Quite simply one of the best books of the year. --Michael Dirda, The Washington PostBen Downing's Queen Bee of Tuscany brings an extraordinary Victorian back to life. Born into a distinguished intellectual family and raised among luminaries such as Dickens and Thackeray, Janet Ross married at eighteen and went to live in Egypt. There, for the next six years, she wrote for the London Times, hobbbed with the developer of the Suez Canal, and humiliated pashas in horse races. In 1867 she moved to Florence, Italy where she spent the remaining sixty years of her life writing a series of books and hosting a colorful miscellany of friends and neighbors, from Mark Twain to Bernard Berenson, at Poggio Gherardo, her house in the hills above the city. Eventually she became the ackwledged doyenne of the Anglo-Florentine colony, as it was kwn. Yet she was also immersed in the rural life of Tuscany: An avid agriculturalist, she closely supervised the farms on her estate and the sharecroppers who worked them, often pitching in on grape and olive harvests. Spirited, erudite, and supremely well-connected, Ross was one of the most dynamic women of her day. Her life offers a fascinating window on fascinating times, from the Risorgimento to the rise of fascism. Encompassing all this rich history, Queen Bee of Tuscany is a paramic portrait of an age, a family, and our evolving love affair with Tuscany.A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013
In addition to The Calligraphy Shop, a book of poems, Ben Downing has published essays, articles, and reviews in The Paris Review, The New Criterion, and elsewhere. He is the coeditor of Parnassus.