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 Martina Devlin

(The Liliput Press, 2022)

Review by Anjali Joseph


If Edith Somerville hadn’t existed, she would have been worth inventing. 

Born in 1858, she was an Irish painter and novelist, who wrote under the pen name Somerville and Ross with her cousin Violet Martin (of Ross House in County Galway). Edith Somerville was also a keen rider to hounds, and the eldest of eight children from an Anglo-Irish Protestant family of Scottish origins who traced their line to a Norman ancestor. Indeed, for much of her long life, she was de facto head of the family, keeping Drishane, the Somerville ‘big house’ in Castletownshend, County Cork running in the absence of her brothers, all of whom served in the armed forces.

Martina Devlin’s novel opens at one of the most interesting moments of Edith’s 91-year life, in 1921-22, just before Ireland’s independence, while a guerrilla war rages between the IRA and an irregular British militia, the Black and Tans. In some respects, life goes on as before – the Somervilles, an old and stately family, are cash poor and in the novel’s sharp opening scene, Edith is in Skibbereen, the nearest market town, negotiating a long-unpaid demand for payment from the butcher. The small economies and awkward moments necessary to keep the old house running and save face are among many successful strands in Edith; another is the depiction of Edith’s relationship with the brother closest in age to her. Cameron is a retired colonel and, in Devlin’s depiction, a slightly pompous man to whom Edith must defer since he is heir to Drishane. Meanwhile, she keeps catching sight of a mysterious figure who turns out to be none other than Flurry Knox, one of the most popular figures in the ‘Irish R. M.’ stories written by Somerville and Ross. (An R. M. was a British civil servant, a ‘resident magistrate’, posted to Ireland.) The Irish R. M. ’s attempts to understand the world around him and negotiate local characters like Flurry Knox – and the large and confusing Knox clan – create much of the comedy.

The touches of whimsy in conversations between Edith and her creation, Flurry, are perhaps the least successful element of the novel, but then the world of Edith Somerville was (to borrow a phrase from Gifford Lewis’ book, The World of the Irish R. M.) one of horses, dogs, her beloved Drishane, her family, and her enjoyment (shared and doubled with Violet Martin) of the idiosyncrasies of the people around her in West Cork. Edith Somerville is, among other things, fascinating for her drawing and painting as well as writing, and for the way she negotiated various worlds in flux – among them, the extremely refined Anglo-Irish milieu of the Protestant Ascendancy which was by then so down on its luck that –  as George Bernard Shaw, married to a cousin of Edith, remarked – it was now the ‘Descendancy’. It was an Ireland in which the social order was changing at breakneck pace, and also a world in which the role of women was altering fast. 

The Somervilles and their cousins the Townshends were among the ‘affluent’ Anglicans who also dabbled heavily in mediums and other spiritualist practice – Edith, a sceptic at first, came to these practices after the death of her beloved Violet Martin and continued to talk to her through various mediums, even to write ‘with’ her as ‘Somerville and Ross’. A further ‘mystery’ that has exercised biographers is the relationship between the two – as well as cousins, close friends and co-authors, were they romantic partners? Maurice Collis, the first biographer of Somerville and Ross, was adamant that they were; Gifford Lewis, a later biographer, was clear that they were not.

Devlin weaves many of these strands into a thriller-style plot in which the very real danger that Drishane and other ‘big houses’ faced (many were burned to the ground by Republicans) then spins into sinister events that also prefigure the 1936 assassination of Edith’s brother, Admiral Boyle Somerville, shot on his own doorstep in Castletownshend by the IRA, shortly before De Valera outlawed the paramilitary organisation. Wearing its impeccable research lightly, Martina Devlin’s Edith is a fitting reanimation of one of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ most successful and interesting women writers. 

Photo courtesy of internet archive book images (Irish Memories)