A Well-Known Terrifier’

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Nigel, Hugh, and Antony Beevor
Janet Ross painted by G.F. Watts when she was sixteen years old

In the autumn of 1892, Mark Twain, having fled to Europe in serious financial difficulty and with his wife Olivia increasingly ill, moved into Villa Viviani on the slopes of the village of Settignano, then some five miles to the east of Florence. Shortly after he arrived, he wrote to his sister-in-law, Sue Crane, that Janet Ross, who had recommended the villa to him, had put all in order:

Mrs. Ross laid in our wood, wine and servants for us, and they are excellent. She had the house scoured from cellar to roof, the curtains washed and put up, all beds pulled to pieces, beaten, washed and put together again, and beguiled the Marchese into putting a big porcelain stove in the vast central hall. She is a wonderful woman, and we don’t quite see how or when we should have gotten under way without her.1

Some seventeen years later, young Virginia Woolf spent a fortnight in Florence with her sister and brother-in-law, Vanessa and Clive Bell, and on her way back to England, she wrote to her friend Madge Vaughan, the daughter of John Addington Symonds, to whom Woolf was sexually attracted and who was to become Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway:

We had a tremendous tea party one day with Mrs. Ross. She was inclined to be fierce, until we explained that we knew you, when she at once knew all about us—our grandparents and great uncles on both sides. She certainly looks remarkable, and had type written [sic] manuscripts scattered about the room. I suppose she writes books. There were numbers of weak young men, and old ladies kept arriving in four wheelers; she sent them out to look at her garden. Is she a great friend of yours? I imagine she has had a past—but old ladies, when they are distinguished, become so imperious.2

Each letter reveals, as letters generally do, a certain amount about its author, but taken together, these two passages from two very different people also unwittingly indicate much about “Mrs. Ross,” who is the subject of Queen Bee of Tuscany, the extensively researched new biography by the poet Ben Downing.3

An upper-middle-class Englishwoman of limited financial means, Janet Ross lived for sixty years in Florence, where she became something of a legend as the center of its significant and sizable Anglophone society, about which so much has been written. As Virginia Woolf surmised, she had indeed “had a past.” Addressed by almost everybody as “Aunt Janet,” she knew personally, or at least entertained, almost everyone of importance who came through Florence in all those years, especially the English intellectuals, artists, and statesmen. She wrote a prodigious number of books on a variety of subjects, including a famous cookbook, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or How to Cook Vegetables, the latest edition of which appeared as recently as 2010 …

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  1. 1

    Mark Twain’s Letters, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine (Harper & Brothers, 1917), Vol. II, pp. 570–571. 

  2. 2

    The Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Nigel Nicolson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), Vol. I, p. 393. 

  3. 3

    An earlier biography, Sarah Benjamin’s A Castle in Tuscany: The Remarkable Life of Janet Ross, beautifully written and profusely illustrated but almost unknown in this country, was published in Australia by Pier 9 in 2006.