I had been looking for a copy of The Irish R.M., and when I found it at Houston's version of Powell's, the marvelous Kaboom Books, there on the shelf next to it was a familiar green Virago spine. At the time I knew nothing of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross beyond The Irish R.M, and I hadn't read that in years. But as I've mentioned before, I cannot pass up a Virago without reading at least the cover and the first few pages, so rarely do I find them in Houston. The back cover blurb of In the Vine Country was enough to add it to the stack I was carting off to the cash register:
Another irresistible gem by the authors of Memoirs of an Irish R.M. and Through Connemara in a Governess Cart; this time they tour the Médoc country, where they discover the pleasures of harvest - a glass of moût, freshly trodden by the peasants and garlic kisses from their hostess. Then to a grand chateau, where they establish themselves as 'Les Anglais pour rire' by their sorry attempts to speak French. Mistresses of ironic wit and precise observation, this is Somerville and Ross at their most genial and open.After finishing a two-year tour with General Ulysses Grant, I was ready for something different - something a little more fun - and Somerville & Ross were the perfect choice.
The book opens in Ireland, where Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who were second cousins, lived with Somerville's family in County Cork. They had begun collaborating on books in the late 1880s, with their first novel, An Irish Cousin, published in 1889. Soon afterwards, they proposed a series of travel sketches on Ireland to The Lady's Pictorial, an English weekly "Newspaper for the Home." The sketches were later published as Through Connemara in a Governess Cart. A similar commission from the magazine sent the two off "to the vineyards of the Médoc," and the articles they wrote from France were published as In the Vine Country in 1893. Here as in Through Connemara the narration moves between the first and second person, but it isn't immediately clear who is speaking. Playing detective, I decided that the narrator is Edith Somerville, who studied art in Paris and Germany, since she refers to sketching various scenes; and the person usually referred to as "my second cousin" is Violet Martin. (Both travel books include illustrations based on Somerville's sketches.) The book makes it clear that the two travelers are women. I haven't figured out yet why they adopted male pseudonyms, particularly when Somerville, part of a prominent Anglo-Irish family, was using her own last name.
I confess I had no idea where the Médoc was when I started reading this book, so my trusty atlas and Google maps came in handy again. And though I grew up in a "vine country" myself, in Walla Walla in eastern Washington State, I know very little about wine-making. Neither did the authors, who were relieved to learn that they were not expected "to improve other people's minds by figures and able disquisitions on viticulture and the treatment of the phylloxera," but "to enjoy ourselves. . ." They certainly did that, despite the discomforts of travel and of provincial hotels. From Bordeaux they traveled out into the wine country, watching the harvest and the first pressing of the grapes, overcoming the shock of seeing barefoot men actually stomping the grapes. On their first visit to the pressoir they were presented with brimming glasses of moût fresh from the feet of the workers, which they could hardly choke down. Later they toured the chateaux where great barrels lay maturing, including "one of the great fermenting houses of the Médoc," the Mouton Rothschild. They also visited towns and villages in between, like Libourne, "a walled town in the heart of the vineyard country, with a saint and a shrine, and a history as gorgeous as an illuminated missal" (I love that sentence).
Somerville and Ross's interest and enthusiasm reminded me of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay - as did their frequent mishaps. They were older than the American tourists, more independent, and not as naive. I'm not sure how unconventional it was at that time, the 1890s, for women to travel alone. In France they were accepted as English eccentrics, though they took care to identify themselves as Irish when they felt it would smooth relations. I agree with whoever wrote the back cover blurb that Somerville and Ross are "mistresses of ironic wit and precise observation." They do play a bit to stereotypes, Irish, English and French, but the humor is never mean, and they are willing to laugh at themselves as much as others. The book is just such fun, and now I'm looking forward even more to Connemara in that governess cart.