The Carefree Days of Somerville and Ross

Somerville and Ross were a pair of Anglo-Irish ladies. Edith Somerville was born in 1858 on the island of Corfu.  She then grew up in County Cork. In 1886, she met her cousin Violet Martin.  For reasons that are not altogether clear. the two decided that they were a superb collaborating team of writers and inseparable companions. They began to write together, assuming the nom de plume, Somerville and Ross. By the time of Violet’s death in 1916, they had written 14 books together.

Edith was stunned by the loss of Violet. She refused to accept that Violet was gone, connected with her regularly via seances and continued to write as if Violet were co-.authoring.  Hmmm … perhaps in a sense, she was.

They were birds of a feather. Though they had political differences (Edith was an Irish nationalist and Violet a unionist) they saw the world through the same filter. That filter was the nurturing and pleasurable country life, especially that of the upper middle class of the Anglo-Irish, to which they both belonged. And that enjoyment spills into their story telling. It is not serious and it is not meant to be serious. I would compare it to Jerome K. Jerome, who was writing around the same time. Though Jerome was more flippant.

Back in the 1980’s snippets of their stories were cobbled together into a TV series called “The Irish RM”. It is brilliant, due in large part to the acting of Peter Bowles (who played the English major with the job of RM — resident magistrate — trying to figure out obscure and clever Irish ways).  I highly recommend watching the whole series. Here is one episode.

But this does not give you a glimpse of the writing style of Somerville and Ross. To get that, check out how they open this story entitled “When I first Met Dr Hickey”

There was a wonderful chandelier in the hotel dining room. Fine bronze it was made of, with mermaids, and tritons, and dolphins flourishing their tails up towards the dingy ceiling-paper, and peaked galleys, on whose prows sat six small lamps, with white china receptacles for paraffin and smokey brown chimneys. Gone were the brave days when each prow had borne a galaxy of tall wax candles; the chandelier might consider itself lucky in that it had even the paraffin lamps to justify its existence, and that it still hung from a ceiling, instead of sharing the last resting place of its twin brother, in the bed of the tidal river under the hotel windows.

Wow! What a whopper! Overdone? Of course, but in a way that still draws you in, as it reveals that attitudes of the authors and the context in which they observe the world. And I love this story from The Irish RM.

In one scene, the (RM)’s English wife, Philippa (Doran Godwin) is dancing with Flurry’s groom, Slipper (Niall Toibin), at a servants’ ball. Slipper ventures to say that ‘The English and the Irish understand each other like the fox and the hound,’ to which the lady replies in good humour, ‘But which is which?’ The answer is, ‘Ah well, if we knew that, we’d know everything!’

Yes, this is comedy. Something we desperately need nowdays!


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