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Queen Bee of Tuscany

The Redoubtable Janet Ross

Ben Downing

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Quite simply one of the best books of the year.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post


Ben Downing’s Queen Bee of Tuscany brings an extraordinary Victorian back to life. Born into a distinguished intellectual family and raised among luminaries such as Dickens and Thackeray, Janet Ross married at eighteen and went to live in Egypt. There, for the next six years, she wrote for the London Times, hobnobbed with the developer of the Suez Canal, and humiliated pashas in horse races. In 1867 she moved to Florence, Italy where she spent the remaining sixty years of her life writing a series of books and hosting a colorful miscellany of friends and neighbors, from Mark Twain to Bernard Berenson, at Poggio Gherardo, her house in the hills above the city. Eventually she became the acknowledged doyenne of the Anglo-Florentine colony, as it was known. Yet she was also immersed in the rural life of Tuscany: An avid agriculturalist, she closely supervised the farms on her estate and the sharecroppers who worked them, often pitching in on grape and olive harvests.
     Spirited, erudite, and supremely well-connected, Ross was one of the most dynamic women of her day. Her life offers a fascinating window on fascinating times, from the Risorgimento to the rise of fascism.
     Encompassing all this rich history, Queen Bee of Tuscany is a panoramic portrait of an age, a family, and our evolving love affair with Tuscany.
 
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013
“Quite simply one of the best books of the year.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post


Ben Downing’s Queen Bee of Tuscany brings an extraordinary Victorian back to life. Born into a distinguished intellectual family and raised among luminaries such as Dickens and Thackeray, Janet Ross married at eighteen and went to live in Egypt. There, for the next six years, she wrote for the London Times, hobnobbed with the developer of the Suez Canal, and humiliated pashas in horse races. In 1867 she moved to Florence, Italy where she spent the remaining sixty years of her life writing a series of books and hosting a colorful miscellany of friends and neighbors, from Mark Twain to Bernard Berenson, at Poggio Gherardo, her house in the hills above the city. Eventually she became the acknowledged doyenne of the Anglo-Florentine colony, as it was known. Yet she was also immersed in the rural life of Tuscany: An avid agriculturalist, she closely supervised the farms on her estate and the sharecroppers who worked them, often pitching in on grape and olive harvests.
     Spirited, erudite, and supremely well-connected, Ross was one of the most dynamic women of her day. Her life offers a fascinating window on fascinating times, from the Risorgimento to the rise of fascism.
     Encompassing all this rich history, Queen Bee of Tuscany is a panoramic portrait of an age, a family, and our evolving love affair with Tuscany. A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013

BOOK EXCERPTS

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ONE
A Dynasty of Sorts
 
 
On February 24, 1847, at 8 Queen Square in Bloomsbury, London, there took place a party whose guests included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, the controversial author and feminist Caroline Norton, the illustrator Richard “Dicky” Doyle, the playwright Tom Taylor, and the Whig statesman Lord Lansdowne. Everyone in the group already being acquainted, there was nothing odd about their assembly. Somewhat unusual, however, was the occasion itself, for they’d come to celebrate the birthday of a five-year-old girl, who, allowed
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REVIEWS

Praise for Queen Bee of Tuscany

Praise for Queen Bee of Tuscany:


Queen Bee of Tuscany is so amusing, in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin the praise . . . This is a perfect book for the bedside, poolside or, if you're really lucky, that long long plane ride to Italy . . . 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 it author's excellent prose, and quite simply one of the best books of the year.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Downing has assembled an immense amount of information, not only about this remarkable family of literate, artistic, and well-connected women writers . . . but about the vast cast of foreigners who, from the end of the Napoleonic wars, made Tuscany their home . . . Queen Bee of Tuscany provides a rich historical survey of a lost and charmed age.” —Caroline Moorehead, The Wall Street Journal

“Now and then, there appear certain lives that serve as lenses onto an entire generation—those lucky few who happen to live at a place and time of particular foment and historical import, and whose personal destinies intersect with the great movements of art, literature, and politics that define an age . . . Janet Ross—whose story is detailed in rollicking fashion in Ben Downing’s new book, The Queen Bee of Tuscany—is just one such character . . . She’d been born amid the optimistic expansion and bustle of Victorian empire; she passed away in the brief pause between Europe’s most deadly and debilitating wars. In between, she led, in Downing’s words, ‘one of the fullest lives imaginable,’ and her ‘forceful personality made, for better or worse, a strong impression on all those who met her.’ We may not remember the name Janet Ross these days, but Downing’s book stands a fair chance of changing that—and if he succeeds, the history of women . . . will be all the richer.” —Katie Baker, The Daily Beast

“Through his loving portrait of Janet Ross and her complex connections to the native and expatriate communities of Tuscany, Downing has created an engrossing and wonderfully readable narrative of this captivating woman, her coterie, and the era in which she lived.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire


“I knew nothing of Janet Ross before I opened this exhilarating book and began to relish her crowded, convivial life and appetite for thrills. Ben Downing is a skilful and enthusiastic writer who knows how to tell a good story. He works like an accomplished artist, painting a vivid cultural and historical background and then placing his subject in a memorable Florentine landscape. Reading this blend of biography and social history is like taking a first-class time-traveling journey into mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth- century Europe. I greatly enjoyed keeping company with such a forceful and surprising character—and so will many readers.” —Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets

 

“Ben Downing's life of the extraordinary Janet Ross reads like deep, delicious gossip from a bygone era.  Combining a wonderfully incisive account of Anglo-Florentine society with some marvelous portraits of its eccentric members and their febrile entanglements, Queen Bee of Tuscany is both instructive to read and great, great fun.” —Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall and Mary Shelley

“The Anglo-Florentine colony was a remarkable and singularly long-lived phenomenon. Dominating it for sixty years was that extraordinary grande dame Janet Ross: bluff, outspoken, multilingual, at once a canny estate manager and a social queen bee nonpareil. Ben Downing's study of this unique tranche of social history, built around Ross's reign, is a tour de force. Based on formidable research, it always wears its learning lightly, and with style. Elegantly written, packed with anecdotes, it's a real page-turner, and also slyly witty throughout. This is the best, the most informative, the most entertaining bedtime reading that's come my way in a very long time. ” —Peter Green, Emeritus professor of classics and the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

“Those enamored with the history, society, and culture of Victorian England and the expatriate community will relish this engrossing biography.” —Publishers Weekly


Praise for Queen Bee of Tuscany:


Queen Bee of Tuscany is so amusing, in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin the praise . . . This is a perfect book for the bedside, poolside or, if you're really lucky, that long long plane ride to Italy . . . 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 it author's excellent prose, and quite simply one of the best books of the year.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Downing has assembled an immense amount of information, not only about this remarkable family of literate, artistic, and well-connected women writers . . . but about the vast cast of foreigners who, from the end of the Napoleonic wars, made Tuscany their home . . . Queen Bee of Tuscany provides a rich historical survey of a lost and charmed age.” —Caroline Moorehead, The Wall Street Journal

“Now and then, there appear certain lives that serve as lenses onto an entire generation—those lucky few who happen to live at a place and time of particular foment and historical import, and whose personal destinies intersect with the great movements of art, literature, and politics that define an age . . . Janet Ross—whose story is detailed in rollicking fashion in Ben Downing’s new book, The Queen Bee of Tuscany—is just one such character . . . She’d been born amid the optimistic expansion and bustle of Victorian empire; she passed away in the brief pause between Europe’s most deadly and debilitating wars. In between, she led, in Downing’s words, ‘one of the fullest lives imaginable,’ and her ‘forceful personality made, for better or worse, a strong impression on all those who met her.’ We may not remember the name Janet Ross these days, but Downing’s book stands a fair chance of changing that—and if he succeeds, the history of women . . . will be all the richer.” —Katie Baker, The Daily Beast

“Through his loving portrait of Janet Ross and her complex connections to the native and expatriate communities of Tuscany, Downing has created an engrossing and wonderfully readable narrative of this captivating woman, her coterie, and the era in which she lived.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire


“I knew nothing of Janet Ross before I opened this exhilarating book and began to relish her crowded, convivial life and appetite for thrills. Ben Downing is a skilful and enthusiastic writer who knows how to tell a good story. He works like an accomplished artist, painting a vivid cultural and historical background and then placing his subject in a memorable Florentine landscape. Reading this blend of biography and social history is like taking a first-class time-traveling journey into mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth- century Europe. I greatly enjoyed keeping company with such a forceful and surprising character—and so will many readers.” —Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets

 

“Ben Downing's life of the extraordinary Janet Ross reads like deep, delicious gossip from a bygone era.  Combining a wonderfully incisive account of Anglo-Florentine society with some marvelous portraits of its eccentric members and their febrile entanglements, Queen Bee of Tuscany is both instructive to read and great, great fun.” —Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall and Mary Shelley

“The Anglo-Florentine colony was a remarkable and singularly long-lived phenomenon. Dominating it for sixty years was that extraordinary grande dame Janet Ross: bluff, outspoken, multilingual, at once a canny estate manager and a social queen bee nonpareil. Ben Downing's study of this unique tranche of social history, built around Ross's reign, is a tour de force. Based on formidable research, it always wears its learning lightly, and with style. Elegantly written, packed with anecdotes, it's a real page-turner, and also slyly witty throughout. This is the best, the most informative, the most entertaining bedtime reading that's come my way in a very long time. ” —Peter Green, Emeritus professor of classics and the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

“Those enamored with the history, society, and culture of Victorian England and the expatriate community will relish this engrossing biography.” —Publishers Weekly


In the Press

Work in Progress » Blog Archive » Revisiting the Victorian Literati
here it was, Poggio Gherardo! Or no, maybe not
- FSG's Work in Progress

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ben Downing

  • In addition to The Calligraphy Shop, a book of poems, Ben Downing has published essays, articles, and reviews in The Paris Review, The New Criterion, and elsewhere. He is the coeditor of Parnassus.
  • Ben Downing Star Black
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Available Formats and Book Details

Queen Bee of Tuscany

The Redoubtable Janet Ross

Ben Downing

Washington Post Best Books of the Year, The Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year
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FROM THE PUBLISHER

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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