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Sunday, 12 August 2012

Irish Magic: Somerville & Ross

One of my reading treats on my recent stay in the West of Ireland  - apart from reading about pirates and white slavery there in then18th Century - was to catch up with some books about and by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin Ross whose families had been on Ireland for hundreds of years... 

The way down to the harbour
from the Customs House.
Early 20th C

Significantly the old family homes of the Somervilles were located in the exquisite cul-de-sac that is Castletownshend the village where we rented a house for our stay. The house still owned by a Somerville had once been rented to the British Government for the Customs House for nearby Skibbereen – a significant building on that coast, which once the pirates stopped calling was rife with smugglers. It was certainly haunted, but that’s another story.

It is a very small village with an alleged population of one hundred and fifty but has at least half a dozen great, well appointed houses with prime views of the harbour and the sea. Most of these houses were built or serially occupied for more than a century by four intertwined families who in the latter nineteenth and earliest twentieth century lived an almost self contained life involving a round of hunting, sailing, tennis parties, playing cards, writing and performing plays and theatrical events.

For a while in earlier centuries such ascendancy families had lived like potentates building and furnishing houses on British government support, on sea trade and rents paid by Irish farmers. By the time of Edith and Violet things had changed. The Land Acts of the late nineteenth century had reduced the wealth of some families to the point that they had to work away from home as painters, actors, writers and photography to keep the roofs over their heads from falling in, Violet’s brother closed up crumbling Castle Ross and became a kind of professional Irishman in London society, preferring that to the struggle to keep up the now unrewarding role of the Irish Landlord.
Both Edith and Violet separately and then together wrote stories, articles and tales for fees with the intentions of helped to keep their family afloat. Then they got together in a famously close relationship mimicking a marriage but – despite later post Freudian retrospective analysis – neither necessarily nor provably homosexual. (Not, as we say these days, that that matters).

Out of this relationship – to the rescue of the Somerville home Drishane[1] - came a stream of stories, articles and books. Most important of these is probably The Real Charlotte which according a critic quoted by to academic biographer John Cronin is a splendid piece of realistic fiction, a definitive exploration of ‘the Indian Summer of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy.’ He compares it with Jane Austen’s work in its tautness and resilience.

 Charlotte Mullen, at the centre of the novel a dark and destructive a figure of evil- is entirely convince, This novel has been called the finest Irish novel of the 19th Century.
They then went on to the subsequently more famous Some Experiences of an Irish RM which was phenomenally successful.

I am famously serious in my approach to life but there beside the roaring peat fire in the ex- Customs House in Castletownshend I laughed out loud at these tales which were based in this very village but could apply universally to small communities everywhere.

Edith and Violet at a typical  Castletowneshend
Tenniss Party
This pair of writers make their complementary sense of humour and ear for verbal anarchic usage shine from the page. The graphic nature of the writing is such that we see tumbles from horses, worthy characters covered in mud, encounters on the road to Skibbereen, the pompous incomers exposed, sly characters rewarded on the one hand and outed on the other. We meet rich complex characters which remind me of those in Dickens’ novels or working class Victorian Britain.  The dark nature of death and injustice it touched upon in a place where death is an everyday experience, be it the bird, animal or person.

Their letters show that these two were obsessed with the language patterns and idioms of their native countryside which as Canadian reviewer Susan Smith observes’ ...contains a curious mixture of the poetic and the absurd with the vitality of Elizabethan English. One letter recounts the story of  a widow who was  … left with one child and the invoice for another  ...since they recorded the language of the common people …their writing has a depth and range missing in other Anglos Irish writers…’ For this reason, Smith says, we should not associate Somerville and Ross with those associated with the Celtic Revival, such as Lady Gregory and WB Yeats.  A very enlightening thought for me.

So beside an Irish fireside I learned a lot not just about these two remarkable women and their writing but about the subtleties of Irish-English identity (I learned not to think about them and Anglo-Irish. They were definitely Irish first.) I learned about the poignant nature of these families and their affairs in the twilight and unloosening of their visceral connection with England.

I also got to re-acquaint myself with a pair of excellent writers from whom I can learn a lot about telling a good story in good style.

It also occurs to me that this extraordinary world could be the setting for a good novel or a great film © Wendy Robertson 2012
Should take more holidays perhaps.

Some Books Read:
The Real Charlotte: Somerville & Ross
Some Experiences of an Irish RM: Somerville & Ross

Selected Letters of Somerville & Ross; Edited By Gifford Lewis
                    - With an excellent forward by Molly Keane

Somerville & Ross: The World of the Irish RM
-          A gorgeous picture book with informative text. As you see from this page images are very much part of the story.

Somerville & Ross:  John Cronin 
This is more like an academic thesis considering letters and books in analytical detail. Very enlightening