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A Well-Known Terrifier’

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Waterfield Collection/Archive of the British Institute of Florence
Janet Ross, right, with her husband Henry and her niece Lina in front of their villa Poggio Gherardo, Florence

Janet’s family seem to have taken it for granted that one should know the major languages. Sarah Austin, Janet’s grandmother, was a celebrated translator, especially of German literature, Goethe in particular, but she also translated books from Italian and French. Lucie Duff Gordon, Janet’s mother, did important translations from German and French as well; and when she was only thirteen, Kinglake asked Janet to translate a book by a German general on the Crimea, about which he was writing an extensive, eight-volume work—and she did. Later, Meredith asked her to translate a German history of the Crusades; it was published when Janet was nineteen, but, in order to boost sales, was listed as her mother’s translation.

Janet’s own writing is much like her character: direct, determined, self-confident, assertive, factual, unpoetic, and largely unimaginative. The half-dozen of her books I’ve read all share the same characteristics. She did Herculean amounts of research—on the medieval Hohenstaufen rulers in Apulia, for example—and her text is often weighted down with quoted letters and encrusted with factual data. As Downing beautifully puts it, “She wrote as she lived, and more specifically as she rode to hounds: with reckless confidence and brio, plunging ahead in linear pursuit of her quarry.”

If Janet had limited imagination, she was also, as Kenneth Clark observed, so literal-minded that she was incapable of comprehending an abstract concept, and this too is reflected in her writing. Once she asked a friend what the equator was. He explained that it was an imaginary line encircling the earth, to which she replied, “Imaginary line! I never heard of anything so ridiculous.” As it turned out, although she was much more prolific than he, Henry was the better writer, and the book of his letters that Janet insisted on publishing late in his life, Letters from the East, is vividly written and utterly engrossing.

The enchanting, spirited girl who so charmed the Egyptians and then so assiduously mastered Italian farming became, as the years progressed, more and more peremptory, more demanding, more opinionated, more overbearing. Especially egregious was her reprehensible treatment of her niece, Lina Duff Gordon, whom she adopted but then effectively rejected when she married the artist Aubrey Waterfield, a man Janet felt was too impecunious to be Lina’s husband; after several years, Lina managed to achieve a rapprochement of sorts, but Janet never accepted Aubrey. This deplorable story is fully recounted by Downing. Yet Mary Berenson testified to the warmth of Janet’s affection, and her peasants are said to have adored her. Perhaps the most moving thing ever written about Janet was this tribute in an unpublished memoir by Madge Symonds Vaughan, the woman to whom Virginia Woolf wrote her rather petulant letter:

The world will remember Janet Ross as a rather domineering and commanding figure in the literary and social circles of her day. But some there are, who, like myself, will bless this great Victorian lady because of her hidden tenderness, and because of that deeper and serener charity which touches the heart in its affliction.

Ben Downing’s biography, thorough though it is, leaves the reader with several unanswered—perhaps unanswerable—questions. One cannot help wondering why, if Janet was so infamously rude and insulting to her guests, so unimaginative, so humorless, and so self-assured, anyone wanted to come to Poggio Gherardo—yet countless people did. What attracted Mark Twain so much that he claimed he never went anywhere in Florence without stopping by Janet’s villa on the way? How did she so quickly become one of the sights travelers to Florence thought important to see? Why would a person like Virginia Woolf feel she should go to one of Janet’s Sunday afternoons? Why did the Berensons, with their fastidious selection of what they called Unsereiner (people like us) and rejection of others, enjoy her company so much, as Bernard Berenson said they did?

There is also the mystery of her sexuality. She seems to have been, like Carlyle and Ruskin, essentially asexual, and her marriage to Henry was apparently almost a mariage blanc. She appears to have had no interest in romantic love or physical intimacy. Although it has been suggested that she was a repressed lesbian and her great-grandson, the historian Antony Beevor, tells of some postcards of nude girls found amongst her papers, I think she just wasn’t very interested in sex with either males or females.

As for the Anglo-Florentine society, which the British Consulate in 1910 estimated to have been composed of an astonishing 35,000 people, in what sense may she be said to have been its queen bee, as Downing calls her in his infelicitous title? Surely she knew only a handful of the 35,000 drones, and how many actually swarmed to her hive? Were there Anglo-Florentine regulars at the Sunday teas, like those who frequented Doney’s café, or was the company comprised chiefly of people passing through Florence? But there were also a number of eminent Anglophone authors in Florence, from Walter Savage Landor and Robert Browning in the nineteenth century to Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence in the twentieth, whom, so far as we know, Janet never met.

At this distance in time, it’s impossible to determine just what validated Janet’s imperious authority or what fully explains her renown. Yet she remains a figure legendary for both, even among present-day Florentines. Sarah Benjamin and Ben Downing have done exhaustive research on Janet Ross and the community she dominated, yet neither has been able to discover why so many in Florence’s English community were drawn to this fierce, eccentric, literal-minded, dictatorial, but also generous, warmhearted, gifted woman. Perhaps she simply reminded them all of home.

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