Friday, December 5, 2014

A fascinating collection of letters

The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, Gifford Lewis, ed.

I wanted to read these letters while E.O. Somerville's combined memoir and biography Irish Memories was fresh in my mind, and they fit together beautifully.  Somerville's book gave me a basic outline of her life and Martin Ross's, as well as their work together.  She quoted often from Martin's letters, and I recognized them when I came across them here.  I found it interesting and more satisfying to read the letters themselves, rather than excerpts.  And where Somerville was looking backward over their lives, here the letters stand on their own, day to day accounts of experiences as they happened. They have an immediacy and an energy different from a memoir, particularly an elegiac one such as Somerville wrote.

I thought the editing of this selection of letters was very well done.  According to the Introduction, their letters, like Jane Austen's, had already been edited, physically, either by the authors themselves or by family members.  Pages were removed, presumably because they included private or embarrassing information.  For some letters, only fragments survive.  Often those fragments include notes in Somerville's hand, which show how she used them in her book.  That suggests to me that Somerville herself may have done the physical cutting in some cases.  The editor, Gifford Lewis, provides context and commentary for most of the letters, and I found the information very helpful.  I have been unable to find much about the editor, however.  I did learn that she is the author of a biography of Martin Ross (née Violet Martin), as well as two other books about the writing team of Somerville and Ross. I hope to get my hands soon on Two of a Trade: The Selected Writings of Somerville and Ross, probably through interlibrary loan.  I ordered a copy of Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M. as a Christmas present for myself (the only Christmas shopping I've done so far involves books for me).

The bulk of the letters included here date between 1886, when the cousins first met, and 1895.  Living in different corners of Ireland, they spent little time together in the early years, because they couldn't afford to travel, and because as unmarried daughters they had duties at home.  So they kept in constant contact by letter.  These were the years when they began writing together, first An Irish Cousin (known in their families as "The Shocker," which just tickles me).  In 1894, they published The Real Charlotte, which Gifford Lewis considers "the best Irish novel of the nineteenth century . . ."  In between they wrote articles for newspapers and journals, as well as three travel books.  But like Jane Austen, they had to squeeze their writing in between family duties, and the social obligations that fell on them as members of close-knit communities, all of which were discussed in their letters.  For both Somerville and Ross there was also the constant distraction of fox hunting, the love of which runs through the letters as it does through The Irish R.M. stories.  But despite the distractions they considered themselves professional writers, they honed their skills and critiqued each others' work, and they expected to be paid well for it.

Reading this also reminded me of the Mitford sisters' letters, which I read in the edition edited by Charlotte Mosley.  Like theirs and Jane Austen's too, Somerville and Ross's are filled with family and local gossip, and with shared in-jokes.  Both were descended from Charles Kendal and Anne Bushe, a point of great genealogical pride among all their descendants.  One of the cousins used the term "Buddha-like" to define them, which was adopted and shortened to "Buddh."  As did the Mitfords, the Buddhs developed their own coded language, derived from English and Irish words.  Apparently the first collaboration of Somerville and Ross was in compiling a "Buddh dictionary," which is included in this book.  It's very helpful, since they both used Buddh terms in their letters, and I flipped back to it constantly.  I was especially taken with "Minaudering," defined as "pres. p. of verb used to describe the transparent devices of hussies."  Presumably a hussy would not waste time minaudering a Segashuative, "A man who gives discreet and peaceful good company to women."  I also admire the elegance of "I must decant," used "to explain that one had to leave the scene in order to empty one's bladder" (editor's note).

I did note in reading these letters that most are from Martin to Somerville.  The Introduction explains that more of her letters survived than did Somerville's (139 to 97).  I wondered if writing a book on Violet Martin might also have influenced the editor in her choice of which letters to include. On the other hand, we have Somerville's account of their lives in her book.  Here Martin's letters provide a balance in giving us her point of view, and allowing her voice to be heard.  Together these books give us a fascinating window into Ireland in the late 1800s, through the lives of two women who played their expected roles as Victorian daughters, but by their writing managed to gain a level of independence and autonomy, and became best-selling authors as well.


  1. I wonder how people will both edit their own and edit other people's contemporary electronic correspondence in the future? Minaudering, btw, sounds very much like something cats do with their owners. Lovely!

  2. vicki, that's if e-documents even survive! The archives of the future are going to be very different places. The Library of Congress here is working to archive Twitter - not sure how well it's going.

  3. A most interesting post which sent me off to search the library catalogue. I didn't have much hope of finding anything but to my surprise one title by E Somerville - Through Connemara in a Governess Cart - something to look forward to next year.

  4. Cat, that is a fun book - one of their collaborative travel accounts. I can't remember if you're an e-reader, but some of their older books are available as e-texts. I downloaded An Irish Cousin from Google Books.

  5. These letters sound wonderful! I love reading other people's letters (ever since I had The Jolly Postman as a wee lass), and I'm always on the lookout for an engaging letter collection.

  6. These letters sound so intriguing and engrossing. I have a hard time reading letter collections, but I think these would hold my interest. I have a copy of The Real Charlotte around here somewhere - I am now so looking forward to reading it.

  7. Jenny, I love reading them too - so it's probably not surprising I ended up working in archives!

    Anbolyn, as I remember, it was your mention of The Real Charlotte a couple of years ago that got me thinking about Somerville & Ross again - it's the Circle of Books :)


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!