Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Janet Ross as an only child. She had two siblings. This version has been corrected.
‘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.”
Note those phrases “hedonistic wallow” and “humming entrepot vitality.” Although best known as a poet and co-editor of Parnassus magazine, Ben Downing also writes prose of enviable, cosmopolitan suavity. From time to time, I paused just to admire his diction. For instance, Janet’s scapegrace brother Maurice patronized Cairo’s brothels “with Flaubertian relish.” That characterization alludes to the French novelist’s notorious sexual experiments during a youthful trip to the Middle East. (See: the eye-opening “Flaubert in Egypt,” edited by Francis Steegmuller.) Even Downing’s footnotes fizz: In one he tells us that Frances Ternan, the sister of Charles Dickens’s mistress Ellen Ternan, married Thomas Trollope, the brother of novelist Anthony Trollope. And did you know that the Comte de Paris — the rightful heir to the French throne — fought on the Union side during the Civil War? Downing seems to possess a positively Proustian know-ledge of the literary and social networks of 19th- and early-20th-century Europe.
The Rosses eventually left Egypt and, almost by happenstance, settled in Italy in 1869, just outside Florence. When they arrived, the city had long been the permanent or vacation home to a large Anglo-Florentine population, residents including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as numerous poetasters, art experts and eccentrics, among them Augustus Hare and Vernon Lee (pen name of Violet Paget). Although Downing mentions both these writers, in a rare lapse he fails to convey the allure and power of their best work: Hare’s memoirs — there is a modern abridgement entitled “Peculiar People” — possess much the same gossipy charm as “Queen Bee of Tuscany,” while Vernon Lee is far more than a half-
forgotten lesbian writer about gardens and Italian culture. Her ghost stories, especially “Amour Dure” and “Oke of Okehurst,” are among the transcendent classics of the genre. Downing does point out that it was at Lee’s apartment that Henry James first heard about a cache of Byron’s love letters and, in due course, turned those rumors into “The Aspern Papers.”
At first, the Rosses rented part of a villa from an Italian friend, but eventually they decided to buy a place of their own. But nothing quite suited. As Downing notes, with what sounds like the voice of experience, the weeks dragged by and “the Rosses sank into the peevish despondency of those thwarted by real estate.” Eventually though, they discovered the neglected and dilapidated Poggio Gherardo, which included several acres of land and tenants to farm it. The Rosses pitched in to fix up the property, and Janet soon became intimately involved in Tuscan agricultural, as well as cultural, life, making her own wine, pressing her own olives.
Over the years she also gradually turned into a somewhat curmudgeonly yet beloved grande dame. She became friends with John Addington Symonds, a great — and gay — historian of Renaissance Italy. She helped find a villa for the visiting Mark Twain and his family. Her Florentine circle included art connoisseur Bernard Berenson (at I Tatti) and the collector Arthur Acton and his aesthete son Harold (at La Pietra). Year after year, everyone from novelist Edith Wharton to art historian Kenneth Clark came to her Sunday open house.
Downing makes clear that Janet could be kind and generous, but not always to her own family: She ignored her only son, Alick (who eventually died in obscurity), and turned against her adopted daughter, Lina, when the young woman married a rather feckless but handsome artist. At times, as Mary Berenson said, Janet Ross was simply “a wicked old lady.” Before her death, however, she reconciled with Lina, who eventually inherited Poggio Gherardo. Still, by 1950, expenses had grown so onerous that the estate was put on the market. It is now used by a Catholic order as an orphanage.
Let me stress that none of what I’ve said quite conveys the pleasure of reading “Queen Bee of Tuscany.” This isn’t merely a history of Janet Ross and her family or of the long-standing Anglo-Florentine colony. It’s a compendium of literary and historical vignettes, a showcase for its author’s excellent prose, and quite simply one of the best books of the year.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
QUEEN BEE OF TUSCANY
The Redoubtable Janet Ross
By Ben Downing
Farrar Straus Giroux. 338 pp. $28