‘Queen Bee of Tuscany
” is so amusing, in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to begin the praise. Ostensibly the biography of Janet Ross (1842-1927), an Englishwoman who lived in Florence for almost 60 years, it is, in fact, a great, sunny garden-party of a book, featuring guest appearances by many of the most eminent and eccentric Victorians, each of them pulling you aside to whisper some delicious anecdote. This is a perfect book for the bedside, poolside or, if you’re really lucky, that long, long plane ride to Italy.
The book opens early in the 19th century with the marriage of Sarah Taylor and John Austin, the soberly intellectual grandparents of Janet Ross. Austin was a disciple of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and an expert on jurisprudence — the “Austinian theory of law” is studied to this day. Sarah, a natural-born linguist, taught German to the young John Stuart Mill, translated Stendhal’s articles for the London Magazine and specialized in Englishing great tomes such as Leopold von Ranke’s multi-volume “History of the Reformation in Germany.” When the couple lived in Paris, their friends included Alexis de Tocqueville (author of “Democracy in America”), the poets Alfred de Vigny and Alphonse de Lamartine, and the society hostess Madame Récamier.
The Austins’ daughter Lucie eventually married Alexander Cornewall Duff Gordon, and the newlyweds were soon hobnobbing with an equally dazzling set. Their dinner guests might include Thomas and Jane Carlyle, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, Alexander Kinglake (author of the Middle Eastern travel classic “Eothen”) and Alfred Tennyson, who claimed that his long poem “The Princess” was inspired by Lucie. Fans of classic horror fiction might even now recognize the name Lucie Duff Gordon: She translated Wilhelm Meinhold’s “The Amber Witch,” the greatest witchcraft novel of the 19th century.
The Duff Gordons’ first child, Janet, thus grew up in a heady intellectual and artistic world. When she turned 5, the novelist Thackeray came to her birthday party. As a little girl having trouble with math, she asked Charles Babbage to make her a present of his “difference engine,” the prototype for today’s computer. Little Janet would sometimes install herself on Macaulay’s knee and issue the simple command to that great master of oratorical prose, “Now talk.” By the time she became a young woman, both the novelist George Meredith and the painter G.F. Watts were sweet on her.
But she married Henry Ross, who was introduced to her by family friend Austen Henry Layard, the discoverer of ancient Nineveh. The couple almost immediately set off for Egypt, where Henry was engaged in international trade. They first settled in Alexandria. As Ben Downing writes, “It wasn’t yet the coffee-house metropolis evoked by Forster or his poet friend Cavafy (who was born during Janet’s tenure in town), let alone the hedonistic wallow of Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet.’ But it did have a humming entrepot vitality.”