Edith Somerville (1858-1949)
Violet Martin (1862-1915)

It was, as it happens, in church that I saw her first, in our own church, in Castle Townshend. That was on Sunday, January 17, 1889... it has proved the hinge of my life, the place where my fate, and hers, turned over, and new and unforeseen things began to happen to us.

This is how Edith Somerville, in her nostalgic work, Irish Memories (1917), records the profound significance of her first meeting with her cousin, Violet Martin. It was a meeting which was to result in a deep and enduring friendship and was eventually to produce one of the most celebrated of modern literary partnerships. Violet Martin adopted the pseudonym 'Martin Ross', coupling her surname with the name of the family seat in the West of Ireland, and the two women achieved international fame as 'Somerville and Ross' with a series of fine novels and particularly as authors of the 'Irish R.M.' stories, three volumes of which appeared between 1899 and 1915. The two were second cousins, sharing a celebrated great-grandfather, Charles Kendal Bushe (1767-1843), whose biography Edith was to write in later life. The Somervilles and the Martins were long-established, Protestant, Anglo-Irish, Ascendancy families, the former based in the far south-west of Ireland at Castle Townshend and the latter in the west, in Co. Galway.

When they met, Edith was twenty-seven and 'Martin' (as Edith always called her) just twenty-four. Edith had already been abroad, to study painting at Düsseldorf and Paris, and tended always to think of herself as primarily a painter. Both women had already published a few articles and sketches but it was over a year after their first meeting that they began work on their first novel, An Irish Cousin. They embarked on this in a whimsical, amateurish mood, almost as they might have begun to devise plans for one of the fancy-dress parties in which their families delighted. There was at this time a vogue for light, popular novels of a thrilling and melodramatic kind which were known as 'Shilling Shockers' and it was to the composition of such a book that the two cousins at first applied themselves. As we shall see, a visit which they paid to the house of an elderly relative during the composition of their first novel was to alter their concept of their creative vocation and supply them with an artistic ideal of a genuine kind which they were to pursue throughout their lives. They were surprised and delighted when their first book was accepted for publication and when their second novel, Naboth's Vineyard (1891), received respectful reviews from the critics they began to take themselves seriously and decided to embark on the writing of a full-length, three-volume novel. To begin with, they named it The Welsh Aunt but it was to be published eventually in 1894 under the title, The Real Charlotte. Its composition was frequently interrupted by commissions which the partners undertook for various journals, by illness and by separation, and by the many calls made on both writers by the demands of their respective families.

The novel was well received by most of the journals and, had circumstances been different, the cousins might have gone on to the composition of further novels of major significance. As it was, however, they were diverted into the writing of highly successful short stories. The huge success of their Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. in 1899 led to a demand for more stories of the same kind. Their literary agent, J. B. Pinker, constantly pressed them to turn out more of the comic stories which had made them a household name everywhere. They published two further sets of these, Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. in 1908 and In Mr Knox's Country in 1915, the year of Violet Martin's death. She died, of an inoperable brain tumour, in a Cork nursing-home and Edith, shattered by grief, believed she would never write again now that her beloved partner had left her. Gradually, however, she came to believe that she could communicate with Martin's spirit through spiritualistic séances and that Martin wished her to go on writing. She began, appropriately enough, by publishing in 1917 a reminiscential work, Irish Memories as a loving tribute to her dead cousin. She was to go on to write five further novels and various other works in the course of the next thirty years. She always insisted that the renowned joint pseudonym of 'Somerville and Ross' should appear on all her work. She believed that the spirit of her dead partner was actively assisting her and, in any case, two of the late novels, Mount Music (1919) and The Big House of Inver (1925) had originally been planned by the partners together but had been put aside as they felt the works were attempting to deal with touchy subjects such as inter-marriage between Catholic and Protestant at 'Big-House' level.

Edith lived to a great age and, having been born into the heyday of Queen Victoria, survived into the new Ireland of Eamonn de Valera and his successors. The partners' work gradually won generous recognition from their fellow-writers and the academic world. Edith was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by Trinity College Dublin in 1932. Later in the same year, W.B. Yeats invited her to become a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and, nine years later, the Academy bestowed on her the Gregory Gold Medal, its most important literary award. She lived on at the family residence, Drimshane House, until 1946 and then moved, with her younger sister Hildegarde, to a house in the main street of Castle Townshend which bore the euphoric title of 'Tally-Ho', the name which the cousins had bestowed on the residence of Charlotte Mullen all those years before, in The Real Charlotte. It was at 'Tally-Ho' that Edith died in 1949 at the great age of ninety-one.

click here for part 2.

From the Appletree Press title: The Anglo-Irish Novel volume 1.
Also from Appletree: Famous Irish Writers.