Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Melodrama done right

An Irish Cousin, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

Ever since I read E.O. Somerville's Irish Memories, followed by The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, I have been most anxious to get my hands on this book, the first that they wrote together.  They called it "The Shocker" while working on it, and their families were openly skeptical that they would ever get it into print. Its publication in 1889 did apparently come as a bit of a shock, even to its authors.  I was lucky enough to find a 1922 reprint.  Edith Somerville's mother insisted that she use a pen-name for this book, as "Martin Ross" was for Violet Martin.  Somerville adapted an ancestral name to appear as "Geilles Herring," for the first and only time.  My later edition lists E.O. Somerville as the co-author.

The story opens on a ship sailing off the coast of Ireland.  Among its passengers, just recovering from mal de mer, is Theodora Sarsfield, who narrates the story.  A young woman, an orphan, she has been living for the last two years with her mother's family in Canada.  Now for the first time she is going to meet her father's family, all that's left of it: her uncle Dominick, who inherited the family estate in West Cork, and his son Willy.  She discovers that her cousin is  a dapper young man with a yellow moustache, a captain in the West Cork Artillery Militia.  He is rather at loose ends in his father's house, with no occupation.  But they become good friends, as he shows her around the estate and introduces her to the delights of hunting.  Her uncle watches their growing intimacy with approval, unlike his reaction when Theo meets a neighbor, Nugent O'Neill.  Willy gets quite surly about it as well, and I felt for Theo, alone in the house with two cranky men and their agenda.

There are also hints that all is not well at Durrus.  The house is old and rambling, filled with strange sounds and cold draughts.  Moll Hourihane, the wife of the lodge-keeper, roams the grounds at night. Theo sees her one moonlit night, performing an eerie dance outside her windows.  Even worse, Theo learns that she sometimes comes into the house itself.  In her bedroom, a door opens into another smaller room, littered with books and papers, where Moll has sometimes been discovered.  Willy assures Theo that she isn't dangerous, but Theo doesn't quite believe him.  And she wonders why her uncle gets so angry whenever anyone mentions Moll's beautiful daughter Anstice. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this quick-paced story.  I thought the atmosphere at Durrus was really well done.  I wouldn't have wanted to be in Theo's room, late on a stormy night, listening for sounds in the other room.  I had an idea where the story was going, but there was a twist at the end that caught me completely by surprise.  It is very different from the lighter "Irish R.M." stories, but there are familiar elements like the hunting (which I now expect to find in all their books), and the portrayal of the staff around Durrus, with their West Cork speech (I've read that Somerville and Ross are considered experts in their use of Irish dialects).  The story is also very funny at times, with the rather satirical humor I've come to expect from these two authors.  I found Theo an interesting narrator, perhaps a bit too naive to be completely credible.  Apparently she has never read a Victorian melodrama, before starring in one herself.

I am looking forward now more than ever to Somerville and Ross's second novel, The Real Charlotte.


  1. Replies
    1. It is! And it's also available as an ebook. I downloaded a copy before I found one in print.


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!