Wednesday, July 3, 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.

Here Downing dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross:
Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross is a biography of a remarkable Englishwoman who grew up among the likes of Dickens and Thackeray and went on to spend most of her life in Tuscany, where she farmed, wrote, entertained, and became the acknowledged doyenne of what was then known as the Anglo-Florentine colony.

Given that it's a cradle-to-grave bio, and that Janet Ross lived to the ripe age of eighty-five, I've had a tough time envisioning a particular actress in the role. But one that I can see embodying her in her prime is the marvelous Rebecca Hall, whose recent performance in Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End really knocked my socks off. Like Sylvia Tietjens, Janet had a very sharp tongue, and I think Hall would nicely capture her at her most withering. But Janet was also smart, funny, erudite, witty, and intermittently kind and soulful, and these qualities too would be caught by Hall—or so I imagine.

My book also has a huge supporting cast. While I haven't allowed myself to daydream about many of them, I must say that I'd dearly love to see the role of Lotteringo della Stufa, a Florentine marchese who was one of Janet's closest friends, played by the peerless Marcello Mastroianni. Magari fosse vero, as the Italians say—if only it were true!
Learn more about the book and author at Ben Downing's website.

The Page 99 Test: Queen Bee of Tuscany.

--Marshal Zeringue