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The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson (31 August – 2 May ) was an Irish woman, the daughter of Lord Ashbourne. She is known for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Benito Mussolini in On 7 April , Violet Gibson shot Mussolini, Italy's Fascist leader, as he walked among the crowd in the Piazza del .
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Stonor Saunders is able to track her early life through the society pages — at a wedding in chiffon and pink carnations, in pearl-embroidered satin at a Dublin ball. We meet several of her grand Anglo-Irish family, notably her brother Willie, an enthusiastic member of the Gaelic League who, when he came out to Italy to retrieve his sister, aroused the suspicions of the police by wandering around the Colosseum in a saffron-coloured kilt. Rumour had it he kept a tortoise in his sporran. But Violet remains elusive. The Woman Who Shot Mussolini (): Frances Stonor Saunders: Books

Stonor Saunders approaches Violet indirectly, by writing about others. Maud Gonne and Bram Stoker give glimpses of Irish cultural life. Alice James evokes the lot of a clever but compulsorily idle young woman. Violet's mother becomes a Christian Scientist; Violet herself is impressed by theosophy. When Violet becomes a Catholic convert a "pervert" in the telling idiom of the day , Antonia White and Ronald Knox illuminate the experience. Her pacifism is juxtaposed with Ottoline Morrell's and Sylvia Pankhurst's. It's a distancing technique, but also a broadening one — we are given not just a woman but a world — and, thanks to Stonor Saunders's beady eye for a quotation, it means that her own brisk prose becomes the setting for some gems of late Victorian orotundity, and that her narrative is a glinting patchwork of anecdotes and quips.

It means, too, that when we hear Violet's voice at last, it rings out like a gunshot. In her 40s, in , Violet attended a Jesuit retreat. She kept notes; Stonor Saunders quotes from them. One verb tolls through her jottings: Soon she was wandering around Kensington with a kitchen knife in her hand, having left her Bible open at the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. By the time she left for Rome, her closest friend Enid was pretty certain she intended to kill someone there. Enid thought the intended victim was probably the pope.

Mussolini's life is a great deal better documented, but Stonor Saunders keeps her distance from him as well.

She compares his grimaces and flamboyant gestures to those in Charcot's photographs of the insane. She shows how he rewrote the story of the attempts on his life as a kind of Passion, with himself as Christ. He was ready, he said, for "a beautiful death", but Violet, one of the "old ugly repulsive women who come from abroad in groups", was absolutely not the kind of person he wanted to be killed by. The two lives intersect, and then both, separately, undergo what Stonor Saunders calls "lockdown".

Mussolini's government becomes ever more repressive. Poor Violet is repressed. Among the many evocative photographs in the book, there are two that are almost too sad to contemplate. One is of Vaslav Nijinsky — paunchy and balding after two decades of lockdown — jumping, a broken-spirited faun, in a hospital corridor. The other is of Violet in the asylum grounds, shapeless in a mackintosh, her face averted, with little birds feeding from her hand. The pose is that of Giotto's St Francis. Stonor Saunders, whose field of reference is wide, spots the resemblance, and suggests that Violet would have done so, too.

Her doctors described her state of mind as "exalted". Violet might have accepted the epithet, and read it as meaning saint-like, uplifted, God's chosen instrument, his angel of death.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders

This book approaches a big subject by means of a small personal story, with numerous public ramifications. This is a mere trifle". To his discredit, he later said that, while ready for "a beautiful death", he didn't want it from an "old, ugly repulsive" woman. Violet was captured and beaten by a mob; the police smuggled her away before she was killed. Under interrogation, she claimed to have shot Mussolini "to glorify God" who had kindly sent an angel to keep her arm steady.

Her family wrote, apologising, to the Italian government. She was declared a "chronic paranoiac" and returned to England and St Andrew's Hospital. Violet died on May 2, Sadly, there were no mourners.

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So that's the "why" of her attempt to kill Mussolini: God "told" her to do it. But what if Violet's bullets had found their mark?

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Had he died in , Italy might not have been fascist for so long without its "strongman" figurehead; they might not have entered the war. His successes inspired and emboldened Hitler. Worst of all, Violet's assassination attempt triggered a wave of popular support for Mussolini and a raft of oppressive legislation. So her actions probably strengthened Il Duce's grip on Italy. Now there's a twist worthy of any novel.

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Ninety years ago this week, Violet Gibson almost changed history