Ross and Somerville Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.