'Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross', by Ben Downing
Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross
by Ben Downing
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Janet Ross was a major factor in drawing people's attention to the Tuscan countryside rather than concentrating on Florence. She spent 60 years, until her death in 1927, living near Florence, but probably her greatest influence was through her books on rural life and on Tuscan cooking - even though she owned up to "never having even boiled an egg".
Instead, she observed her Italian cooks, questioned them and put it all down on paper. In other ways, she shared in the work on her property, toiling in her Wellington boots alongside her share farmers, producing wheat, olive oil and wine. The peasants respected and loved this unconventional Englishwoman.
In writing her biography, Ben Downing, an American essayist and poet, also tells the story of the Anglo-American residents in the Florence area in the late 19th and early 20th century when the English alone in Florence constituted a seventh of the inhabitants. Downing furnishes pointed anecdotes about figures such as Bernard Berenson, Harold Acton and Vernon Lee.
Ross was precocious: allowed to draw up the guest list for her fifth birthday in England, she included the novelist William Thackeray. At 18, she married the businessman-adventurer Henry Ross, and they left for Egypt. By 21, she was writing from there for The Times and beating Arab sheikhs in horse races.
After the failure of her husband's business, they left Egypt and went to Florence. That was in 1867, and Janet stayed for 60 years, first learning a lot on the farm of an Italian friend and then buying her own property, Poggio Gherardo, which is claimed to be the site of Boccaccio's Decameron. It is now an orphanage, Acton's huge property is now run by New York University, and Berenson's by Harvard. Several of the villas mentioned in Downing's book are open for visitation.
Downing is skilled in recreating the constant flow of friends and visitors to Ross, from Henry James and Mark Twain, working energetically on Pudd'head Wilson to stave off bankruptcy, to the art critic Kenneth Clark, who called Janet a "well-known terrifier".
They were attracted by her energy, common sense and intelligence. She could be generous, for instance towards John Addington Symonds, the historian who first disclosed Michelangelo's homosexuality. Janet gave decisive help for his research.
But she was not generous towards some close relatives. She neglected her own son, and when her niece Lina married an impecunious artist, she declared a wrongheaded war against her. Janet was a warm friend but a fierce enemy who is enjoyable to meet in Downing's lively biography.