Saturday, January 23, 2016

Naboth's Vineyard, by E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

We were then [1889] at work on a short novel that we had been commissioned to write. This was "Naboth's Vineyard," which, after various adventures, was first published by Spencer Blackett, in October, 1891. The story had had a preliminary canter in the Lady's Pictorial Christmas number as a short story, which we called "Slide Number 42." It was sufficiently approved of to encourage us to fill it up and make a novel of it. . . It was a story of the Land League, and the actors in it were all of the peasant class. It was very well reviewed... (Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville)
I love that line, "the story had had a preliminary canter..." Trust E.O. Somerville to use an equine turn of phrase. And I wish I could find a copy of "Slide Number 42."

I knew the story of Naboth's vineyard from the Bible (I Kings) - how King Ahab coveted the vineyard of his neighbor in the city of Jezreel. When Naboth refused to sell his ancestral heritage, the wicked Queen Jezebel concocted a plot to have Naboth accused of blasphemy, and the people of Jezreel stoned him to death (without trial), leaving Ahab free to seize the vineyard.

I knew nothing of the Land League in Irish history, however, until I started reading this novel. From what I learned researching on-line, it was a movement that started in 1879, to reform the tenant system in Ireland. According to, "The league’s program was based upon the 'three F’s': fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale of the right of occupancy." One of the main tactics of the movement was a "moral coventry" against landlords and agents who resisted the reforms. This came to be known as a "boycott," after it was first used against an agent named Charles Boycott in 1880. I admit, I had no idea of the origins of that term!

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Martin Ross) belonged to the Anglo-Irish class of landowners. I had read in Somerville's memoirs that the Martin family lost much of their wealth and position in disputes with the tenants of their estate in Galway. I didn't expect this story would show the Land League in a positive light. And it doesn't, but it also isn't a strident or polemical novel.  It is set in the southwest of Ireland, "near the junction of the counties of Cork and Kerry," around a small fishing town called Rossbrin.

"On a certain fine October afternoon in the year 1883," John Donovan drives out from Rossbrin to the farm of the Widow Leonard. There, he orders her on behalf of the Land League to give up Drimnahoon, a second farm that she is renting for pasturage. The property is under boycott. Mrs. Leonard, a League member herself, absolutely refuses. "My answer to the Laygue is that when I give over payin' me subscription it'll be time for them to be givin' me their ordhers about me own uncle's land..." Donovan, who in addition to his position with the League also owns the hotel in the town, calls a boycott against the Leonards. They can't buy food in the stores, they can't sell their cattle, they are shunned in church. Mrs. Leonard's prize red heifer is found dead and mutilated up at Drimnahoon.

Only one person in Rossbrin defies the boycott: Rick O'Grady, who has come home from the United States to establish a commercial fishing business among the local mackerel fishermen. It may be Mrs. Leonard's beautiful daughter Ellen, as much as his sense of fairness, that draws him into supporting them. Gradually we learn more about the conflict over Drimnahoon, and the motives that drive the different characters, including Donovan's wife Harriet and the former tenant James Mahony.

This is one of Somerville and Ross's more serious books, in contrast to the light-hearted "Irish R.M." stories. Somerville said it was a "Land League" book, but it doesn't feel like a denunciation of the group or the movement itself (whose influence is much diminished by the end). It is a story about the people of Rossbrin, of conflict and control in a small rural community. Though it doesn't quite have the power of The Real Charlotte, or the warmth of The Irish R.M., I enjoyed reading it. It is a real shame that most of Somerville and Ross's books are out of print now. I was lucky enough to find via an internet bookseller a battered Tauchnitz edition from 1891. An e-book version is available through Google Books (not, I was surprised to discover, from Project Gutenberg).

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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!