Published in 1894, this is the second novel written by cousins E.O. (Edith) Somerville and Martin Ross (née Violet Martin). I enjoyed their first, An Irish Cousin, and love their "Irish R.M." stories and travel accounts. But this book is something else. It's hard to believe that this was only their second novel. In style, plotting, characterization, it is far beyond An Irish Cousin. Somerville and Ross seem to have sharpened their skills amazingly in the five years between the two books (I have read that this one took them two years to write). It also feels surprisingly modern - not of the 21st century certainly, but the story could be from the first decades of the 20th. Neither the lack of technology nor the occasional descriptions of clothing anchor this firmly in the Victorian era (though I did learn the name for a familiar article of Victorian women's clothing, the dolman).
The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Mullen, but before we meet her we are introduced to Francie Fitzpatrick, living with her cousins in Dublin, and already a confirmed flirt. Then the story moves to a small town called Lismoyle in the west of Ireland. There Charlotte lives, in a house inherited from her aunt, which is overrun with cats and kittens, on whom she dotes. On her death-bed, old Mrs. Mullen reminded Charlotte of her promise to take care of Francie, her great-niece and Charlotte's cousin, though she has left no legacy in her will. Charlotte finds that promise as inconvenient as John Dashwood did his. Eventually she invites Francie to stay with her at Tally Ho. That summer Francie meets again Roddy Lambert, an old friend and flirt from Dublin, now an estate agent for the Dysart family. He is an even older friend of Charlotte, who has befriended his wife in turn. Francie is also introduced to the Dysarts, whose son and heir Christopher takes an interest in her, though she prefers the company of Gerald Hawkins, an officer of the regiment stationed in the neighborhood. She is less popular with the ladies of Lismoyle, who deplore her vulgar Dublin accent and her flashy clothes as much as her flirtatious ways. Charlotte, who hopes that Francie may make an advantageous marriage that will cement her own social position, lets her go her own way.
There is so much to enjoy in this book. The authors make the settings so real, from Charlotte's house at Tally Ho to Bruff, the estate of the Dysarts, to Francie's cousins' overflowing cottage in Bray. But while the landscape is beautifully described, the homes are frequently dirty and squalid (Bruff being a notable exception). Some reviewers at the time complained that two young gentlewomen had written about a "seamy" side of Irish life, and family members commented as well. Somerville and Ross were apparently unfazed. They always considered this their best book, and I can see why.
What really makes the book is the strength of the characters. I was particularly taken with the Dysarts, the Anglo-Irish squire's family. Christopher, the heir, has just returned from a diplomatic post abroad. He lives at home with a brother and sister and their parents, spending his time sailing on the nearby lake and taking photographs. His mother adds a lot of humor to the story.
Lady Dysart had in her youth married, with a little judicious coercion, a man thirty years older than herself, and after a long, and on the whole, extremely unpleasant period of matrimony, she was now enjoying a species of Indian summer, dating from six years back, when Christopher's coming of age and the tenants' rejoicings thereat, had caused such a paroxysm of apoplectic jealousy on the part of Christopher's father as, combining with the heat of the day, had brought on a 'stroke.' Since then the bath-chair and James Canavan [his attendant] had mercifully intervened between him and the rest of the world, and his offspring were now able to fly before him with a frankness and success impossible in the old days.But it is Francie and Charlotte who really dominate the story. Francie may be young, and badly brought-up, but she has a kind heart and a "staunchness of soul that was her redeeming quality." Charlotte - oh my. Few people know the real Charlotte, "the weight of [her] will, and the terror of her personality" - luckily for them.** Somerville and Ross claimed that she was one of the few characters drawn from real life in all their fiction. She was based on a relation who had bilked Somerville out of an inheritance, as Charlotte did Francie. (Ross wrote Somerville about meeting people who knew the actual "Charlotte," to whom they also were related. She panicked initially, but "They were enchanted about it...").
My only quibble with the book is its rather abrupt ending, which leaves the fate of one character hanging. I really want to know what happens next, to several of the characters.**
N.B. After a long hiatus, I can finally add another year to my Century of Books.
**Some spoilers follow:
Mostly, I'd like to know that Charlotte gets her just deserts. She commits two crimes in particular that shocked me. First, she encourages Roddy Lambert's wife to break into his desk, looking for compromising letters from Francie. Mrs. Lambert, who has a weak heart, suffers a heart attack in the process and is unable to reach her medicine. Charlotte lets her die while reading Roddy's letters herself. Later she cold-bloodedly helps the bereaved husband sort through her clothes, taking a good portion for herself. In her second crime, she steams open Roddy's mail, discovers that he has been misappropriating funds from the Dysart estate, and informs Christopher Dysart, who then moves to fire Roddy. She blackmails, she manipulates, she lies - and she gets almost everything she wants. It's the one thing she doesn't get that brings tragedy, but not to her. Such a wicked - and fascinating - character! I think she is also the earliest example of a "crazy cat lady" that I have come across. The fate of one of her kittens still haunts me, though that at least was not her fault.