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John Addington Symonds & Janet Ross: a friendship
by Ben Downing
On the warm friendship between the art historian & the Anglo-Florentine writer.
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Although John Addington Symonds published dozens of books during his lifetime, he’s remembered primarily for the one he didn’t. A protégé of Benjamin Jowett at Balliol, a respected popularizer of classical and Italian subjects, a friend to the likes of Stevenson, Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, and a married father of four, Symonds seemed a model Victorian literatus. Underneath, however, the man was a cauldron of conflicted emotion, and for one simple reason: he was gay to his fingertips. After years of suppressing his desires, he began acting on them—quite prolifically—in his late twenties. The nervous ailments that had plagued him dropped away with his trousers, and he was easier in his skin from then on. Yet still he chafed at having to keep his proclivities hidden; only his wife (who grudgingly tolerated his affairs) and a few friends knew of them. And, so, determined to leave an honest record of his experience, he wrote a secret memoir about his homosexuality.
Finished just before his death, the memoir was meant to be published soon after, but was instead placed under a long embargo by his squeamish executor, Horatio Brown, appearing only in 1984. Though decorous by modern standards, it has been hailed as a landmark of gay writing, one of the first and most searching testaments of its kind. But it holds an appeal for the general reader as well. While Symonds strives for clinical detachment—his declared goal is “to provide material for the ethical psychologist and the student of mental pathology”—his passionate nature keeps breaking through, keeps floating its dream of an ideal male “comradeship” acceptable to society. His longing for reconciled wholeness is one with which anybody can sympathize, and the fact that he clung to it through a three-decade battle against tuberculosis makes him all the more human.
Myself, I came to Symonds by way of a woman named Janet Ross, whose biography I’m writing. If Symonds is now in the margins, Ross is off the map altogether. Not that she was ever as prominent as he, but she was once a familiar, indeed somewhat legendary figure. She and Symonds met in middle age, and their friendship fully blossomed only in the last three years of his life. It was, all the same, a profoundly gratifying friendship for each of them, cerebral yet sentimental, played out in evocative settings, and with an uncanny element to it at the end.
Though Janet Ross has no towering achievements to her name, one distinction can be claimed for her: nobody has ever been more tightly or continuously woven into the social fabric of their age. Her maternal grandparents, John and Sarah Austin, were on close terms with Bentham, Mill, and Carlyle, while her parents, Alexander and Lucie Duff Gordon, hosted Dickens, Tennyson, and Macaulay at their carefree salon. Born in 1842, two years after Symonds, Janet was folded into this heady milieu from the start, and so quickly did she find her footing within it that the guests she invited to her fifth birthday party included Thackeray, the dramatist Tom Taylor (future author of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot), and the Whig statesman Lord Lansdowne—but not a single child.
A few years later the family moved outside London to Esher, where Janet, a superb equestrian, spent much of her time foxhunting with her next-door neighbors, who happened to be relatives of the recently deposed King Louis-Philippe of France. When not charging about the countryside with the Comte de Paris, she could be found having her portrait painted by George Frederic Watts, or else perched on the knee of Macaulay, who lived nearby and liked to drop in—“Now talk!” she would command him, knowing that a cataract of erudition was sure to follow. By her mid-teens she was complete in poise and beauty, with severe good looks and piercing black eyes that many found both daunting and mesmeric. Among those hypnotized was another neighbor, George Meredith, who based the love object of his novel Evan Harrington on her.
Spurning Meredith and other suitors, Janet, now eighteen, threw in her lot with forty-year-old Henry Ross, who after years of Indiana Jones–like adventures in the Near East—including the sensational excavations of Nimrud and Nineveh, carried out with his best friend Austen Henry Layard—had settled down as a banker in Alexandria. In 1861 Janet moved with him to Egypt, where she humiliated the viceroy’s brother in a horse race, toured the half-dug Suez Canal with its developer, her friend Ferdinand de Lesseps, and became the Egyptian correspondent for the London Times (she was the first woman to hold such a post). Henry, meanwhile, launched a new steamship company, and the Rosses might have grown rich had the Egyptian boom economy, sustained by cotton throughout the U.S. Civil War, not collapsed after Appomattox. Instead they nearly lost their shirts, and in 1867 they decided to move to Florence, which boasted a large English residential colony and, incredible though it now seems, some of the lowest prices in Europe—one could rent a palazzo for hardly more than a gelato costs today.
After living in town for several years, the Rosses were invited by a friend of theirs, the Marchese Lotteringo della Stufa (known as Lotto), to share Castagnolo, his estate west of Florence. Since Lotto had to be in Rome most of the time, Janet was increasingly put in charge of the place. This involved supervising the peasants who worked its farms under a complex sharecropping system known as mezzadria—not the sort of thing Anglo-Florentines normally did, but one for which she turned out to have a knack. Besides its agricultural customs, she became expert in the folkways and popular music of Tuscany and started writing essays, the first of their kind, on these and other local subjects. She also entertained a steady procession of guests, from Gladstone to Henry James, and gained notoriety because of Friendship, a poison roman à clef by the bestselling novelist Ouida, who’d been romantically rejected by Lotto and convinced herself that Janet was to blame. Though baseless, the widespread rumor that she’d retaliated by horsewhipping Ouida in the streets of Florence was one she didn’t bother to dispel.
When Lotto became terminally ill in 1888, the Rosses were forced to find a home of their own. They settled on Poggio Gherardo, a castellated villa near Settignano with three attached farms. After an extensive renovation—the place had been in sorry shape—it emerged as a house of captivating vibrancy, teeming with plant and animal life, its table groaning with the delectable products of the surrounding fields. Far from keeping this bounty to themselves, the Rosses shared it with all comers, particularly at the weekly parties they began to throw. These became an institution and drew a shifting, polyglot crowd eager to wolf down the famously good food (Janet would later write the first Tuscan cookbook in English) and admire the exquisite view of Florence below. But the chief attraction was Janet herself, who was both the most animated of hostesses—she could be counted on to tell stories about everyone from Samuel Rogers to Napoleon III, and in between to strum her guitar while belting out stornelli (Tuscan ballads)—and the most terrifying: out of nowhere she’d take a scunner against some hapless guest and fix him with a stare of such balefulness that he’d scurry back to town unfed.
Even when not inflicting this Gorgon treatment, Janet struck everyone who met her as an exceptionally forceful personality, and it was hard not to be impressed by her industry and dynamism—after harvesting grapes or olives with her sharecroppers all day she’d work on her book about Apulia and the Hohenstaufen kings, or translate the letters of the Medici, or make her own vermouth, which she sold for a tidy profit. “The redoubtable Mrs. Ross,” people took to calling her.
Given that their social networks overlapped at many points, it’s somewhat surprising that the redoubtable Mrs. Ross and the libidinous Mr. Symonds only met in 1882, when both were in their early forties. While staying at a Berkshire country house, Janet had been asked to sing some stornelli. “Rather unwillingly,” she recalls in her memoirs, “I went to fetch my guitar, for it is uphill work to sing Tuscan folksongs to an audience which does not understand a word you are saying. My guitar seemed to get flatter and flatter and my singing more Britannic as I looked at the unresponsive faces, when a voice behind me exclaimed bene, brava.” The slight, frail, bearded man who’d applauded her was Symonds, and the pair immediately hit it off. Symonds, who’d recently moved to Davos—this for its bracing mountain air—came to stay at Castagnolo at least once, and in late 1889 he became one of the first overnight guests at Poggio Gherardo. The visit seems to have solidified or accelerated his friendship with Janet, for suddenly the two were thick as thieves, with volleys of letters flying back and forth and Symonds popping up in Florence on a frequent basis.
Their affinity had to do in part with shared Italophilia—Symonds had recently completed his magnum opus, the seven-volume Renaissance in Italy—and with the sparks they struck off each other. In his essay “Talk and Talkers,” Robert Louis Stevenson declared Symonds, with his “various and exotic knowledge” and “fine, full, discriminative flow of language,” to be “the best of talkers,” and Janet reached the same conclusion: “After listening to his brilliant talk, one felt as though cobwebs had been brushed away from one’s brain.”
Yet they were also drawn together emotionally. Janet’s mother had tenaciously fought tuberculosis before succumbing in 1869 (she became rather famous for Letters from Egypt, which recounts the final years of her struggle in Luxor), and Janet hugely admired Symonds’s similar determination to live a rewarding life despite “bodily weakness and suffering which would have prostrated anyone else.” Utterly different in fundamental ways—she as blunt and straightforward as a bulldozer, he a quivering jelly of contradictions—they nevertheless established an easy, intimate rapport. Something of that rapport, and of the atmosphere in which it flourished, can be gathered from a letter Symonds wrote just after one of his visits: already nostalgic for Janet’s “hospitable feudal keep,” he conjures up remembered images of the two of them “dreaming, gossiping, sauntering across a thousand fields with irresponsible feet of meditation, ventilating paradoxes, dissecting neighbors, over the wood fire in your dear drawing-room; while the presence of the Arno valley and the hills is always felt inside the house, adding a dignity and charm, not ours, to what we say.”
Further enhancing the friendship was the fact that a parallel one had sprung up among the younger generation. The Rosses’ only child was by this point a grown man living in England, but they’d recently adopted Janet’s sixteen-year-old niece Lina, who was discovering the delights of Tuscany after being marooned for years in a French convent. Soon after Lina’s arrival on the scene, Symonds brought his daughter Madge, then twenty-one, to Poggio Gherardo. Her father’s constant companion, Madge had already collaborated with him on a book about life in the Swiss Alps, and seemed destined for a literary career. She also had about her a high vivacity that other women (including Virginia Woolf, who later conceived a bad crush on her) found irresistible. Lina too fell beneath her spell—platonically, in her case—and Madge warmed to the pretty, precocious teenager with nascent literary ambitions. Before long Lina was joining Madge and her father in Venice, where he kept a pied à terre, and at the vast Paduan estate of the Contessa Pisani, a half-English grande dame—her doctor father, Julius Millingen, had attended Lord Byron on his deathbed at Missolonghi—about whom Madge was writing a book. For her part, Madge returned often to Poggio Gherardo, both with and without her father, and between visits conducted an extensive correspondence with Lina as well as Janet. Within a year, the two families—not excluding Henry Ross, who, despite his more retiring nature, rubbed along well with Symonds and his daughter—had become inseparable.
Curiously enough for a Renaissance historian, Symonds claimed to find Florence “detestable.” Even with the temptation of Poggio Gherardo, he probably wouldn’t have spent so much time in the city had he not been compelled to by work. For he’d decided to write a biography of Michelangelo. Having exhausted himself on previous projects, he’d been under doctor’s orders to go easy, but, as Janet puts it, his “fine resolutions” to comply were now “swept away like fleecy clouds. . . . He became possessed with Michelangelo and could write of nothing else.”
Besides providing a base for his research, Janet was able to be of great service to Symonds. On his behalf she went to the Alinari archives (founded in 1852, Fratelli Alinari is the world’s oldest photographic company) to obtain pictures of Michelangelo’s works, which she forwarded to Davos for Symonds to pore over. But her real coup was to remove an obstacle that had driven him mad with frustration. In 1858, one of Michelangelo’s descendants had bequeathed the artist’s papers to the Casa Buonarroti, with the absurd proviso that access was to be denied “even to the learned, except in rare instances.” Symonds, having gotten nowhere on his own, asked Janet whether she might use “the multiplicity of [her] connections in Florence” to help him. She paid a visit to her friend Dr. Guido Biagi, head of the Laurentian Library, who exerted pressure in the right places, and before long Symonds was burrowing into the dusty folios.
What he found there both startled him and confirmed his suspicions. Michelangelo’s nephew, it became clear, had systematically covered up his uncle’s obsession with a young Roman noble, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, by feminizing the pronouns in his letters and sonnets (which as a result were thought to have been addressed to Vittoria Colonna). This wasn’t the first time Symonds had encountered such whitewash. For twenty years he’d traded letters with Walt Whitman, often prodding him about the homoerotic subtext of his “Calamus” poems. Whitman had always lightly evaded these inquiries, but in August 1890 Symonds pushed too hard, and the poet shot back with an angry rebuttal of Symonds’s “morbid inferences.” Disgusted by Whitman’s cowardice, Symonds was now intent on setting the record straight—or, rather, setting it gay—when it came to Michelangelo.
One of the first people to learn of Symonds’s bold plan for his biography was Janet—“I fear it will not be acceptable to the general reader,” he confessed to her, “yet the time has come when the truth about Michelangelo must be told.” Just how much of Symonds’s roiling private life was known to her is unclear. Before one of his first visits, he’d written to ask whether he might bring along a Venetian companion, described as follows: “He is an old peasant who has been with me for ten years. Just now I am really dependent on him while travelling.” Janet must have drawn a conclusion or two when this “old peasant” turned out to be a dreamily handsome gondolier in his thirties. (Angelo Fusato, to give him his name, was Symonds’s principal Italian lover.) Less prudish than many, she was presumably unfazed by her friend’s preferences, though she might have been perturbed to learn of the full vigor of his activities. (Clearly she had no clue that Symonds, far from writing “nothing else” at this period, was also hard at work on his secret memoir, parts of which were almost certainly written under her roof.)
At any rate, he increasingly took her into his confidence as the biography neared completion. Sending her the proofs, he solicited particular comment on the twelfth chapter—the one in which he meant to detonate his bombshells. She advised a handful of small cuts and alterations, nearly all of which Symonds made. “The chapter will gain in dignity and not lose anything in point,” he wrote, thanking her for the suggestions.
To Symonds’s relief—his aim was to be truthful, not to shock—the biography, published in early 1893, elicited widespread praise and, as he reported to Janet, “not a word of blame or outraged sense.” One result of its success was an invitation to deliver a lecture on Michelangelo in Florence that April. Depleted by his labors, Symonds couldn’t face the prospect, but he also couldn’t turn down such an honor. He therefore wrote a lecture and asked Janet to have it translated into Italian and read for him; she lined up Enrico Nencioni, a respected professor and critic. Meanwhile Symonds planned, entirely for rest and pleasure, a spring tour of southern Italy with Madge and his faithful gondolier.
On April 19 the lecture was read. Though it went over well, while clapping afterward Janet unaccountably found herself seized by “a feeling of intense anxiety.” That evening she received news that Symonds had died in Rome, only hours before the lecture—“we had unwittingly been applauding the words of a dead man.” As she later learned, he’d caught a respiratory infection a few days earlier. Despite the attentions of Dr. Axel Munthe, who would go on to become world-famous as the author of The Story of San Michele, Symonds, his lungs weakened by consumption, had quickly faded. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, near Shelley and Trelawny, beneath an epitaph composed by Jowett.
Whereas Symonds lived to only fifty-two, the sturdy Janet Ross made it all the way to eighty-five. She wrote many more books, and enjoyed many more friendships—including an especially long and close one with Bernard and Mary Berenson, her next-door neighbors for thirty years—and went on being an imperious force of nature till the end. But Symonds always held a special place in her memory.
As for Lina, she lived even longer than her aunt—until ninety—and ended up following substantially in her footsteps. She and her painter husband, Aubrey Waterfield, bought a fortress in a remote part of northwest Tuscany, where they lived a ruggedly bohemian life. After co-authoring a book on Perugia with Madge in 1898, she went on to write a number of books on her own, all dealing with Italy, and to serve as the Italian correspondent for The Observer. Inheriting Poggio Gherardo after Janet’s death, she kept it going for many years before finally selling the place in 1950.
Fate was less kind to Madge. Her marriage to William Vaughan, a public school headmaster and a cousin of Virginia Woolf, was unhappy. Making it only to fifty-six, she died in 1925—the same year, ironically, that Woolf immortalized her as Sally Seton in Mrs. Dalloway. Pinned down by motherhood and other responsibilities, she wrote little after her collaboration with Lina. She did, however, stay in touch with both Lina and Janet, and a few years before her death she wrote, apparently out of the blue, a forty-page essay (never published) called “Memoirs of Janet Ross.” It ends with an account of how, after burying her father, she staggered north to Poggio Gherardo and collapsed, “a small and wretched human wreck.” The essay concludes with these words:
The world will remember Janet Ross as a rather domineering and commanding figure in the literary and social circles of her day. But some there are, who, like myself, will bless this great Victorian lady because of her hidden tenderness, and because of that deeper and serener charity which reaches the heart in its affliction—as well as in the prime of its worldly powers.
Amen, Symonds surely would have murmured if he’d been around to read them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 November 2011, on page 20
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