Saturday, November 22, 2014

A tribute to a beloved partner, and a memoir of life in Victorian Ireland

Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I am glad to see the back of two very stressful weeks, particularly at work.  I am even gladder to have the coming week off from work.  I don't have any particular plans, except that I will not be shopping on Thanksgiving or the Day After (all emails with "Black Friday" in the subject line are immediately deleted).  The best part of the entire week will probably be the relaxed mornings, not rushing off to work, chronically late (usually because I've been reading when I should be getting ready).  I doubt I'll be able to sleep in, since the cats take a dim view of any delay to their breakfast service.

I did get some reading done this week, but I had no time or energy to write about it until now.  I had chosen this book off the TBR stacks on a whim, wanting something different after the Great War.  (Overflowing TBR shelves offer a lot of options for whimsical choices.)  Two years ago, when I went looking for a replacement copy of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Irish R.M. (after foolishly giving away my copy), I found next to it on the shelf another of their books. In the Vine Country is a charming account of a tour they took of the Médoc region of France in 1891.  At that point I knew very little of Somerville and Ross themselves, and nothing of the other books they had written.  Re-reading The Irish R.M. and then touring the Médoc with them made me want to learn more, and to read more of their work.

Irish Memories is a memoir written by E.O. (Edith) Somerville and published in 1917.  As with their other books, Martin Ross (née Violet Martin) is listed as the co-author, though she had died in 1915.  Somerville continued to write after Ross's death, and she continued to credit her as co-author, claiming Ross was collaborating from beyond the grave.  When I read that, I decided to focus on their pre-1915 work, though I made an exception for this book.

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were second cousins on their mothers' side.  They were raised in different parts of Ireland, Somerville in Cork and Martin in Galway.  Their mutual great-grandparents, Charles Kendal Bushe, the Chief Justice of Ireland from the 1790s, with his wife Anne counted among their friends Maria Edgeworth and her family.  Both the Somerville and Martin branches were Anglo-Irish landed gentry, who lost land and much of their livelihood over the course of the 19th century.  I knew little of the context, as I know little of Irish history during this period, between the Famine and the Easter Rising of 1916.  Somerville clearly assumed her readers were better informed, if not in the same situation themselves.  However, it was enough to know that the changes left both branches of the family in difficult circumstances, particularly with children to provide for.

In the introduction to this book, Somerville wrote, "These vagrant memories do not pretend to regard themselves as biography, autobiography, as anything serious or valuable."  She thought they would be valuable as "a record, however unworthy, of so rare and sunny a spirit as [Martin's], and also, perhaps, in the preservation of a phase of Irish life that is fast disappearing."  Those are two of the main themes of the book, a tribute to Violet Martin, and an account of life in rural Ireland from the 1860s to 1917 (but not including the Rising the previous year).  Somerville wrote about the collaboration with Martin in their books, starting with their first, An Irish Cousin, published in 1889. (Their families disapproved of this gothic story, which they referred to as "The Shocker.")  As "Martin Ross," Violet Martin wrote for journals and newspapers long before she began working with her cousin.  Edith Somerville, who studied art in Dusseldorf and Paris, found occasional work as an illustrator.  As unmarried daughters, both also spent a lot of time at home, where riding and hunting were shared passions.  There is a good deal about hunting in this book, and an entire chapter devoted to Somerville's favorite dogs.  She took Anthony Trollope to task for writing with William Thackeray so many "odious women" in their books. I couldn't help wondering what she thought of his many hunting scenes (not to mention his Irish novels).

I have read quite a few books set in Ireland, mostly 20th-century fiction.  Reading this, I was immersed in a very different world.  It felt more akin to the Ireland described in the journals of Elizabeth Grant, published as The Highland Lady in Ireland and The Highland Lady in Dublin, though Grant was writing in the 1840s and 1850s.  I already have on the TBR stacks The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, as well as their second novel, The Real Charlotte.  I learned from this book that they wrote two more travel accounts, one about a riding tour of Wales.  I also discovered that both Somerville and Ross were ardent supporters of women's suffrage, as were their mothers.  I hope to learn more about that work.

As much as anything, this book is a tribute to Violet Martin. Edith Somerville greatly admired and loved her cousin, whose death left her bereft.  I found her descriptions, her attempts to capture Martin's personality and spirit, very poignant, and occasionally over the top.  There is more than a hint of hagiography here, but she never really brought Martin to life for me.  Perhaps she was too close, or the loss was still too recent.  I expect the letters to give me a clearer picture of Violet Martin, in her own words.

Reading about their family's friendship with Maria Edgeworth has inspired me finally to try one of her novels.  (I will confess that for the longest time I had her confused with Fanny Burney).  It has also solved an enduring, nagging mystery.  In Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins, Rose and Dr. Alec discuss Rosamund and her mother, "in that little affair of the purple jar."  Rose tells her uncle, "I always want to shake that hateful woman, though she was a moral mamma."  I've always wondered who the "moral mamma" was, so I jumped when I came across this line in the chapter called "Mainly Maria Edgeworth," about a book the author presented to the Chief Justice: the one "in which the unfortunate Rosamond is victimised by the dastardly fraud of the Purple Jar."  E.O. Somerville and Louisa May Alcott clearly agreed on this particular story of Miss Edgeworth's.  I will have to find a copy, now that I know where to look.

N.B. The edition I read is an American one, published by Longmans in 1918.  It has a sticker from "The Old Corner Book Store, Boston, Mass." inside the front cover, as well as an inscription, "Oliver Wolcott from S.W. June 1918."  However, I'll be using the original 1917 publication date for my sadly-neglected Century of Books.

Addendum:  The Easter Rising was in 1916, not 1917 - I've corrected those dates.


  1. I'm intrigued - I've been meaning to read Somerville & Ross for ever and a day but it's never quite happened. Your praise and all those interesting connections have pushed them right up the priority list.

  2. Jane, I love finding those kinds of connections, between books and authors. The Irish RM is perfect for a grey day - like Wodehouse. I think the early novels are more serious. I'm looking forward to The Shocker!

  3. I hope you're having a good break - there's something about the run-up to the end of the year that brings out the worst in all my work colleagues, so I sympathize with your stress.

    I really, really want to know now about the "collaborating from beyond the grave" - it sounds totally crackers!

  4. What an interesting post. I've never read Somerville & Ross although I've heard of them. I do like Edgeworth & I'll be interrested to read the Purple Jar now. She also wrote a story called the Blue Jar! I have the Delphi ebook collection of Edgeworth's work & the story is in that so I'll look forward to reading it. I love connections like that. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Grant's Journals.

  5. vicki, it was more the clients calling from outside that pushed me toward the edge - all wanting things on deadlines. I agree about the "beyond the grave" collaboration - or is "ghost writing" more accurate?!

    lyn, you're the only other person I've met who has read Elizabeth Grant's journals! I keep hoping for another volume. I just checked & there are several references to Edgeworth in her Memoirs and the first Diary.

  6. I'm so glad you get a week off of work - it's lovely to not have to wake up with an alarm (other than the cats). I've always wondered how co-writing a book would work. Will their letters give a glimpse of that? I shall wait to see.

  7. Anbolyn, I have seldom needed a break more! I'm trying to be better about taking my PTO - I loose too much as the end of the year because I don't plan it out (we can't carry much over). With the writing, at least while Martin Ross was alive, they apparently just talked things over in great detail until they had it all mapped out - and then one of them wrote it down, or so Somerville says in this book.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!