Monday, June 14, 2010

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stoner Saunders

On the morning of April 7, 1926, a middle-aged Anglo-Irish woman stood on the steps Rome's Palazzo dei Conservatori, waiting for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to emerge. Though surrounded by police, Violet Gibson (1876-1956) raised a pistol eight inches from the head of her victim and shot, only nicking the dictator's nose. In The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, author Frances Stoner Saunders deftly reconstructs the life of a former debutant who dabbled in Irish nationalism and swore to being on a mission from God.

The date of Gibson's attempted assassination cuts her adult life almost in half. Up to age fifty, she had been an independent woman living an unconventional life, supported by the small fortune left to her by her father Lord Ashbourne. Everything she did seemed to annoy and shame her family, especially her conversion to Roman Catholicism early in the twentieth century, when many upper class British thought the faith very lower class. She also voiced her support of Irish independence, which irritated her Irish Protestant family greatly, except for two brothers who may have been funding the forerunners of the IRA. Though she became an avid Catholic, she on numerous occasions claimed to have initially gone to Rome to kill the pope. Mussolini then caught her attention instead. After shooting Mussolini. Gibson spent thirty years in prison and psychiatric hospitals.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini is primarily about Gibson, but there is much about Mussolini in the text as well. It is now forgotten that Great Britain was an early supporter of the Fascist leader, sending secret funds to his campaign to take power over Italy. Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain (brother of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) was a vocal supporter of the Italian, as were King George V and Winston Churchill. They all said that someone strong and ruthless needed to control the wayward Italian people to keep them from becoming communists.

Saunders turns to a remarkable source for much of her story about Gibson's later years. The would-be assassin wrote many quite lucid letters from St. Andrews Hospital for Mental Illness asking for help to get her released from the institution. She argued that she only pretended insanity to be released by the Italian courts instead of being imprisoned or even executed. Instead of mailing the letters, St. Andrews kept them all in a large file, effectively keeping Gibson from ever being heard by the outside world again. When some people began saying that Gibson should be considered a hero for trying to eliminate a brutal dictator, few knew she was still living and locked away in England without any chance of defending herself. Saunders found the file still full and open to scholars.

In this biography with many photos and documents, Stoner never says whether Gibson was sane, insane, or just temporarily insane. She presents copious evidence. I'd vote three quarters sane. What would you say?

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. Metropolitan Books, 2010. 380p. ISBN 9780805091212.

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