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Somerville and Ross

Violet Florence Martin, 1862 – 1915
Edith Oenone Sommerville, 1858 - 1949

Martin Ross (Violet Florence Martin) was born in Ross, County Galway to James Martin, Deputy Lieutenant of Galway, and Anna Selina Fox. Living in Dublin in her early years, Violet was educated at home and at Alexander College. Violet returned to the Martin family home, Ross House, County Galway in 1888. Violet worked as a writer and published articles in contemporary journals.

Edith Oenone Somerville was born in Castlehaven, County Cork. Edith’s parents, both of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, were Thomas Henry Somerville and Adelaide Eliza Coghill. Thomas, an army officer, was one of eight generations of Somervilles to reside in the 18th century Drishane House in County Cork. Edith grew up at Drishane, was educated by governesses, and for a time attended Alexandra College, Dublin. Edith studied painting in Paris, Düsseldorf and London. Her works appeared in one-artist shows in London and New York. Edith also wrote comic pieces and created cartoon-strips for contemporary magazines.

In 1886, second cousins Violet and Edith met. The two women realized their deeply shared interests, including family history, writing, riding and hunting. Edith and Violet became lifelong friends and literary partners, writing under the pen name ‘Somerville and Ross.’

Maria Edgeworth, credited with writing the first regional Irish novel, was a major influence upon both women. Like Edgeworth, both authors manifest an intimate understanding of regional speech and its use in day-to-day encounters between different social classes. Somerville and Ross are categorized as ‘Big House’ novelists. This term refers to the novels revolving around life in the mansions of the Anglo-Irish upper class in the nineteenth century. As changes in the political structure and social policies took place, Somerville and Ross chronicled the decline of the upper class and the rise of an Irish middle class. Ironically, each woman used money earned from professional writing to try to maintain their own respective big houses, Ross and Drishane.

Edith’s artistic eye mixed with Violet’s keen and critical powers of observation and expression. Their individual independent spirits, shared social experiences, and sense of humor resulted in works in several genres, varying in quality and popularity.

In 1889 the two published a first novel, An Irish Cousin. Other publications include Naboth’s Vineyard (1891) and The Silver Fox (1897). Somerville and Ross are famous for the series, “Some Experiences of an Irish RM.” Contemporary readers welcomed the fast-paced humor of the stories depicting landlords, tenants, servants and the goings-on at an Irish estate. The popularity of the stories encouraged Edith and Violet to write and publish “Further Experiences of an Irish R.M.”

The Real Charlotte (1894) demonstrates an insightful, serious look at the same milieu, and the book won much critical acclaim. In her introduction to the 1986 edition of The Real Charlotte, editor Virginia Beards points out that modern critics looking back at the novel give Somerville and Ross much credit. In Writers and Politics (1967) Conor Cruise O’Brien declares it to be “one of the most powerful novels about Irish life ever written.” In Shadowy Heroes: Irish Literature of the 1890’s (1980) Wayne Hall describes it as “perhaps the greatest Irish novel of the nineteenth century.”

Works cited [PDF]


Updated: February 7, 2006
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