Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ben Downing's "Queen Bee of Tuscany"

Ben Downing specializes in 19th- and 20th-century British social life and literature, with a particular emphasis on travel writing. He has written essays, articles, and reviews on figures such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Duff Cooper, Robert Byron, Anthony Powell, Peter Fleming, Wilfred Thesiger, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Downing also writes poetry. His collection The Calligraphy Shop appeared in 2003, and he continues to publish poems in The Atlantic, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.

Since 1993 he has worked at Parnassus: Poetry in Review, of which he is now the co-editor. He has taught literary seminars and workshops at Columbia, Bryn Mawr, and the 92nd St. Y, and he currently teaches a small private class, known as The English Salon, for advanced non-native speakers of English. He lives in New York City.

Downing applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, a biography of a dynamic and many-sided woman named Janet Ross who was for many years at the center of the so-called Anglo-Florentine colony, is all about cheapness—specifically, the mind-boggling cheapness of life in Tuscany in the nineteenth century. Hard to believe, right? But so it was, and the fact goes a long way toward explaining why Brits and Americans expats flocked there by the thousand. Allow me to quote myself:
Astounding though it may seem, Tuscany at this time was not only affordable but a downright steal, offering a high quality of just about everything at rock-bottom prices—a "paradise of cheapness," Hawthorne called it. Those who just scraped by at home could breathe easier, the middle class found itself nouveau riche, and the affluent could live like kings, indulging every whim. "We dine our favourite way on thrushes and Chianti with a miraculous cheapness," Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in a letter. In another letter, she reported that Frederick Tennyson (brother of Alfred), a music aficionado, routinely hired entire orchestras to play for him at home—"He says he likes Florence chiefly for having as much music as you please with very moderate means."

But the true bargain was real estate. The local aristocracy had fallen on hard times, and many an old Florentine family was forced to rent out the piano nobile of its palazzo. Outside the city center one got even more square feet for one's money. "We were both of us poor," writes Frances Power Cobbe, "but in those days poverty in Florence permitted us to rent fourteen well-furnished rooms in a charming villa, and to keep a maid and a man-servant." A successful author like Hawthorne could end up with a positive Versailles: setting him back the equivalent of $28 per month, Villa Montauto was "big enough to quarter a regiment...and there are vast wildernesses of upper rooms into which we have never yet sent an exploring expedition."
Learn more about the book and author at Ben Downing's website.

--Marshal Zeringue