Janet Ross

Janet Ross
Janet Ross.jpg
BornJanet Ann Duff Gordon
Died1927 (aged 84–85)
Florence, Italy
Resting placeCity Cemetery, Florence, Italy
Notable works
  • Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or, How to Cook Vegetables
  • The Fourth Generation (1912)
SpouseHenry Ross
ChildrenAlick Ross

Janet Ann Ross (1842–1927) was an English historian, biographer, and Tuscan cookbook author.

Early life

Janet Duff Gordon was the daughter of Sir Alexander Duff-Gordon and Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon.[1] Her father held a number of government positions, including Commissioner of Inland Revenue and her mother wrote the classic Letters from Egypt. She had a brother, Maurice and a sister, Urania.

She was the granddaughter of Sarah Austin, a famous translator, and the influential legal philosopher John Austin.

She grew up in a highly cultured atmosphere among England's leading intellectual and literary figures. Her parents' friends and regular visitors to her home included: William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Thomas Macaulay, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Caroline Norton, Tom Taylor, and Thomas Carlyle.[2]

Janet Ross' Childhood Home at No. 8 Queen Anne's Square

Janet's first years were spent at her family home located at No. 8 Queen Anne's Square (now Queen Square), Bloomsbury, London. Her parents subsequently moved to Esher. Her memoirs do not reference formal education aside from mentioning some tutors.[3] She did travel to Paris and Germany for extended periods of time to learn French and German. She makes it clear that she preferred the company of adults and their conversation from a very young age.

Her family's connections certainly augmented her education. For example, Dickens encouraged her reading early on and gave her one of her first books.[4] She remembers her fifth birthday party, sitting on the knee of Thackeray while he drew a sketch on the frontispiece of her copy of his novel Pendennis.[5] Charles Babbage, the inventor of the difference engine, a precursor to the modern computer, invited her to his office to show her his newest calculator. The French philosopher Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire tutored her in French and became a lifetime correspondent.[6] She likewise befriended Sir Austen Henry Layard and began an adolescent correspondence with him that continued through her life.[7] She recalls Tennyson telling her that her mother had inspired him to write The Princess.[8] Alexander Kinglake, author of Eothen, would take her riding, and likewise became a correspondent.[9] At the age of thirteen, her knowledge of German was such that Kinglake asked her to translate a German book for him.

Life in Egypt

In 1860 she married a banker, Henry Ross,[10] who was aged 40 to her 18. In 1861, they moved to Alexandria, Egypt, where Henry was a partner in a British bank, Briggs and Co., located in Cairo.[11] While in Egypt, she continued cultivating relationships with learned and influential people. Early on she befriended Said Halim Pasha who gave her a wedding present of a Bay horse.[12] Halim was the son of Muhammed Ali of Egypt, who is regarded as the father of modern Egypt. He had inherited his father's palace at Choubra where he kept a harem of five hundred women.[13] Halim later became Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. Janet also made the acquaintance of Hekekyan Bey,[14] an Armenian civil engineer employed by the Egyptian government to conduct excavations in the Nile valley for archaeological purposes.[15] In 1861 Janet was visited by Sir James Outram.[16] She also befriended Ferdinand de Lesseps who took her on an early tour of the construction of the Suez Canal.[17] Sir Henry Bulwer, former British ambassador to Istanbul, visited her in 1863.[18] Janet's "many social connections and essential nosiness positioned her as an ideal observer of foreign affairs" and she was briefly the Egyptian correspondent for The Evening Mail before becoming the Egyptian correspondent for The Times.[19] There is, however, speculation that it was not her but her husband Henry who was The Times correspondent.[20] Janet travelled extensively in Egypt. She sailed up the Nile to Luxor, toured the temple Medinet Habu, and the Theban temples at Denderah.[21] She made an excursion to the tombs of the Mamluk Sultans.[22] In 1863, she travelled by camel to Tall al Kabir to see the fete of Abou Nichab. While on the trip she dressed in bedouin garb, lived in a tent, and went hawking.[23]

Life in Italy

In 1867 the Egyptian banking system underwent a crisis that diminished Henry Ross's investments and ended his banking career. Given their reduced circumstances Henry and Janet decided against returning to England because of the high cost of living. Instead they explored living on the continent, looking initially at an estate in France. Henry and Janet eventually moved to Florence, Italy, leaving their only child, Alexander (Alick) to be educated in England.

They initially lived in a couple of apartments in Florence, on the Lungarno Acciaiuoli and the Lungarno Torrigiani.[24] They tried to buy Fenis Castle near Aosta, Italy, but could not afford it.[25] They ultimately rented Villa Castagnolo seven miles west of Florence in Lastra a Signa from its owner: Marchese Lotteringo della Stufa. The capital was relocating to Rome, and the Marchese moved with it to take a government position. The Marchese was extremely knowledgeable about agriculture and taught Janet much about farming. In turn, Janet also began implementing more modern agricultural methods at the villa especially in the areas of viticulture and cheese-making. One year she supervised the making of olive oil, an experience she would find useful when she later purchased her own villa.[26] Henry, essentially retired at this point, occupied himself by raising orchids.[27] Janet also befriended a local sculptor, Carlo Orsi, who resided at Orsi Villa. Henry encouraged Orsi to do more sketching, and Janet ultimately used him to illustrate many of her books.[28] While at Castagnolo Janet had a falling out with the British novelist Marie Louise Rame, who wrote under the pseudonym Ouida. Ouida was wooing the Marchese and believed Janet's relationship with him was more than platonic. In her novel Friendship she included an unflattering portrait of a character transparently based on Janet. Janet responded by placing a copy of the novel, sans covers, in the bathroom for appropriate use.[29]

In 1884, the Rosses travelled to Apulia in Southern Italy, where they stayed with Sir James Lacaita at his estate (Villa Leucàspide) near Taranto.[30] Lacaita was an Italian scholar and politician.[31] While there, Janet travelled extensively throughout the region. The trip inspired her book Land of Manfred prince of Tarentum... (1889), which she dedicated to Lacaita.

View of Poggio Gherardo from Florence

In 1888, the Rosses acquired the Villa di Poggio Gherardo outside Florence, near Settignano.[32] The villa had been in the Gherardo family for some 450 years, and purportedly was the one famously referenced by Boccaccio in the Decameron.[33] It came with three attached farms (poderes) and operated under the mezzadria system whereby the tenant farmers (contadini) paid rent to the padrona consisting of half their production. Janet Ross was a capable businesswoman who managed the estate well and sold its produce at an adequate profit. She imported fortified white wine from Sicily, added sugar and a number of herbs, producing a vermouth that was in considerable demand in England. She claimed the vermouth recipe was a secret one handed down to her by the last of the Medicis.[34]

She was also an occasional dealer in art. She discovered the painting The School of Pan by Luca Signorelli and later sold it at a substantial profit.[35] She purchased a drawing by early Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto that was a study for his painting Deposition From the Cross.[36] She also acquired a painting that Bernard Berenson identified as being Madonna and Child by the Renaissance painter Alesso Baldovinetti.[37]

Janet conducted a salon of sorts on Sundays at the villa, entertaining numerous writers and artists including: Edward Hutton, George Meredith,[38] John Addington Symonds,[39] Augustus Hare, Marie Corelli,[40] Alfred Austin,[41] and Norman Douglas. In 1892 she located the nearby Villa Viviano for Mark Twain and his wife to rent for a year, during which time they became good friends.[42] While there, Twain completed the bulk of his draft of Pudd'nhead Wilson. In her autobiography, Janet remarks:

The Clemens family were very pleasant neighbours. He used to drop in at all hours declaring that Poggio Gherardo was the nearest way to anywhere. I confess I preferred Mr. Clemens, keen-sighted, sensible, and largehearted, to the amusing laughter provoking Mark Twain.[43]

Twain also arranged shipment of watermelon seeds and maize seeds to Janet, claiming that there was no corn to be found in all of Italy.[44] A young Iris Origo was a nearby neighbour at Villa Medici and spent much of her time with Janet.[45] The British writer Violet May, who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee, lived at the neighbouring Villa Palmerino, and shared many acquaintances with Janet.[46]

In 1890, Janet's sister-in-law Frances Gordon died. At her death, Frances' sixteen-year-old daughter Caroline (Lina) was attending school in a convent in Paris. Frances had been separated from her husband Maurice for some time. Maurice was getting remarried and was not interested in raising his daughter.[47] Lina likewise did not want to live with him and his new wife. Janet therefore adopted her, as Frances had wished.[48][49] Lina left the convent and moved in with the Rosses. In her autobiography, Lina describes Janet as stern in outward comportment, but with a loving heart. Perhaps because she had long been estranged from her son, she welcomed Lina as her own child. Lina ultimately married the painter Aubrey Waterfield, and they moved to Aulla, Italy, where they purchased a castle – the Fortezza Brunella.[50]

Janet also helped art historian and writer Bernard Berenson find and purchase a neighbouring villa, I Tatti. She wrote for literary journals, including Fraser's Magazine,[51] Macmillan's Magazine,[52] Longman's Magazine,[53] Cosmopolis: A Literary Review,[54] Temple Bar,[55] and Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly.[56] Her publishers encouraged her to select and publish some of her previous writings as Italian Sketches, which became a big success. She followed that book with Early Days Recalled (1891), and her memoir Three Generations of English Women, which dealt with her grandmother and mother, as well as her great-grandmother, Susannah Cook Taylor.

sketch of Chef Volpi in kitchen at Poggio Gherardo
Frontispiece of Leaves From Our Tuscan Kitchen, showing Chef Volpi in the kitchen of Poggio Gherardo

Janet Ross wrote the classic cookbook Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or, How to Cook Vegetables, which is a collection of recipes supplied by the Rosses' chef, Guiseppi Volpi, at Poggio Gherardo. The book is still in print, with the latest edition revised by her grand-grand nephew Michael Waterfield.[57] She also wrote Florentine Villas (1901) and other books related to Italy, Florence and Tuscany, including: Terra De Manfredi (1899); Florentine Palaces And Their Stories (1905); Lives Of The Early Medici As Told In Their Correspondence (1910); The Story Of Pisa; and The Story Of Lucca (1912).

On 19 May 1895, a severe earthquake struck Florence.[58] Poggio Gherardo was severely damaged. The tower collapsed, and stones from it fell through the ceilings in the cook's room and in Lina's room. The cost of repair was quite expensive, and the Rosses were required, inter alia, to sell their painting School of Pan to help pay for repairs.

In 1902 Henry Ross died. During World War I, Lina Waterfield's castle was requisitioned for military purposes. Lina, her husband and daughter moved in with the Rosses during this period. In her autobiography, Lina's daughter Kinta also portrays Janet as somewhat intimidating in appearance, but very kind and loving. As had her mother, Kinta found Poggio Gherardo a magical place to be as a child.

In 1912 Janet Ross published her autobiographical memoir The Fourth Generation. The book was a sequel to her Three Generations. It largely incorporated the text from Early Days Recalled and brought it current. It incorporated many letters from, inter alia, Kinglake, Layard, Meredith, and Hillaire. Janet died from cancer in 1927. She was cremated and buried in the Florence City Cemetery.

Janet Ross originally had intended to leave her villa to her son. Alick, however, had led a dissolute life, and was experiencing serious financial difficulties.[59] To keep the villa out of his creditors' hands, she changed her will to leave the villa as a life estate to her niece Lina (Caroline) Waterfield, and then to Lina's son on Lina's death. Lina sold her castle in Aulla and moved to Poggio Gherardo on Janet's death. Lina and her husband Aubrey thereafter operated an English girls' boarding school in the villa to help defray expenses.

Lina left the villa for England in 1940. During World War II the villa was requisitioned by a prominent fascist leader and later occupied by American troops. When Lina returned after the war, she found most of her personal goods gone, and some damage to the villa. She briefly tried to restore the villa; however, after her son's death she sold it to a developer in 1952.[60] The developer split off the three podere and sold the villa to a religious order, Istituto Antoniano which has since operated an orphanage there.[61]


  • Italian Sketches (K. Paul Trench & Co. 1887)
  • Three Generations of English Women (J. Murray 1888)
  • Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or, How to Cook Vegetables (J. M. Dent 1900), rev'd ed. ISBN 978-1-904943-62-4
  • The Land of Manfred prince of Tarentum… (London, J. Murray 1889); Italian translation: La Terra di Manfredi (Cavallino di Lecce 1978, ed. by Vittorio Zacchino)
  • Florentine Palaces And Their Stories (J. M. Dent 1905)
  • Lives of the Early Medici As Told in Their Correspondence (Chatto & Windus 1910)
  • The Story of Pisa (J. M. Dent 1909)
  • The Story of Lucca (J. M. Dent 1912)
  • The Fourth Generation (Charles Scribner's Sons 1912)
  • Old Florence and Modern Tuscany (J. M. Dent 1904)
  • Fyvie Castle and its Lairds (Aberdeen 1884)
  • Early Days Recalled (Chapman And Hall 1891)
  • Florentine Villas (J. M. Dent 1901)


  • Cosimo De Medici, Poesie Volgari (J. M. Dent 1912)
  • Generale Enrico della Rocca, The Autobiography of a Veteran, 1807–1893 (The Macmillan Co. 1898)


  • Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross by Ben Downing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), ISBN 978-0-374-23971-8
  • A Castle in Tuscany: The Remarkable Life of Janet Ross by Sarah Benjamin


  1. ^ Ross (née Duff Gordon), Janet Ann – entry from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required)
  2. ^ Beevor, Kinta, A Tuscan Childhood (hereafter "Tuscan Childhood) at 91 (Pantheon Books 1993)ISBN 0375704264
  3. ^ Her informal home-schooling apparently left some gaps. In her autobiography, her grand niece, Kinta Beevor, recounts Janet asking the explorer Filippo de Filippi what the equator was. When he responded that it was an imaginary line circling the earth, she scornfully replied: "'Imaginary line? … I've never heard of anything so ridiculous.'" Tuscan Childhood, supra at 93.
  4. ^ Ross, Janet, The Fourth Generation ( hereafter "Fourth Generation") at 7 (Charles Scribner's Sons 1912).
  5. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 12–13.
  6. ^ See, e.g., Fourth Generation, supra at 18–19, 29–30, 37, 42–44, 89, 172–73, 175, 179, 187, 188–89, 191–92, 206–07 242, 249, 277–79, and 284.
  7. ^ See, e.g., Fourth Generation,supra at 32, 63,65, 68,71, 77–78, 81, 83, 94–95, 107, 109, and 286.
  8. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 16.
  9. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 80–81.
  10. ^ Prior to the marriage, Henry had lived and travelled extensively throughout the Middle and Far East. Ross, Henry, Letters From The East (J. M. Dent 1902)
  11. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 89.
  12. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 89
  13. ^ Forester-Walker, Clarence, Romance of a Harem at 24 (Greening and Co. 1904).
  14. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at91.
  15. ^ Bey, Hekekyan, Hekekyan on Egyptian Chronology (London 1863).
  16. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 110.
  17. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 106 and 123–30.
  18. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 151.
  19. ^ Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism at 545 (The Contributuors 2009). ISBN 978-90-382-1340-8
  20. ^ Janet herself claims that she was the correspondent in her autobiography. See Fourth Generation, supra at . Jean O'Grady also wrote an article heralding her as the first female Times correspondent. See O'Grady, Jean, "The Egyptian Correspondent of the Times", Victorian Periodical Review at 145–53 (Vol. 27 Summer 1994). In a subsequent article, however, Eamon Dyas argues that it was in fact Henry Ross who was the correspondent. See Dyas, Eamon, "The Mystery of the Egyptian Correspondent of The Times", Victorian Periodical Review (Vol, 28 Spring 1995). O'Grady replied to Dyas' article, noting that The Times obituary for Janet itself stated she had been the Egyptian correspondent, and that even if it had formally been Henry, the de facto correspondent was Janet. See O'Grady, Jean, "More Egyptian Correspondence" Victorian Periodical Review (Vol. 29 Spring 1996). Both Dyas and O'Grady overlook a 1 June 1863 letter from Kinglake to Ross commenting on her appointment as correspondent to The Times. See Ross, Janet, Early Days Recalled at 186 (Chapman & Hall 1891).
  21. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 93–94.
  22. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 98.
  23. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 139–47.
  24. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 183.
  25. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 183.
  26. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 202.
  27. ^ This was no casual hobby. His orchid "collection was computed to contain nearly a thousand species, and to be the finest ever got together in Italy… ." The Orchid Review, Vol. 10 at 283 (January 1892). A number of orchid species were named after him, including: Lycaste Rossiana (aka Lycaste cruenta), Paphiopedilum X Rossianum, and Cycnoches Rossianum. Ibid.
  28. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 196.
  29. ^ The feud between the two divided the Florentine expatriate community into pro-Janet and pro-Ouida factions. There was even a rumour that Janet had publicly horsewhipped Ouida. See Castle in Italy, supra at 43–45. Lee dressed in mannish clothes and adopted an openly lesbian lifestyle that may have offended Janet's Victorian sensibilities. See Castle in Tuscany, supra at 120.
  30. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 213–23.
  31. ^ "Lacaita, James Philip" . Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1901.
  32. ^ Benjamin, Sarah, A Castle in Tuscany: The Remarkable Life of Janet Ross (Pier 9 2006) ISBN 1-74045-886-9.
  33. ^ The Decameron opens with ten men and women fleeing the plague in Florence, to a villa on a hill near Fiesole. Hutton, Edward, Country Walks About Florence at 13–18 (Charles Scribner's Sons 1907).
  34. ^ Leavitt, David, Florence, A Delicate Case at 45 (Bloomsbury 2002) ISBN 1-58234-239-3.
  35. ^ Castle in Tuscany, supra at 63–67.
  36. ^ Castle in Tuscany, supra at 63.
  37. ^ Castle in Tuscany, supra at 130.
  38. ^ Fourth Generation,supra at 19, 81, 86–87, 102, 113, 120, 330, 381, 392 and 397.
  39. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 211, 293–94, 298, 301–02, 306–08, 310–13, 318, 325–27 and 328.
  40. ^ Corelli was a very popular English novelist during the years preceding WWI. See Castle in Tuscany, supra at 56.
  41. ^ Austin succeeded Tennyson as poet Laureate of England upon Tennyson's death in 1896. See Castle in Tuscany, supra at 55.
  42. ^ Twain, Mark, Autobiography of Mark Twain at 542 (University of California Press 2010) ISBN 0-520-26719-2.
  43. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 331.
  44. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 333.
  45. ^ Moorehead, Caroline, Iris Origo Marchesa of Val d' Orcia at 26–53 (John Murray 2000) ISBN 1-56792-271-6.
  46. ^ Janet purportedly "loathed" Lee; however, Henry liked her. Tuscan Childhood, supra at 97.
  47. ^ Maurice was reputed to be a bon vivant and a spendthrift. He inherited Fyvie Castle, but subsequently sold it off to pay creditors in 1885. See Castle in Tuscany, supra at 107
  48. ^ Ben Downing, Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, ISBN 978-0-374-23971-8, pp. 176–80.
  49. ^ In her autobiography, Castle in Italy, Lina states that Janet "adopted" her, but a lawyer told her later the adoption was not legal. Elsewhere, she refers to Janet as her 'guardian".
  50. ^ Lina's adult life parallelled that of Janet's in other respects. She too became a writer. She was a journalist writing for The Observer during the period Mussolini came to power. She also wrote history books, including The Story of Perugia, a book in the Medieval Town series – the same series for which Janet wrote The Story of Lucca and The Story of Pisa. Like Janet, she was somewhat estranged from her own daughter Kinta.
  51. ^ See, e.g., Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 15 at 407 Popular Songs of Tuscany (Apr. 1877)
  52. ^ See, e.g., MacMillan's Magazine, Vol, 32 at 442, Vintaging in Tuscany (Sept. 1875); The Dove of Holy Saturday reprinted in Littell's Living Age, Vol. 133, Issue 117 (12 May 1877); German Society Forty Years Since reprinted in Littell's Living Age, Vol. 135 (6 October 1877); March in Magna Grecia reprinted in Littel's Living Age, Vol. 165; and, Volterra reprinted in Littel's Living Age, Vol. 180
  53. ^ See, e.g., Longman's Magazine, Vol. III at 403, Virgil and Agriculture in Tuscany (Longman, Green, and Co. 1884).
  54. ^ Cosmopolis: An International Monthly Review, Barthelmy St. Hilaire, referenced by The Spectator, Volume the Seventy-Sixth at 650 (John James Baker 1896).
  55. ^ See, e.g., Temple Bar, Garden Memories (13 October 1888), reprinted in Littel's Living Age, Vol. 179.
  56. ^ See, e.g., Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Da Ponte and Mozart (Feb. 1892) referenced by Stern William Thomas, The Review of Reviews, Vol. V. at 212 (1892).
  57. ^ Noted British food writer Elizabeth David admired Ross's Italian Sketches, and cited her cookbook as one of her sources. See Castle in Italy, supra at 10, 17, 80, 145, and 222.
  58. ^ Fourth Generation, supra at 343–45.
  59. ^ Alick was last heard from in Hungary in 1942. He is presumed to have died there, probably while imprisoned as an enemy alien. Castle in Tuscany, supra at 194
  60. ^ Waterfield, Lina, Castle In Italy (Thomas Y. Crowell 1961)
  61. ^ Campbell, Katie, Paradise of Exiles: The Anglo-American Gardens Of Florence (Frances Lincoln Ltd 2009) ISBN 978-0-7112-2956-3.

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