions remain about Violet: why did she do it and was she mad? The first has never been definitively answered, as Violet always implied that there were others involved, though no evidence of this was ever found. If she was mad , she was an "intelligent lunatic" who read the papers and analysed political events. She was also born at a time when women of her class were brought up to be ornaments. It is possible, then, that she was looking for a cause and she seems to have thought that she was acting on some sort of divine command.
For years, Violet led investigators and her doctors a dance, at one point asserting,
"What I say can't be believed because I am mad"
and she hardly helped her own cause. Despite her numerous, cogent pleas to the highest in the land, she was never set free or even allowed to reside in a Catholic hospital as she requested and her family became exasperated and more than a little concerned about costs. At this point the book becomes a kind of chronicle of the way in which the well-off mentally ill were treated in the first half of the twentieth century and it is none the less fascinating for that.
The book, however, is as much Benito Mussolini's story as it is Violet's and its early part poses a third question: was Mussolini mad? I'll leave you to make up your own minds on that one!
Meanwhile, back to our mysterious "heroine": When Violet Gibson died in 1956 no public announcement was made and no friend or relative attended her funeral. She remains, in death as in life, an enigma.