Revisiting the Victorian Literati

On the Redoubtable Janet Ross
by Ben Downing

There it was: Poggio Gherardo! Or no, maybe not—it was hard to tell. I was in a tiny Fiat with my friend Grazia, buzzing around the narrow, winding roads of Settignano, a few miles from Florence. We were looking for a particular hilltop house, and for a tantalizing second we thought we’d caught a glimpse of it, before the road snaked again. Grazia is the kindest of friends but an alarmingly impulsive driver, so I didn’t encourage her to make what surely would have been a U-turn at full speed. Instead we kept going, and after a few wrong turns we fetched up at the gate of Poggio Gherardo.

A few months earlier, I’d begun researching a biography of a woman named Janet Ross. Born in 1842, she grew up among the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, and Carlyle. She married at eighteen and spent six years in Egypt before moving to Florence in 1867. Soon after, she became a sort of deputy manager to a farm estate outside of Florence called Castagnolo, whose sharecroppers she oversaw. Instinctively at ease with Tuscan peasants, she studied their customs, superstitions, and, above all, their music, learning a vast repertoire of ballads. She wrote prolifically about everything from the rituals of the vendemmia (grape harvest) to her grandparents’ friendship with Tocqueville and Jeremy Bentham, and she hosted everyone from William Gladstone to Henry James. Vibrant, beautiful, multifaceted, and possessed of an exceedingly forceful personality, she became one of the leading figures of what was then known as the Anglo-Florentine colony.

 

In 1889 she and her husband bought Poggio Gherardo, an estate comprising an eleventh-century villa—though its merlons and tower let them think of it as a castle—and sixty acres of sharecropped farmland. Janet took the place firmly in hand, overseeing a thorough renovation and making her tenants adopt new agricultural methods. Under her reign, Poggio Gherardo flourished, its fields productive and its castle teeming with friends and guests, from Mark Twain (who lived down the road for a spell) to John Addington Symonds to Sir Kenneth Clark. For almost forty years, till her death in 1927, Janet continued to write (a book on Puglia, another on the Medici, the first Tuscan cookbook in English), to play her guitar and sing sad old Tuscan ballads, to tell tales of her high-Victorian childhood, and to charm and terrify people in equal measure. “The redoubtable Mrs. Ross,” they called her.

After her death, the estate passed to her niece Lina Waterfield, who’d lived there in her teens and twenties and gone on to become an Italophile writer herself. She hung on to it till 1950, when she sold it to a speculator, who in turn broke it up. The castle was bought by a small Catholic order, the Rogationists of the Heart of Jesus, who turned it into a boys’ home. When Lina’s daughter, Kinta Beevor, who’d spent part of her own youth there, returned in the early 1990s, she found that its charm had been replaced by “the bleak hygiene of a modern ecclesiastical institution,” as she put it in her memoir, A Tuscan Childhood.

So my expectations were low as Grazia and I drove through the gate and past the subdivision that had sprung up just inside it. Following a steep road uphill, we soon reached the castle. From outside it looked, except for the basketball court alongside it, not unlike the place I’d seen in early-twentieth-century photographs. A man in jeans and a T-shirt appeared, identifying himself as an employee. When we explained ourselves, he nodded—he knew all about Janet and her family—and agreed to show us around. The boys who lived in the castle, he said, were off on an excursion, so it was a good time to see it.

 

Stepping inside, we were immediately confronted with a garish portrait of the founder of the Rogationists and another of the Virgin Mary, the latter bearing the motto “IO SONO LA PADRONA DI QUESTA CASA.” I stifled a laugh, thinking of how Janet, who’d proudly thought of herself as Poggio Gherardo’s padrona (and who was no great admirer of the Catholic Church), would have reacted to this usurpation. As we continued through the castle, I looked in vain for the quirks that had once enlivened it, such as the so-called Poodle Room, dominated by a playfully heraldic eighteenth-century fresco of Pippo the poodle, beloved pet of the eponymous Gherardi. Instead I found a cheerless dining hall and a truly gruesome chapel.

Back outside, I was a little dazed by the extent of the desecration. But my spirits lifted as we made our way across the terrace. It was by no means in good shape, its flagstones cracked and weedy, its fountain—which had once been graced by chiffon-tailed Burmese goldfish—lifeless and scummy. All the same, I found my imagination leaping to recolor and populate the scene. This was where Janet had spent countless hours with her various friends, where she’d talked about Michelangelo with Symonds and about crops with Twain.

My sense of the past intensified when I reached the terrace’s edge and gazed down at Villa I Tatti, now the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies but once the home of the art historians Bernard and Mary Berenson. The Berensons were Janet’s neighbors for a quarter-century and among her closest friends. According to Kinta, Janet and Mary would “semaphore to each other from their terraces to confirm lunch or other engagements.” Staring hard at I Tatti, I tried to conjure up the image of a waving Mary Berenson, and for a moment I could almost convince myself that I was Janet Ross. I even flapped my arms once or twice before my own ridiculousness became too much for me. I turned around, collected Grazia, and headed for the car.

 

Ben Downing has published essays, articles, and reviews in The Paris Review, The New Criterion, and elsewhere, as well as a book of poems, The Calligraphy Shop. He is the co-editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review and lives in New York City.

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