Hiberbole

Patricia Craig

  • Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M. by Gifford Lewis
    Viking, 251 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 670 80760 5

The first work of collaboration between Edith Oenone Somerville and her cousin Violet Martin (‘Martin Ross’) was a Buddh dictionary – ‘Buddh’ being the family word for members of the family, and the dictionary consisting of words peculiar to it. ‘Blaut’, for instance, in Buddh circles, meant ‘violently to express immoderate fury’. The insufficiency of ordinary English, when it came to strong feelings, caused a good deal of improvisation among the Somervilles and their family connections. A feeling for the comically expressive phrase, we learn from Gifford Lewis’s affectionate study, asserted itself early on in the literary cousins. They couldn’t have been better placed to gratify it, what with family loquacity, and with Irish servants and tradespeople expostulating idiomatically all around them. ‘Sure the hair’s droppin’ out o’ me head, and the skin rollin’ off the soles o’ me feet with the heart scald I get with her!’: that sort of thing. Readers of the R.M. stories gain a strong impression of lower-class Irish hyperbole. Edith Somerville carried around with her a notebook in which she jotted down any local extravagance of speech she overheard. (She also carried a sketchbook in which she drew, very efficiently, Irish huntsmen: the inelegant in pursuit of the inedible.)

Edith Somerville was born in 1858 – the first of eight children – and grew up at Drishane House, Castletownshend, in County Cork. Her mother and Martin’s were first cousins; Martin, of Ross House, County Galway, was the younger of the two by four years. Somerville and Ross, in fact, didn’t meet until 1886, when Martin was 24. She, Gifford Lewis makes plain, was the weaker and more conventional of the two: it took the boisterous Somervilles to bring her out of herself. Edith started the process by dressing in witch’s clothing, for a prank, and nearly frightening the life out of Martin and her party, who’d come to Castletownshend on a visit. Ill-fed – diet being a matter of no consequence at Ross House – short-sighted and apt to pass out, Martin was subject to mishaps. ‘There are many distressing descriptions,’ Mrs Lewis tells us, in a chapter describing the hazards of getting about in Victorian Ireland, ‘of her slight body being pitched from cabs and traps’ When she wasn’t falling out of conveyances or falling off horses – it’s thought that a bad fall in 1898 caused her death in 1915 – Martin was tumbling down the crooked back-stairs at Ross House, and putting herself out of action for weeks on end. None of this deterred her from hunting: vague but resolute, she would launch herself, and her mount, at any obstacle looming in the rough Irish countryside, hoping for the best. The side-saddle posture didn’t help. Mrs Lewis enumerates the effects of sitting strained and twisted to one side for up to eight hours at a stretch. Conventional riding costume, moreover, included a skirt which was apt to prove lethal by getting entangled with the saddle. No matter – hunting provided an outlet for high spirits and hoydenism. Call it ‘pest-control’ and it became a social benefit too. No wonder the cousins were among those addicted to the wild sports of the west.

The really adept horsewoman was Edith Somerville, who schooled her own hunters, and even obtained a part of her income from horse-dealing, which brought in more money than writing. Money was needed for the upkeep of both Drishane and Ross. The Anglo-Irish were hard hit by Gladstone and his Land Acts – there was one passed in 1881, for example, which aimed, among other things, to do away with unfair rents. Landlords who hadn’t exploited their tenants – in which category Mrs Lewis firmly places the Somervilles and Martins – suffered along with the others. New-fangled acts of defiance sometimes caused them to suffer too. The Martin family, especially, was distressed by the attitude of its headstrong social inferiors who rejected Conservative Unionism in favour of Nationalism in the election of 1872. Mrs Lewis attributes the death of Martin’s father to this ‘betrayal’ – and there’s a poignant image of Ross House, after it, temporarily uninhabited, and with rabbits scampering over the great steps before the main entrance.

Elizabeth Bowen, another Anglo-Irishwoman, applauds the sangfroid and ingenuity of the ‘big house’ people who refused to relinquish the reputation that dogged them, that of being ‘the heartless rich’, while struggling to stay solvent and keep a watertight roof. (Their domestic disasters, like everything else about them, tended to occur on a grand scale. A female relative of Edith Somerville’s, we learn from Gifford Lewis, once accidentally demolished the family mansion.) At Castletownshend and its outskirts, certainly, theatrical performances in the shrubberies, outings, dances and other merry activities continued unabated in the face of dwindling financial resources. Edith Somerville wrote indignantly in her diary in 1882 about the non-payment of rents to her uncle Joscelyn Coghill, adding that the threat of eviction would surely force the brutes to pay up; however, the rights and wrongs of land agitation didn’t engage her attention greatly at the time. She had other matters to contend with – among them, we’re given to understand, a love affair which came to nothing: the man in question wasn’t rich enough to commend himself to Edith’s father. Not too much information is available about this episode, which Mrs Lewis cites as a factor in Edith’s opting for celibacy and a career – by 1886, when Martin came on the scene, go-ahead Edith had managed to get an art training in Düsseldorf and Paris, and was doing rather well as an illustrator.

The two thoroughly talented young women (Martin’s talents included the ability to buck up a dull party by imitating a terrier with its tail trapped in the door) got their heads together over the Buddh dictionary, turned professional with An Irish Cousin (1889), and went on to write The Real Charlotte (published in 1894), which many people consider their finest work. It contains a lot of disagreeable characters all trying to better themselves at the expense of someone else. Charlotte Mullen is a strong-minded woman of 40, plain in appearance, and absurdly infatuated with a neighbour who thinks very well of himself – too well to do anything to Charlotte other than borrow money from her. Francie Fitzpatrick, Charlotte’s poor relation, and the heroine of the novel, is a silly girl. The local grandees are an insane old autocrat in a bath chair and his unengaging wife. Class, chicanery and social transgressions are treated seriously in this book – but it was a jocular approach to these topics that made Somerville and Ross popular. Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., in which an amiable Englishman comes face to face with Irish blather and buffoonery, first appeared in 1899. Major Yeates is the Resident Magistrate who soon discovers what an uproarious business life is in out-of-the-way Skebawn, and thereabouts.

Disraeli, who seems not to have thought highly of the Irish, once labelled the lot of them ‘wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious’; it’s as if Somerville and Ross latched on to this pronouncement and gave it a comic twist. The R.M. stories are very facetious and light-hearted, full of inoffensive belligerence and lovable improbity. The hunting contretemps is very much a feature of the R.M., with people for ever ‘picking themselves in ignominy out of a briar patch’, or entering a bedroom as a pack of hounds leaps off the bed. Consonants are thickened and vowels broadened all over the place – ‘throuble’, ‘shneakin’, ‘dhread’, ‘discoorse’. A lot of readers found the antics and the idiom enormously diverting – but not, by and large, the Irish: to start with at any rate. In nationalist circles the figure of fun, however benignly presented, wasn’t considered a suitable incarnation for an Irishman – and its prevalence throughout the 19th century was cause for affront. The jokey manner of Somerville and Ross ran counter to the spirit of organisations like the Gaelic League (though Douglas Hyde, founder of that body, was on sufficiently friendly terms with Edith Somerville to translate for her an Irish ballad commemorating an exploit of her grandfather’s).

The plain people of Ireland, having had inferiority foisted on them, were fed up with it and its expressions in literature – hence the adverse reaction to the knockabout concoctions of Somerville and Ross, and even to the decorative peasant life enshrined by Synge in pungent language. These people resented, perhaps, the presumption of Ascendancy commentators who found in lives outside their own experience material for allegory or farce. Eventually, as circumstances changed, the R.M. stories gained an appreciative audience in Ireland, the thing to repudiate now being an inability to take a joke against yourself. Edith Somerville all along disowned any impulse towards satire (justly enough – the stories and novels aren’t mordant enough for that), as well as rejecting the adjective ‘rollicking’, which seemed to her to imply some want of authenticity. She had her notebooks filled with Irish expressions to testify to the correctness of the R.M.’s examples of rich native speech. It does, however, matter with the Somerville and Ross stories that the authors use dialect as the object rather than the instrument of ridicule (however good-humoured) – the clownish Irish act having palled.

Still, the energy and professionalism of the authors call for admiration; whatever they tackled, they did it with as much verve as they could muster. Their partnership lasted for nearly thirty years, being broken only by the death of Violet Martin – a break, indeed, that Edith Somerville refused to acknowledge. She’d always been possessed of a degree of psychic power – we learn from Gifford Lewis that a small table once followed her across a room – and she insisted that her dead collaborator had a hand in the books that appeared (under both names) after 1915. Maurice Collis, who published a biography of Somerville and Ross in 1968, took the line that such closeness could only have come about as a result of a lesbian attachment between the cousins – a supposition very sensibly refuted by Gifford Lewis, who mentions the one authenticated sexual overture of this kind made to Edith, by Dame Ethel Smyth. Edith recommended that she exercise her passions elsewhere. ‘Hear from ES, her ears bad,’ she noted in her diary, when the composer wrote feelingly to her.

Edith Somerville, who was born in the year the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in America, went on living (and living in Ireland) until 1949, by which time she’d added 15 titles to the Somerville and Ross output – no more R.M. stories though, as these required a jollier tone than she could manage – seen her brother murdered by Irish extremists, developed a strong aversion to ‘immorality’, practised automatic writing, and observed the decline of her own class in reconstituted Ireland. Through it all, she never lost the ability to make an impact: the girl who’d danced a long-step mazurka down the steep hill at Castletownshend in her 19th year, turned up at her niece’s wedding in 1944 wearing a stuffed seagull on her head.