Ross and Somerville Essay - Critical Essays

Ross and Somerville


Somerville and Ross 1858-1949 and 1862-1915-

(Full names Edith Onone Somerville, also cited as Edith Anna Oenone, pseudonym Guilles Herring; and Violet Florence Martin, pseudonym Martin Ross) Irish short story writers, novelists, essayists, and memoirists.

The following entry presents criticism of Somerville and Ross's short fiction career through 1996.

Irish cousins Somerville and Ross collaborated on many novels, short stories, travel books, memoirs, and essays during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. From the time they published their first novel, An Irish Cousin (1889), the authors enjoyed great popularity. Their most critically acclaimed work is the novel The Real Charlotte (1894), but they are perhaps best known for three volumes of humorous stories—Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1899), Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1908), and In Mr. Knox's Country (1915), which were later collected together as The Irish R.M. and His Experiences (1928).

Biographical Information

Somerville was born on the island of Corfu. The oldest of eight children, she grew up on the Somerville family estate in Cork, where she developed a great love for the Irish countryside, people, and pastimes. Educated primarily at home, Somerville displayed a talent for painting and drawing while young. In her late teens she studied at the South Kensington School of Art, and later in art schools on continental Europe. She returned home in 1886, and shortly after met her cousin Violet Martin, who also belonged to a landed Protestant family. Somerville later referred to this meeting as “the hinge of my life, the place where my life, and hers, turned over.” The two women discovered a shared enthusiasm for writing, and within a year of meeting each other, they were at work on a novel together, despite their families' conviction that writing was not respectable work for young ladies of good breeding. During their literary partnership, which lasted twenty-eight years, Somerville and Ross wrote five novels together, as well as short stories, travel essays, and memoirs. After Ross's death in 1915 of an inoperable brain tumor, Somerville at first had no intention of further pursuing her literary career. However, she resumed writing after a spiritualist friend convinced her that she could still contact Ross's spirit through automatic writing. Nearly all of Somerville's subsequent works were published under the joint signature of Somerville and Ross. Following Ross's death, Somerville wrote three more novels of critical significance: Mount Music (1919), An Enthusiast (1921), and The Big House of Inver (1925). For some of these works, Somerville made use of notes and drafts that Ross and left behind. She also published a series of essays Ross had written alone, along with some of her own, in a collection called Irish Memories (1917). In her later years, Somerville toured the United States, and her paintings and drawings were exhibited in American and European galleries. She died in 1949.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Somerville and Ross wrote in a variety of genres, their predominant works being novels, short stories, and collections of short incidental pieces. The authors show a clear concern with Anglo-Irish society, a pride in their family history, and a deep understanding and genuine depiction of the Irish character. The literary output of Somerville and Ross includes both serious and humorous books. Alongside more somber novels such as The Real Charlotte, for instance, are Naboth's Vineyard (1891), a study of Irish peasant life, and Beggars on Horseback (1895), a work comprised of travel sketches that are evidence of the women's love of their Irish countryside. Their best-known works, however, are the stories dealing with Major Sinclear Yeates, an English rural magistrate who attempts to impose his nation's law on an Irish province. Filled with chases, mix-ups, and other comic conventions, the stories are brought to life with vivid Irish dialect. Enormously popular, Some Experiences of an Irish R.M was followed by two sequels, Further Experiences of an Irish R.M., and In Mr. Knox's Country. The Irish R.M. stories have been attacked by some commentators for what they believe are stereotypical depictions of Irish peasants as drunk, untrustworthy, and clownish. Other critics, however, observe that Somerville and Ross just as frequently satirize their own class. Many critics find that while the writers are best remembered for the Irish R.M. stories rather than for their realistic novels, their comic and serious fiction are complementary, looking at the same themes from a different angle. What is not disputed is the authors' flair for minute realistic detail, their often ironic sense of humor, and their gift for rendering Irish dialect on the printed page.

Critical Reception

The work of Somerville and Ross did not meet with immediate critical and popular acceptance. For instance, initially The Real Charlotte, a novel that portrayed the decline of the aristocracy, was not well received. It was found to be unladylike, and gloomy. Detractors said that the plot wandered. Modern critics, however, have acknowledged it as one of the major novels of nineteenth-century Irish literature. The first volume of the R. M. stories was critically lauded by English reviewers, though, and brought the two international fame. Interest in Somerville and Ross declined in the 1940s and 1950s, although their writing did maintain a literary stature in Irish or Anglo-Irish academia. However, the 1960s brought a renewal of interest in Ascendancy Ireland and Somerville and Ross's writing. English and Irish critics cited The Real Charlotte and The Big House of Inver as classic Irish novels, and the R.M. series was popularized by a British television adaptation, all furthering Somerville's and Ross's contribution to the canon of Irish literature.

Principal Works

Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. 1899

All on the Irish Shore: Irish Sketches (short stories and sketches) 1903

Some Irish Yesterdays (short stories and sketches) 1906

Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. 1908

In Mr. Knox's Country 1915

*Wheel-Tracks (short stories and sketches) 1923

The Irish R.M. and His Experiences 1928

Experiences of an Irish R.M. 1944

Maria and Some Other Dogs (anthology) 1949

An Irish Cousin (novel) 1889

Naboth's Vineyard (novel) 1891

Through Connemara in a Governess Cart (travel essay) 1892

In the Vine Country (travel essay) 1893

The Real Charlotte (novel) 1894

Beggars on Horseback (travel essay) 1895

The Silver Fox (novel) 1898

Dan Russel The Fox (novel) 1911

Irish Memories (memoirs) 1917

*Mount Music (novel) 1919

Stray-aways (essays) 1920

*An Enthusiant (novel) 1921

*The Big House of Inver (novel) 1925

*French Leave (novel) 1928

*The States through Irish Eyes (travel essay) 1930

*These works were written by Somerville after the death of Ross.


The Dial (review date 16 March 1900)

SOURCE: Review of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., by Somerville and Ross. The Dial 28, no. 330 (16 March 1900): 207.

[In the following positive review of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., the critic states that the stories are a genuine depiction of Irish life.]

The dozen rollicking but not overdrawn sketches of rural life in the west of Ireland, collectively entitled Some Experiences of an Irish R. M. (Longmans), are reprinted from the Badminton Magazine, and they are well worth it. There is a note of genuineness in the book, despite its element of fiction, that we like. The stories are supposed to be told by a newly settled Resident...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

The Nation (review date 8 October 1908)

SOURCE: Review of Further Experiences of an Irish R. M., by Somerville and Ross. The Nation 87, no. 2258 (8 October 1908): 340.

[In the following review of Further Experiences of an Irish R. M., the critic, lamenting the tedious and dreary nature of most fiction, welcomes the work as comic literature.]

In these days, when fiction in general is either purposeful or futile to the verge of tears, one welcomes a book whose aim, avowed and accomplished, is a hearty and wholesome laugh. In these short stories [Further Experiences of an Irish R.M.], there is neither the tragedy of overwhelming fate nor of the writer's incompetence, but the same comedy,...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

C. L. Graves (review date July 1913)

SOURCE: Graves, C. L. “The Lighter Side of Irish Life.” Quarterly Review 219, no. 436 (July 1913): 26-47.

[In the following excerpt, Graves praises the partnership of Somerville and Ross.]

The literary partnership of Miss Edith Somerville and Miss Violet Martin—the most brilliantly successful example of creative collaboration in our times—began with An Irish Cousin in 1889. Published over the pseudonyms of ‘Geilles Herring’ and ‘Martin Ross,’ this delightful story is remarkable not only for its promise, afterwards richly fulfilled, but for its achievement. The writers proved themselves the possessors of a strange faculty of detachment which...

(The entire section is 6844 words.)

H. A. Hinkson (review date September 1915)

SOURCE: Hinkson, H. A. “A Good Bag.” Bookman 48 (September 1915): 172-73.

[In the following excerpt, Hinkson is impressed by the portrayal of Irish life by Somerville and Ross in In Mr. Knox's Country.]

We are informed by the gifted authors of In Mr. Knox's Country that the book was written before the war. And we are glad that it was, for it is hardly possible that even such light-hearted gaiety and buoyant humour as the authors possess in so remarkable a degree should not otherwise have suffered some sort of eclipse, owing to the terrible events of the past year. So, grateful as we are for the works which preceded, we are doubly grateful for their latest...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Orlo Williams (essay date February 1920)

SOURCE: Williams, Orlo. “A Little Classic of the Future1.” The London Mercury 1, no. 4 (February 1920): 555-64.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the work of Somerville and Ross as comic literature and predicts that their works will become classics.]

The evanescence of laughter is most pathetic. Its bubbles vanish from the sparkling wine that held it so soon after it has been uncorked, leaving a sadly flat beverage to the critical palates of future generations. Wit, being a subtler and less easily disintegrated essence, does not so quickly pass away, but the buoyant bubbles of laughter, except in some rare vintages, survive but a moment the...

(The entire section is 5874 words.)

Geraldine Cummins (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Cummins, Geraldine. “Two Irish Cousins.” In Dr. E. OE. Somerville: A Biography, pp. 14-36. London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1952.

[In the following excerpt, Cummins provides a detailed account of the collaboration of Somerville and Ross.]

‘Le style c'est l'homme même.’ The style is the man himself, or as the Bible tells us, ‘By their works ye shall know them.’ So I shall now tell of the works of Somerville and Ross.

In 1942 Miss Elizabeth Hudson published a Bibliography of the first editions of the books of Somerville and Ross. But only three hundred copies of this Bibliography were printed and these were sold in the United States....

(The entire section is 8474 words.)

Geraldine Cummins (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Cummins, Geraldine. “Some Later Publications.” In Dr. E. OE. Somerville: A Biography, pp. 37-45. London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1952.

[In the following essay, Cummins examines the later collaboration of Somerville and Ross.]

It is significant that the ‘Two Irish Cousins’ did not frequent literary circles in Dublin or London but passed their lives in their native counties, Galway and Cork.

In choosing this way of life theirs was a wise instinct, for the great artist should be racy of his native soil. Character is essential to all good art—the kind of character that expresses racial and territorial characteristics. Literature should be...

(The entire section is 3074 words.)

John Cronin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Cronin, John “Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1899) and Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1908)” and “End of a Partnership: Dan Russel the Fox (1911) and In Mr. Knox's Country (1915).” In Somerville and Ross, pp. 50-66, 67-75. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1972.

[In the following essays, Cronin chronicles the literary partnership of Somerville and Ross and surveys the short fiction in In Mr. Knox's Country.]

In the summer of 1898 Edith and Martin went on holiday to Étaples where Edith painted busily and Martin helped by beating off intrusive French children who tried to steal the paints and jostle the artist....

(The entire section is 7900 words.)

Wayne E. Hall (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Hall, Wayne E. “Somerville and Ross.” In Shadowy Heroes: Irish Literature of the 1890s, pp. 66-74. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Hall presents an overview of the social, political, and economic processes that formed the background for Somerville and Ross's writing.]

Somerville and Ross frequently placed their own experiences against a broad background of major social processes. In “The Martins of Ross,” an essay on her family written only a few years before her death in 1915, Violet Martin described her father's funeral in 1872 as the final tableau in a tragic drama: “With the death of my father the curtain fell...

(The entire section is 3289 words.)

Anthony Cronin (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Cronin, Anthony. “Edith Somerville and Martin Ross: Women Fighting Back.” In Heritage Now: Irish Literature in the English Language, pp. 75-86. Kerry, Ireland: Brandon Book Publishers, 1982.

[In the below essay, Cronin places the work of Somerville and Ross within its historical context.]


Edith Somerville first saw her cousin, Violet Martin, on 17th January, 1886. “It was”, she wrote in after-life, “as it happens, in church that I saw her first; in our own church, in Castle Townshend … It is trite, not to say stupid, to expatiate upon that January Sunday when I first met her; yet it has proved the hinge of my life, the...

(The entire section is 5131 words.)

Harold Orel (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Orel, Harold. “Some Elements of Truth in the Short Stories of Somerville and Ross: An Appreciation.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 30, no. 1 (1987): 17-25.

[In the below essay, Orel challenges and thereby revises the notion that Somerville and Ross, in their short fiction, represented the viewpoint of the Ascendancy class to which they themselves belonged.]

The thirty-four stories of Somerville and Ross have been reprinted in one volume under an omnibus title, The Irish R. M. and his Experiences (1928). For three generations the authors have been censured for adopting wholeheartedly and uncritically the prejudices of the Ascendancy class...

(The entire section is 4312 words.)

James M. Cahalan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Cahalan, James M. “‘Humor with a Gender’: Somerville and Ross and The Irish R.M.” In The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, edited by Theresa O'Connor, pp. 58-72. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

[In the following essay, Cahalan offers a discussion of the ways in which the R.M. stories are written from a specifically woman's point of view, and stresses the various ways in which the figure of Major Yeates embodies a self-criticism of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy class.]

Ever since the publication of the first story in 1898—“Great Uncle McCarthy” in London's Badminton Magazine—Somerville and Ross's The Irish...

(The entire section is 5949 words.)

Further Reading


Hudson, Elizabeth. A Bibliography of the First Editions of the Works of E. OE. Somerville and Martin Ross. New York: The Sporting Gallery and Bookshop Inc., 1942.

Bibliographic reference publication on Somerville and Ross.

Gonzalez, Alexander G. Modern Irish Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Bio-bibliographic work which includes coverage of Somerville and Ross.


Buck, Claire. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. New York: Prentice-Hall General Reference, 1992, 972 p.


(The entire section is 124 words.)