7 April 1926: on the steps of the Capitol in Rome, surrounded by chanting Fascists, The Honourable Violet Gibson raises her old revolver and fires at the Italian head of state, the darling of Europe's ruling class. The bullet narrowly misses the dictator's bald head, hitting him in the nose. Of all his would-be assassins, she came closest to changing the course of history.
What brought her to this moment? She was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish lord, had once consorted with royalty and the peerage. Yet terrible unhappiness lurked beneath that glittering surface. She was a serious-minded young woman in an age when girls were meant to marry well and think little. Her spiritual quest took her to a kind of left-wing Catholicism, sympathy for Irish nationalism and a passionate love for Italy. When Mussolini's thugs took it into the moral cesspit of Fascism, she felt she had to act.
She paid for it for the rest of her life, confined to a lunatic asylum, like other difficult women of her class. Frances Stonor Saunders' moving and compulsively readable book rescues this gentle, driven woman from a silent void and restores her dignity and purpose.
Frances Stonor Saunders is the author of the bestselling Hawkwood, and of Who Paid the Piper? She lives in Oxford.