Somerville and Ross
Somerville and Ross
Cousins and collaborators who in their novels and other writings chronicled the declining fortunes of their class, the Anglo-Irish gentry, in the decades before Irish independence.
Somerville, E. (1858–1949). Name variations: Edith Somerville. Born Edith Œnone Somerville on May 2, 1858, in Corfu, Greece; died in Castletownshend, County Cork, Ireland, on October 8, 1949; eldest daughter of Thomas Henry Somerville and Adelaide (Coghill) Somerville; educated at home by governesses and then at art schools in London, Düsseldorf and Paris; never married; no children.
Doctor of Letters, Trinity College, Dublin (1932); elected to Irish Academy of Letters (1933); Gregory Gold Medal, Irish Academy of Letters (1941).
Spent most of life at family home in Castletownshend, County Cork; studied art (1870s–1880s); met cousin Violet Martin (1886) and began a literary collaboration; published their first novel (1889) and between then and Martin's death (1915) published ten books and numerous articles in British and Irish periodicals; continued the collaboration after Martin's death with the help of spiritualism and seances and wrote 14 other books; had exhibitions of her paintings and also had a horse-coping business (1920s–1930s).
Ross, Martin (1862–1915). Name variations: Violet Martin. Born Violet Florence Martin on June 11, 1862, at Ross House, Oughterard, County Galway, Ireland; died on December 21, 1915, in Cork, Ireland; youngest child and fifth daughter of James Martin and Anna Selina (Fox) Martin; educated at home and briefly at Alexandra College, Dublin; never married; no children.
Spent early years at Ross; after father's death (1872), family moved to Dublin and also spent some time in England; first met cousin Edith Somerville (1886); returned to Ross (1888) but stayed frequently at Edith's family home in Castletownshend; after mother's death (1906), lived there permanently; health deteriorated following a serious accident (1898); died from a brain tumor (1915).
Through Connemara in a Governess Cart (1893, new ed., Virago, 1990); In The Vine Country (1893, new ed., Virago, 1991); The Real Charlotte (1894, new ed., A&A Farmar, 1999); Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1899) and Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1908, republished in one volume by J.M. Dent, 1991); In Mr Knox's Country (Longmans Greene, 1915); Irish Memories (Longmans Greene, 1917); Mount Music (Longmans Greene, 1919); Wheeltracks (Longmans Greene, 1923); The Big House of Inver (1925, new ed., A&A Farmar, 1999); The States through Irish Eyes (Houghton Mifflin, 1930).
The writing team of Somerville and Ross was comprised of cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote under the name of Martin Ross. Violet Martin's family had been established in Ireland since the 12th century and became one of the largest landowners in County Galway, in the western province of Connacht. The family home was Ross House, on Ross Lake, near Oughterard, north of Galway city, where Violet was born in 1862. The family had been Catholic but her great-grandfather joined the (Anglican) Church of Ireland when he married in the 1770s. The family's financial fortunes declined after the Irish famine of the 1840s when her father James Martin incurred serious debts trying to help his starving tenants. He died in 1872 when Violet was ten. She was aware that it marked the end of an era: "With his death a curtain fell for ever on the old life at Ross, the stage darkened, and the keening of the tenants as they followed his coffin … was the last music of the piece." His death coincided with the beginning of the political extinction of the Anglo-Irish gentry class to which the Martins belonged. From the 1870s onwards, with the expansion of the electorate there was a growing movement towards Home Rule, Irish self-government, to which Violet Martin and her family were opposed.
After James Martin's death, Ross House was shut and his widow Anna Fox Martin , with her daughters Violet and Selina Martin , moved to Dublin. Violet started keeping a diary in 1875 which detailed her activities in Dublin. Her only education was from a governess who came three days a week but she did lessons by herself and learned French and Greek. She was also a keen churchgoer and attended weekly Bible study meetings, as well as visiting asylums and orphanages. Despite all this activity, she wrote in the preface to her 1879 diary: "The chronicle of a wasted time." In 1882, she visited London for the first time and stayed with her eldest brother Robert and his wife. Robert Martin was a journalist and writer of some prominence and he introduced his sister to literary and theater circles in London. In January 1886, Anna Martin and her daughters went to stay in the picturesque west Cork village of Castletownshend on the southern Atlantic coast. The village was dominated by three families who had intermarried over many generations and produced numerous soldiers, sailors and administrators for the service of the British Empire: the Somervilles who lived at Drishane House, the Coghills who lived at Glen Barrahane, and the Townshends who lived at The Castle. Anna Martin and Adelaide Coghill Somerville of Drishane were cousins, but Violet had not met any of her Somerville relations until she went to Castletownshend in 1886.
The Somervilles had come to Ireland in the 1690s, and eight generations had lived at Drishane, a large damp house which was periodically infested with rats and other vermin. Edith Somerville, who was four years older than Violet Martin, was born in 1858 at Corfu in Greece where her father was serving with the British army. She had five brothers and a sister to whom she was devoted. She was educated by governesses at home but briefly attended a course of lectures at Alexandra College in Dublin. A talented artist, she had studied at art school in Düsseldorf and Paris in the early 1880s. By the mid-1880s, her illustrations were being published in several London journals, and her family provided her with a coach-house as a studio. Her closest friend had been her cousin Ethel Coghill but Ethel's marriage in 1880 had come as a shock, "an aggravated nightmare" Edith called it, and they were never as close again. After the "wasted time" in Dublin, Violet found life at Castletownshend with her Somerville and Coghill cousins exhilarating: there were large family meals, picnics, tennis, boating, riding, choir practice, cards, painting and spiritualism. Edith was absent from Castletownshend for most of the spring of 1886, and it was after her return that the friendship between her and Violet deepened. She always called her "Martin" to distinguish her from another Violet in the family. In summer 1886, Violet was attempting to write some articles when it was suggested that Edith might do the illustrations. They collaborated on an article on palmistry which was published in The Graphic in October 1886. Violet stayed on at Drishane when her mother returned to Dublin but rejoined her in December 1886. The frustration caused by these separations between the cousins intensified in the years ahead.
When she rejoined Edith at Drishane in August 1887, they discussed the possibility of a literary collaboration and soon started writing An Irish Cousin. For both women, money was initially the main reason as they were financially dependent on their families. By the 1880s, the agricultural depression and land agitation in Ireland which culminated in the Land War resulted in reduced rental incomes for both the Martins and the Somervilles. "Spinster" sisters like Edith and Violet were expected to be unpaid housekeepers and companions, maintaining the house until their brothers came back from London or imperial service. Their families expressed some disapproval about their literary activities, as Edith recalled in Irish Memories (1917). "When not actually reviled, we were treated with much the same disapproving sufferance that is shown to an outside dog that sneaks into the house on a wet day." Their novel was nicknamed "The Shocker" by the rest of the family.
All our writing was done in casual scrapes. We had no consideration for ourselves and still less did anyone else show us.
Edith also described their method of collaboration which has intrigued many scholars of their work. "Our work was done conversationally. One or other—not infrequently both simultaneously—would state a proposition. This would be argued, combated perhaps, approved or modified; it would then be written down by the (wholly fortuitous) holder of the pen, would be scratched out, scribbled on again." Sections of some books were written when they were apart. They would then send each other what they had written; they also read chapters to their families and took careful note of their reactions. Both were assiduous eavesdroppers and always wrote down interesting or amusing conversations they heard in their daily lives. Subjects noted in one of their commonplace books included Hunting, Dogs, Letters, Trains, Horses, Racing, Beggars, Abuse and Exclamations, Blessings and Commendations, Drink and Fighting, and the Supernatural. In her critical study of Somerville and Ross, Hilary Robinson has observed that "it is a mystery why their collaboration worked so well, and how they managed to produce together work superior to anything either of them produced independently. They shared tastes, distastes and a fine sense of the ridiculous; theirs was a common inheritance and environment; somehow they were catalysts for each other and the result was literature." Violet's sense of mood and atmosphere was darker than Edith who was better at light humor. She always regarded Violet as the greater writer but resented any analysis of their collaboration which she regarded as a divine gift.
In summer 1888, their work on An Irish Cousin was interrupted when the Martin family returned to Ross. The return was forced on them by the fraud of their land agent who had embezzled large sums of the estate rents. Anna Martin agreed to live at Ross and look after the estate while Robert remained in London. But times had changed since their departure in the early 1870s. The house was in poor condition and the Land War had caused political tensions which meant that the family was not treated with the same deference as before. Since money was so short, Violet herself did a lot of the physical clearingup. She managed to get away to Drishane for two months from October to December 1888, and while there she and Edith learned that An Irish Cousin had been accepted for publication. When it was released in September 1889, it received good reviews and was into a second printing by the following month. This led to commissions from other publishers and from magazines.
In summer 1890, they toured Connemara in the west of Ireland for a travelogue for the Lady's Pictorial. This was later published as Through Connemara in a Governess Cart (1893), a book Robinson considers the weakest of their travel books. But the travelogue was successful, and in 1891 they received a commission from the Lady's Pictorial to write another, this time about the vineyards of Bordeaux, which was published as In the Vine Country (1893). They also completed their second novel, Naboth's Vineyard, which was published in 1891. This was despite continuing disruptions at Ross. There were more pleasant distractions for Edith in 1891 when she and her brother Aylmer founded the West Carbery Hunt which absorbed increasing amounts of her time and especially money over the following years. Violet, a keen equestrian, also liked to hunt.
In February 1893, Somerville and Ross finished their third novel, The Real Charlotte, which is considered to be their best work. They themselves recognized its quality, although Edith's family thought it vulgar. Several of the characters were in fact drawn from members of their families, and Lady Dysart was based on Edith's mother Adelaide. The novel, as Hilary Robinson has written, is a detailed picture of Anglo-Irish Protestant society at the end of the 19th century. It is set in the town of Lismoyle where the heroine, the beautiful, headstrong Francie Fitzpatrick, is disapproved of by the Lismoyle women but admired by the men. Francie's fate is sealed by the jealousy of Charlotte Mullen who loves her husband Lambert. The book was well reviewed in May 1894 when it was published, and it earned them much needed money, most of which went on the upkeep of either Ross or Drishane and hunting.
With the death of Edith's mother in 1895, followed by that of her father in 1898, she effectively became the mistress and manager of Drishane as all her brothers were away. She and Violet had acquired a literary agent, J.B. Pinker, who urged them to consider writing about a subject close to their hearts, hunting. They started writing several short stories in summer 1898 and the first three of what became the "Irish R.M." series were published in the Badminton Magazine the following autumn. The stories were soon bought for book form by Longmans and were published as Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. in 1899. The narrator, Major Yates, is the Irish R.M. (the initials stand for Resident Magistrate) but as an Englishman is frequently bewildered by the eccentric events and personalities which he encounters in Ireland. As with The Real Charlotte, Somerville and Ross borrowed from real life. Major Yates' house strikingly resembled Ross, while the servants, especially Mrs. Cadogan, resembled the cook at Drishane. The book was an enormous success, and by December 1899 the first edition of 3,000 copies had sold out.
Although Somerville and Ross were writing at the time of the Irish Literary Revival, they tended to avoid the literary world. They were acquainted, though not impressed, with some of its luminaries. Edith had met Oscar Wilde in 1888 and considered him "a great fat oily beast." When W.B. Yeats praised The Real Charlotte, Violet privately thought he looked like "a starved R.C. [Roman Catholic] curate—in seedy black clothes. He is egregiously the poet, murmurs ends of verse to himself with a wild eye." Violet loathed Yeats' great love Maud Gonne because of her nationalist beliefs. She remained on good terms with Augusta Gregory although she never took up Gregory's offer to write a play for the Abbey Theater in Dublin. For her part, Edith was less than pleased when one of her cousins, Charlotte Payne-Townshend , married George Bernard Shaw whom she described as less than a gentleman and a cad to boot, although she later changed her opinion.
Their agent was pressing them to write a further series of R.M. stories, but the only books which appeared over the next seven years were two collections of previously published stories, All on the Irish Shore (1903) and Some Irish Yesterdays (1906). Ross and Drishane respectively were absorbing a lot of their attention, and Violet was also coping with the aftermath of a serious hunting accident in November 1898 which permanently damaged her health. Her brother Robert died in 1905, followed by her mother in 1906, after which she moved to Drishane permanently. In 1908, a new series of R.M. stories was finally published, Further Experiences of an Irish R.M., and sold well. But despite its success, money continued to be a problem. Edith had to give up the West Carbery Hunt because of the expense, while the dairy farm which she set up with her sister Hildegarde Somerville failed after a few years. She and Violet wrote only two more books after 1908, Dan Russel the Fox (1911) and In Mr Knox's Country (1915), the final collection of R.M. stories.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, there were fears of a German invasion, as Castletownshend faced the western approaches of the Atlantic. In May 1915, some of the bodies from the Lusitania sinking were washed up in the village harbor. Violet became ill in September 1915 with severe headaches, but it was not until she went into a nursing home in Cork that a brain tumor was diagnosed. She gradually went into a coma and died on December 21, 1915. Edith was so shattered she could not bear to attend the funeral. The Somervilles and the Coghills had always been interested in spiritualism and Edith's interest had increased considerably after her parents' deaths. Seances were regularly held at Drishane, and the family used a local medium, Jem Barlow. Following Violet's death, Edith tried to desperately to contact her spirit, and at a seance in June 1916 she finally believed she had made contact through automatic writing. From now until her death, she consulted Violet's spirit regularly not just about writing but about everyday problems. Because she firmly believed that their collaboration continued through these seances, she wanted the subsequent books to be published under the joint authorship of Somerville and Ross. Her publishers, however, were reluctant to endorse this practice, as it attracted ridicule, and after Mount Music (1919) her writings were published under her name alone.
In 1917, Somerville published Irish Memories which was in its fourth reprint by January 1918. As her biographer Maurice Collis writes, the book was about Violet whom Edith portrayed as a saint. The chapter "When First She Came" was an idyllic account of the year Violet arrived at Castletownshend. However, Edith did not describe her death, nor did she refer to the seances. The book ends: "I will try no more. Withered leaves, blowing in through the open window before a September gale, are falling on the page. Our summers are ended. Vanity of vanities." Edith had always regarded Violet as the greater writer, and this sentence indicates that Edith did not intend to write any more novels. But she changed her mind and in 1919 published Mount Music. Its publication coincided with an important new friendship with composer Ethel Smyth . She and Edith were the same age, and Smyth was just getting over the death of her lover Henry Brewster the previous year. Smyth was impressed with Edith's paintings and arranged an exhibition in London. Over the next few years Somerville paid regular visits to London and became acquainted with many in Smyth's literary and artistic circle. Smyth tried to expand Edith's literary tastes but soon realized that Edith mostly liked what she knew. At the beginning of 1920, she and Smyth spent a three-month holiday in Sicily. However, there were undercurrents of sexual tension and misunderstanding in their friendship. Smyth was bisexual and wanted a physical relationship; Somerville, although her latent lesbianism seems obvious with hindsight, did not want sexual relations and made this clear to Smyth who accepted it reluctantly.
Edith's family had come out of the First World War unscathed, but within months of the war's end the Irish War of Independence started and Cork was one of the most disturbed areas of the country. Politically, Somerville was out of sympathy with the Irish rebels but she greatly disapproved of the actions of the British forces and described herself as "half rebel and Miss-Facing-both-ways." She approved the settlement which ended the war and gave Ireland independence in 1921 but this was followed by a year-long civil war which in many ways was even worse than the earlier troubles. Cork was once more a major area of fighting. In 1923, after the war, Somerville visited London again for another exhibition of her paintings. Wheeltracks, a collection of articles, was also published and both were successful. After this, she started work on a new novel, The Big House of Inver, which was the most important of her post-Violet fiction. In fact, the novel was inspired by a letter which Violet had written to Edith in 1912 about a visit to Tyrone House in County Galway, the home of the aristocratic St. George family who were living in dilapidated squalor. The Big House of Inver describes the story of the Prendeville family between 1739 and 1912, "one of those minor dynasties," Somerville wrote, "that, in Ireland, have risen, and ruled, and rioted and have at last crashed in ruins." The central character is Sibby, the illegitimate daughter of the Big House. Since Edith had never actually seen Tyrone House, Violet's old home Ross was the model for the Big House.
Although the novel sold 10,000 copies, money remained a problem as most of Somerville's earnings went into the upkeep of Drishane. In February 1929, she visited America for the first time and went on a lecture tour; there was also a successful exhibition of her paintings. Her account of her American visit, The States through Irish Eyes, was rather thin and perfunctory. In 1932, she published a biography of her (and Violet's) great-grandfather Charles Kendal Bushe who had been lord chief justice of Ireland. The research proved difficult, and she summoned his spirit in several seances to get the required information. But neither this nor the American book sold well and financial troubles loomed once more. However, with the help of her trusted groom, Michael Hurley, she started a horse-coping business which was successful and which led to another American visit in 1936. Edith's brother Boyle, who had served with distinction in the Royal Navy, had retired to Castletownshend, and they worked together on a family history which was eventually published privately in 1940. However, in March 1936, Boyle was murdered by the IRA because he had been giving references to local men who wanted to join the Royal Navy. For Edith, who had survived the Troubles and the civil war, his murder was a bitter blow not eased by the fact that the murderers were never found.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, life became very difficult for Edith as the income from her books and horses evaporated. She had relied on her brother Cameron's pension to help with the upkeep of Drishane, but this disappeared with his death in January 1942. Her nephew Desmond Somerville was now the owner of Drishane, but he was serving with the British army and did not return to Ireland until after the war. With Desmond's return in 1946, she and her sister Hildegarde moved to another house in the village, Tally Ho. It was a smaller, more convenient house for two old women, but Edith hated leaving Drishane. In 1947, a collection of articles and reminiscences, Happy Days, was published, and the following year, to her great satisfaction, Oxford University Press included The Real Charlotte in its "World's Classics" series. On May 2, 1948, she celebrated her 90th birthday, but she hated her physical feebleness and confided to her diary: "Never thought that I would have to end a good active hardworking life dying like a worn out old horse in a corner of a field." This was the last entry. Edith Somerville died on October 8, 1949, and was buried next to Violet Martin in the local graveyard.
Collis, Maurice. Somerville and Ross: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
Cronin, John. Somerville and Ross. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1972.
Cummins, Geraldine Dorothy. Dr E.Œ Somerville. London: Andrew Dakers, 1952.
Kreilkamp, Vera. The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.
McCormack, W.J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literature from 1789 to 1939. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
Robinson, Hilary. Somerville and Ross: A Critical Appreciation. Dublin and NY: Gill & Macmillan/ St. Martin's Press, 1980.
The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross. Edited by Gifford Lewis with a foreword by Molly Keane . London: Faber & Faber, 1989.
The journals, correspondence and papers of Somerville and Ross are located in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
"The Irish R.M.," drama series based on the R.M. stories, starring Peter Bowles, Bryan Murray, Anna Manahan , and Niall Tóibín, Little Bird Productions with Channel Four and RTE, 1982–85.
Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland