Remarkable Lives

06.24.134:45 AM ET

A 19th-Century Super-Connector

Ben Downing’s rollicking new book, Queen Bee of Tuscany, revives the legend of Janet Ross, who socialized with everyone from Tennyson and Thackeray to Twain.

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. Of course, the further back in history one goes, the less likely it is that these well-placed individuals happen to be female—though strong-willed women have always managed to pop up in the annals of civilization, from Hatshepsut and Semiramis on down.

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. Now largely forgotten, during the 19th and early 20th centuries she loomed as one of the era’s most connected and influential English expats. Her web of acquaintances stretched from the Victorians to the American transcendentalists, from rural Britain to the deserts of southern Egypt, and from the palaces of Paris to the Tuscan countryside, where she lived and flourished for 60 years and made an indelible imprint on a circle of renowned Anglo-Florentines. She witnessed up close the modernization of Egypt and its trouble with the Ottomans, watched from afar as Europe’s great powers suffered a series of revolutions and wars and coups, and arrived in Italy just as the new nation came into being. By the end of her life, World War II loomed, and Mussolini’s Fascists menaced the countryside. To read her story is to witness, as Downing describes it, the arc of a remarkable woman, “tightly [and] continuously woven into the social fabric” of her era. “Now we might call her a node or hub, and so she was—but on a grand scale, her spokes radiating across the map.”

The same, in fact, could be said of Janet’s mother and grandmother as well. Janet came from a long line of high-spirited and intelligent dames: her grandmother Sarah Austin was a disciple—along with her husband, John—of Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarians; the couple taught law and German studies to the boy genius John Stuart Mill and fraternized with Samuel Rogers and the historian Thomas Babington. John Austin, though brilliant, was prone to bouts of depressive ennui and incapable of steady work, so Sarah ended up moving the family to the continent to pursue a career as a translator. She corresponded with Stendhal, sent torrid letters to the rakish Prussian prince and writer Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (“In vivacity, passion and energy, I am very little like an Englishwoman,” she once sighed to him. “I ought to have been the wife of a Norseman, a sea king—or else an Arab chief ... anything wild and adventurous”), and debated education theory with William Gladstone during a stint in Malta. Eventually the couple settled in Paris, where Sarah ran an erudite salon that attracted the poets Alfred de Vigny and Alphonse de Lamartine, philosophes like Auguste Comte, and the grand statesman Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, who was rumored to be a bastard child of Napoleon and became a lifelong devotee of Sarah and her heirs.

The couple’s daughter, Lucie, continued the family tradition with a salon of her own in 1840s London. It drew a bohemian and spirited crowd who loved Lucie’s vivacious mirth (she smoked cigars and swanned about in gypsy clothes) and the conviviality of her young husband, Alexander Duff Gordon, a baronet with little money but loads of charm. Charles Dickens frequented their merry gatherings, as did William Makepeace Thackeray; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Caroline Norton (“the female Byron”); and a motley crew of notable journalists and theater types. (The future president of the French Republic, Louis-Napoleon, even became friendly with the couple during his exile in England.)

Eventually the Duff Gordons decamped to the British countryside, where their grand parties continued at a house in Esher christened the Gordon Arms. There, their precocious daughter Janet grew up surrounded by a gaggle of witty and worldly adults. Like her matriarchal ancestors, Janet was smart and brimming with joie de vivre. Unlike them, she seemed less interested in philosophical pursuits and more devoted to rough-and-tumble pastimes like hunting and horseback riding. (Her equestrian playfellows included the Comte de Paris and the prince of Condé, heirs of the deposed house of Orléans, who lived at the nearby Claremont estate in Surrey.) Downing describes Janet as a “spirited, brassy, imperious” child, given to precocious pronouncements that tickled her parents’ friends. The old poet Rogers called her his “baby-love,” and symbolist painter George Frederic Watts allowed her to spend hours in his studio as he created his lush canvases, even sketching her from time to time. Thanks, perhaps, to these early associations, Janet felt particularly at home around men of all ages and would go on to form many platonic friendships with influential and notable men throughout her long life. (Her friendships with other women, however, appear less remarkable—in her later years, she would tell people she “hated women” and made dire pronouncements about the suffragette movement.)

While Janet seems to have been somewhat asexual, if not downright mannish, several fellows did end up falling madly in love with her—including the popular novelist George Meredith, a friend of her parents who based his heroine in Evan Harrington on the young Miss Duff Gordon. But he ultimately lost her hand to a dashing Near East adventurer named Henry Ross. Twenty years Janet’s senior, Henry had fallen in with the peripatetic archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard; the two had recently unearthed the fabled biblical cities of Nineveh and Nimrud in the deserts of Ottoman-ruled Iraq. Henry’s tales of Holy Land swashbuckling enchanted Janet, and the two quickly wed and installed themselves in Alexandria, where Henry worked for a bank getting rich off of Egypt’s cotton boom, fueled by commodity shortages from the American Civil War.

The Rosses’ sojourn in Egypt comes across as a mesmerizing episode, the most vivacious part both of the book and perhaps of Janet’s life. While Henry shuttled back and forth between the port city and Cairo on humdrum business, Janet threw herself into exploring a land in the midst of great flux. At the time, Downing tells us, Egypt still resembled the exotic Arabia of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights: Janet explored Cairo’s labyrinthine alleys on donkey-back and witnessed ancient dervish rituals, Turkish harems (which she pronounced full of “stunted lives”), and Bedouin saints' festivals. Janet enjoyed challenging haughty Middle Eastern men to horse races in the Sahara: she once bested the Arab steeds of Said Halim Pasha—a grandson of the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali—and her equestrian skills earned her the admiration of proud desert sheiks. She also witnessed modernity remaking the country in the form of the Suez Canal: Ferdinand de Lesseps himself took a liking to Janet and led her on a personal tour of his herculean project, still in its early manual-labor stages.

For a brief stint, Janet even seems to have served as the Egypt correspondent for the London Times—an early foray into writing that she would later build off of as the author several weighty tomes. While Henry officially held the Times job, Janet’s voice was the one chronicling the dazzling state receptions for the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Aziz, tracking the race between explorers John Hanning Speke and Giovanni Miani to find the source of the Nile, and gushing about the superiority of English ponies over Arab mounts. (Her stint in journalism ended after she used her column-space to promote Henry’s new trading company—which was venturing into the Sudan and beyond to traffic in “gums in very large quantities, elephants’ teeth, ostrich feathers, bees-wax, ox-hides, and gold-dust”—and rival British merchants complained to the paper.)

Because Alexandria served as a gateway to the Holy Land and points farther East, and because Egyptology was all the rage in Europe, the Rosses never lacked for company in their new home. By then Janet’s mother, Lucie, had also made her way to the hot, dry banks of the Nile after contracting tuberculosis in the clammy North. Lucie settled upriver at Luxor, where she penned popular travelogues and launched a thriving salon for the locals. She debated Islam and the finer points of faith with imams, picked up some Arabic, and ministered to the sick when plagues swept through town. Poet Edward Lear visited her Luxor digs, as did the prince and princess of Wales—the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra—during one of their Nile cruises. By the end of her consumptive life in 1869, Lucie had been crowned noor-ala-Nnor (“light from the light”) by her Egyptian fans; “you have no idea what a power she is in the land,” Janet wrote to her father, who remained in England, during the Rosses’ first and only visit to see Lucie in 1867. “As we went through the little village, the people came out of their mud huts and called on Allah to bless us, the men throwing down their poor cloaks for my mother to ride over and the women kissing the hem of her dress.”

By the time of Lucie’s death two years later, the Rosses had fled Alexandria, victims of the fallout from the banking panic of 1866. Henry’s Abyssinian trading company had gone bust, and the couple returned to Europe, drifting about for a few years before finally settling near Florence, where noble villas could be had on the cheap and where the climate proved more fulsome than chilly London. It was the beginning of a new chapter, for both the Rosses and Firenze itself—Italy had just emerged from the throes of Risorgimento nationalism, and a thriving colony of Brits (and a few Americans) had settled in and around “the Athens on the Arno.” A generation earlier, writers like Lord Byron and the Shelleys had arrived in Tuscany to partake of the aura of Dante and Boccaccio; Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning soon settled in for the long haul at Casa Guidi, next to the rented estate of Fanny Trollope and her son, Tom. Later George Eliot made pilgrimages to Florence, as did Henry James and Mark Twain.

Into these literary circles Janet and Henry Ross inserted themselves with ease. They took up residence at the farm estate of the Marchese Lottergingo della Stufa, commonly known as Lotto, a nobleman who served as chamberlain to the first king of united Italy, Victor Emmanuel. Lotto lodged with the couple when he wasn’t away on official business in Rome—an arrangement that caused some gossip and was immortalized in a highly speculative and juicy roman à clef by the tempestuous pulp novelist Ouida, who had fallen in love with Lotto and saw Janet as a rival for the Marchese’s affections. Scandal aside, soon a whole menagerie of the Ross’s old friends were traipsing to the City of Lilies, to partake in Janet’s hospitality and soak up the lazy splendor of the Tuscan campagna. The duke of Chartres, younger brother of Janet’s childhood playmate the Comte de Paris, dropped in, as did her grandparents’ old pal Gladstone, various relatives of Queen Victoria’s, Frances Hodgson Burnett of The Secret Garden fame, and even Henry James, whom Janet entirely neglects to mention in her memoirs but who noted in his own writings that she was one of the few "mind[s] I could discover in the place.”

Tuscany, though less exciting than Egypt, appealed to Janet’s love of sturdy physical undertakings. Downing dwells in minute detail on Janet’s interactions with the contadini who tilled the land—she crushed grapes with them at the harvest and learned hearty peasant songs, which she liked to warble to visiting guests. She also churned out articles on a host of agrarian matters, from olive-oil production to “Virgil and Agriculture in Tuscany.” Life slowed a bit and fell into a quieter rhythm. Here, too, the book pulls back on the throttle, meandering leisurely through the various ins and outs of the Anglo-Florentine social circle, often diverting from Janet and Henry entirely to get caught in the eddy of some peripheral drama or minor historical footnote. (One almost wonders why such painstaking care is lavished on descriptions of the expat clerisy and the sleepier years of Janet’s life. The epilogue provides a clue—Downing happened upon Ross’s story while tooling around Florentine villas, which seem to hold a particular fascination for him. Perhaps, in Janet, he found a kindred spirit.)

In 1888, with Lotto on his deathbed, the Rosses bought a run-down villa with a colorful past: Poggio Gherardo had been “attacked by the celebrated condottiere Sir John Hawkwood and served (or so some scholars believe) as the model for one of the houses where the plague-fleeing characters of the Decameron take refuge.” Soon, a niece named Lina came to live with them—the Rosses also had a son, Alick, but he’d been raised by an aunt back in England and hardly featured into their lives—and the young girl’s arrival coincided with a gust of productivity for “Aunt Janet.” Now a doyenne, she published Three Generations of English Women and Early Days Recalled, family genealogies that won her a certain amount of added fame and established her position as the daughter of greatness. Later she would author a book on the lives of the Medicis, conduct a study of Florentine villas, and, in 1912, produce her extensive memoir, The Fourth Generation.

From their new home, which looked majestically over Florence and its undulating hillsides, the Rosses hosted lavish Sunday receptions for amici and strangers alike. Janet—formidable, proud—held court and generally intimidated her visitors (“She shocked people by saying there were three bores in Italian history,” Lina remembered, “Saint Francis, Dante, and Savonarola”). Random characters turned up: the Brownings’ son, Pen—or “poor, grotesque little Pen,” as Henry James called him—appeared one afternoon with his nouveau riche American wife. Bernard Berenson and his mistress moved down the road and became quite close to Lina. (Berenson apparently found the Sunday visits to be full of a vulgar sort of crowd—“a large miscellaneous company of second rate celebrities boring each other to death,” as his mistress Mary's diary recorded.) In later years, the young Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) turned up with her sister and brother-in-law, Clive Bell. “She certainly looks remarkable,” Virginia wrote to a friend about Janet, “and had typewritten manuscripts scattered about the room ... I imagine she had a past—but old ladies, when they are distinguished, become so imperious.”

Imperious is a nice way of putting it. Janet, as “a queen bee among queen bees,” could be downright nasty to guests who rubbed her the wrong way. She also waged a cold war on her niece after Lina married a gadabout whom Janet found unpalatable. She cut her son out of her inheritance (which he discovered only after her death) and often liked to bait weaker personalities with barbed taunts. Still, she was resourceful and decisive, traits that endeared her to Mark Twain when the American novelist showed up in Florence, desperate to rent a villa for his ailing wife. Twain praised Poggio Gherardo as a “stately castle” and often attended the Sunday receptions, where, to his delight, he once met “Old Sir Henry Layard” (“since then, I have been reading his account of the adventures in his youth in the Far East,” Twain wrote to a friend). Twain’s stint in Florence helped produce much of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Tom Sawyer Abroad, and when the Missouri native took a brief trip stateside, he had Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton send the Rosses a cache of sweet American corn and watermelon seeds to plant in their Tuscan garden.

In 1902 Henry died, throwing Janet into despair. Many of her other friends were also succumbing to old age or illness, and it is at the turn of the new century that the Rosses’ influence starts to wane. Though Lina and her husband had ties to Bloomsbury types and befriended D.H. Lawrence after he moved nearby—and though Lina published several books of her own and served as The Observer’s Italian correspondent between the wars—the family’s position in Tuscany kept them at a remove from the new generations of bright young things shaping the intellectual life of the early 20th century. In 1903 Janet returned to Egypt, where she mourned the changes wrought on Cairo and found barely a trace of her family’s heyday there. She returned to Florence, where she worked on The Fourth Generation and eventually reconciled with Lina, who was busy founding the British Institute of Florence in hopes of easing the decade’s simmering Anglo-Italian tensions.

In 1917 tragedy struck Florence when 20,000 Italian refugees flooded the town, fleeing the wrath of Austrian troops. Janet and Lina rallied to aide the displaced, raising money for the homeless and establishing a school program for orphans. Life in Italy grew darker—after the ravages of the First World War, the land was wracked with droughts, and crime plagued the once noble Florence. Benito Mussolini’s Fascisti began waging their campaign of terror, which particularly frightened Lina—she’d interviewed Mussolini several times for The Observer and written critically on the regime, and he soon sent warning to her to “be careful” about what she committed to print.

Janet did not live to see the worst yet to come—the long Nazi occupation of beautiful Firenze, all her beloved villas bombed and booby-trapped. (Poggio Gherardo, remarkably, survived the onslaught, though shells damaged the house, and it was extensively looted as the Germans retreated.) In the summer of 1927, Janet succumbed to a virulent cancer.

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 (even if Janet did hate her fellow sex) will be all the richer.