Downing, Ben

Ben Downing specializes in 19th- and 20th- century British literature and social life, with a particular emphasis on travel writing and expatriates. He has published essays, articles, and reviews in The New Criterion, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, TLS, The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Lingua Franca, The New York Sun, and elsewhere. 

Currently the co-editor and managing editor of Parnassus Poetry in Review, Downing is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia. He has taught at Bryn Mawr, in Columbia’s Graduate Writing Division, and at the 92nd St. Y. He lives in New York City.

"Ben Downing's life of the extraordinary Janet Ross reads like deep, delicious gossip from a bygone era. Combining a wonderfully incisive account of the spikily pretentious world of Anglo-Florentine society with some marvelous portraits of its eccentric members and their febrile entanglements, Queen Bee of Tuscany is both instructive to read and great, great fun.” 

—Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall and Mary Shelley

“The English expatriate community in Florence was a remarkable and singularly long-lived phenomenon. When it got going in the 1840’s Byron had only recently died, and quite a few Anglo-Florentines had known him. A century later, having weathered both the Risorgimento and Mussolini, its final survivors included Bernard Berenson at I Tatti and Harold Acton at La Pietra. In between, its roll-call of celebrities included the Brownings, W.S. Landor, Leigh Hunt, John Addington Symonds, Ouida, and—less expectedly—Mark Twain. Dominating them all for some sixty years was that extraordinary grande dame Janet Ross, née Duff Gordon: bluff, outspoken, multilingual, canny estate manager and social queen bee extraordinaire. Ben Downing’s study of this remarkable tranche of social history, built round Janet Ross’s reign, is a tour de force. Based on formidable research, it always wears its learning lightly, and with style. Elegantly written, packed with anecdotes, it's a real page-turner, and also slyly witty throughout. Names are dropped in profusion, but with such an embarass de riches to choose from, how could they not be? This is the best, the most informative, the most entertaining bedtime reading that's come my way in a very long time.”

—Peter Green, Emeritus professor of classics and the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

“I knew nothing of Janet Ross before I opened this exhilarating book and began to relish her crowded, convivial life and appetite for thrills. Ben Downing is a skillful and enthusiastic writer who knows how to tell a good story. He works like an accomplished artist, painting a vivid cultural and historical background and then placing his subject in a memorable Florentine landscape. Reading this blend of biography and social history was like taking a first-class time-travelling journey into mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. I greatly enjoyed keeping company with such a forceful and surprising character—and so will many readers.”

—Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets



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