Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross

Ben Downing, Author
Ben Downing. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-37423-971-8
Reviewed on: 03/25/2013
Release date: 06/18/2013
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-374-53474-5
Open Ebook - 352 pages - 978-1-4299-4295-9
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Star-studded with dignitaries, nobles, literati, and other famous folk of the Victorian age, poet Downing’s (The Calligraphy Shop) nonfiction debut tells the fascinating larger-than-life story of Janet Ross. Born and raised amongst the intellectual set in England, Ross left as soon as she was able—to live first in Egypt, and then in Florence, where she joined an already settled colony of émigrés and set about bucking every convention of her time. Henry James described her as “an odd mixture of the British female and the dangerous woman—a Bohemian with rules and accounts.” An avid horsewoman with few maternal instincts, Ross freely spoke her mind, wrote several books, managed her own estate, and even made and marketed her own vermouth. She seemed to know or be connected to everyone—at one of her birthday parties, she hosted William Makepeace Thackeray, feminist Caroline Norton, playwright Tom Taylor, and Whig statesmen Lord Lansdowne. And that was her fifth birthday—she was the sole author of the guest list. Downing’s breathless coverage of Ross and her “Anglo-Tuscan” coterie can be a bit overwhelming— name-dropping at times overshadows narrative—but those enamored with the history, society, and culture of Victorian England and the expatriate community will relish this engrossing biography. Agent: Irene Skolnick, the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. (June)
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