The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Benefit of Hindsight

One of the things that makes working with original manuscripts so interesting is hindsight. We may have the advantage of knowing how historical events ultimately played out, but there’s nothing quite like reading the words of the people who experienced them first-hand. Sometimes their words are eerily prescient, other times wildly off-base.

The recently processed collection of Henry P. Binney family papers, on deposit at the MHS from the Mary M. B. Wakefield Charitable Trust, contains the papers of many members of the Binney family of Milton, Mass., including Florence Ethel Binney (1861-1944). In 1888, Florence, or “Flossy,” married Pietro Paolo Beccadelli di Bologna and became the Princess of Camporeale. She lived in Italy in the decades leading up to World War II, ran in elite social circles, and met many heads of state. The letters she wrote to her Boston cousin Alberta Binney have a light-hearted tone that  belies the increasingly serious conditions in pre-war Europe.

On 19 January 1923, just three months after Benito Mussolini’s coup d’état in Rome, Florence wrote from that same city:

Do you ever intend to come to, so-called, ‘Sunny Italy’? If so bring furs. We are having intensely cold weather (delicious I think) fountains frozen, and deep snow between Firenze and Bologna! I imagine that foreign newspaper[s] are exaggerating the occupation of Essen, etc. by the French, the complications in Turkey, and the possible effects on all Europe of these movements, as well as on the rest of the world. Meno male, that Italy has Mussolini to hold the reins of government with a firm hand!

 (According to a Boston Herald article from September of that year, Florence considered Mussolini the “saviour” of Italy and an “idol of the people.”)

 A decade later, Florence was still writing letters with this mix of carefree chattiness and political commentary:

This afternoon am motoring to a marvellous old castle, 2 hours distant from Rome, taking with me the Archduchess [of Austria] and my little grandson….When are you coming over again? From our papers it seems that MacDonald and Roosevelt have concluded nothing definite. Let us hope that Hitler in Germany, your Roosevelt, and our Mussolini here, will prove to be for the good of their respective nations. But I will not touch on the complicated present situation of the world, lest my letter would be endless!

Florence was later disappointed when a planned visit from Alberta’s daughter Polly was canceled. She wrote:

Too bad, for never was Rome more gay socially, or more fascinating in every way, than this spring. Evidently [Polly’s father] Harry let himself be influenced by the American newspapers greatly exaggerated reports of the European situation, and believed war imminent. May le bon Dieu spare us such a disaster, although the whole world is in a dangerously chaotic state.

 The date of this letter is 3 June 1939.

 For more information on the multi-generational papers of the Binney family, including papers related to the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II, see the guide to the collection.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 8:00 AM


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