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Of all the collections of tales and legends, sketches and stories for which nineteenth-century fiction is famous, Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., published by two Irish women in the century’s final year, remains foremost for its combined anthropological and comic value. With an ear for native dialogue that some have claimed to be second only to James Joyce’s, Somerville and Ross portrayed the lives of the people of the west of Ireland at a time when the entire country was on the verge of serious historical change. Before the Irish short story began to develop into the internationally recognized art form it would become in the twentieth century, and before the development of Irish independence from colonial Britain, this informal collection provided the last few chuckles for the ruling Anglo-Irish Ascendancy class that a new national order would soon supplant. These hugely successful quasi-stories, narrated by an epitome of British authority called the R.M. (Resident Magistrate: a justice of the peace), display an extraordinary capacity for joking in the face of disaster. Their quirky free play with the proprieties of plot, their combination of mellifluous high prose and raucous low dialogue, their antic characterization and their buoyant illustration that all that can go wrong will most certainly go wrong, have all given generations of readers healthy fits of belly-laughing. Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., remarked one bemused reviewer of the time, is a book “no self-respecting person could read in a railway-carriage with any regard to decorum.”
The partnership of Somerville and Ross was regarded, both practically and spiritually, as a “literary miracle.” While they were cousins who shared a mutual great-grandfather, they did not meet until they were in their twenties. Edith Oenone Somerville (1858-1949) was from Castletownshend, County Cork, in the southwest of Ireland, and was a descendant of Scottish Normans who had branched across to Ireland in the late seventeenth century. Violet Martin (1862-1915) was also a west-of-Irelander, but from much further north in Connemara, County Galway, where she managed the sixteenth-century family estate of Ross which gave her the nom de plume by which she is better known. By Violet’s time, the Martin family and property were in financial disarray, largely due to the long-term effects of the Great Irish Famine, and it was thus some time before she found herself in the same circles as the equally afflicted but more cosmopolitan and ebullient Somervilles. The eventual meeting of Somerville and Ross was a talismanic moment. “That was on Sunday, January 17, 1886,” Somerville remembered, “it has proved the hinge of my life, the place where my fate, and hers, turned over, and new and unforeseen things began to happen to us.” With a striking determination to overcome the problem of distance, they launched themselves within a year on a literary career that produced some crucial testaments to the lifestyle of their privileged class of Anglo-Irish gentry. Their work was so intimately embedded in their actual lives, backgrounds, and surroundings that many of the almost Dickensian caricatures of Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. were based, directly or indirectly, on their friends, relations, and acquaintances. Speculation on the models for their generally mild satire was not the least sport enjoyed among readers when the stories first appeared.
Perhaps the most frequently quoted reaction to the R.M. stories is from an unnamed man remembered second-hand by Somerville. “First,” said this casual critic, “I read it at full speed, because I couldn’t stop, and then I read it very slowly, chewing every word; and then I read it a third time, dwelling on the bits I liked best.” Deflation followed enthusiasm: “and then, and not till then, thank Heaven! I was told it was written by two women!” This is revelatory of the contemporaneous attitudes towards women’s writing that Somerville and Ross confronted with admirable resolve. Initially, their endeavours were not encouraged even by their families, and the success they enjoyed over a twenty-year period prior to permanently living and working together at Somerville’s home from 1906 was made possible only by a mutual determination to make an independent living. They began amateurishly, but immediately found in each other the best of creative companions. They had keen critical mentalities that they were not shy of directing at each other’s work, though their evolving relationship was eminently pleasurable and respectful and each was self-deprecating in face of the other’s skills. “To write with you,” wrote Ross to Somerville as early as 1889, “doubles the triumph and enjoyment having first halved the trouble and anxiety.” A combination of equal and opposite talents worked well. Somerville proved more headlong and expansive in her writing style while Ross was more cautious and reductive; Ross had a frequently awkward phraseology that Somerville helped smooth and refine. They first decided to write a “Shilling Shocker,” a fairly simplistic melodramatic brand of novel popular at the time in Britain, but when their first effort, An Irish Cousin (1889), and their second, Naboth’s Vineyard (1891), proved successful with reviewers, they began to take themselves more seriously as literary writers. The first result of a new collaborative professionalism was The Real Charlotte (1894), widely regarded as one of the prime achievements in the Irish novel of the nineteenth century, but it was the success of Some Experiences five years later that really made their reputation.
The biographical jury is still out on the sexuality of this writing couple. Elizabeth Bowen, another landed Anglo-Irish writer from Cork, remarked on the “anaphrodisiac laughter” that surrounded the pair. Despite conventional early love interests, neither was enamoured with the idea of marriage and they remained single for life. They were extraordinarily committed to each other. When Ross died in 1915, Somerville, initially heartbroken, soon began to write again and published a range of works under their joint names since she was convinced that her deceased companion was guiding her pen from the spirit world. The novel The Big House of Inver (1925) is the most acclaimed product of this otherworldly stage of their partnership. Speculation on their private lives aside, what is irrefutable is that Somerville and Ross were robustly committed to women’s rights. They were avid suffragettes; by 1910, Somerville was president and Ross vice-president of the Munster Women’s Franchise League. The clever young ladies and immovable matriarchs of Some Experiences, glaring contrasts with its wayward and often witless men, testify to the convictions Somerville and Ross held regarding the proper representation and disposition of women in a predominantly male literary world.
Before they met, both women had written for newspapers and journals (Somerville, a trained painter, had also done considerable illustrative work) and they continued in unison to work as jobbing writers in conjunction with their advancing literary projects. Commissions for articles that would later appear in book form often involved traveling: around west Galway for Through Connemara in a Governess Cart (1892) and to France for their popular In the Vine Country (1893). Though they were happiest at home in the Irish countryside, they were astute professional networkers from the outset and kept well in touch with the business of the literary world (they were related by marriage to two of the major Irish writers of the time, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw). Ross’ brother Robert had a considerable profile as a journalist and song-writer based in London and they used his influence and connections to elicit semi-regular work from editors and publishers. They engaged as agent the vigorous J. B. Pinker, who counted among his clients Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. Not one to let two of his rising stars rest on the laurels of their novels, Pinker suggested in 1897 that they write some Irish hunting stories, modelled on comic pieces they’d already written, which he would arrange to be serialized in The Badminton Magazine and which could thereafter be collected in book form. Somerville and, especially, Ross suffered from frequent bouts of bad health (sometimes brought on by the strain of writing), and they began to properly write their R. M. stories in July 1898 while on a recuperative trip to France. The first, which took ten days to write, so delighted the editor of theBadminton that he requested a second for the following month’s issue. By the time they both returned to Cork later in the year they were well-launched on the series, and, their efforts concentrated by Ross’ housebound recovery from a hunting accident, they had finished all twelve by August 1899. The book version was published by Longmans of London in October 1899; it consolidated a reputation that had effervesced in the previous year, and within a month a second edition had to be printed.
Some Experiences was so financially and critically successful that with subsequent pressure from their publishers and agent, Somerville and Ross produced two other related collections: Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1908) and In Mr Knox’s Country (1915). All the ingredients for the success of the series overall are contained in this first volume. The Badminton was a natural choice for the serialization since it was a magazine of “Sports and Pastimes” and Somerville and Ross were writing about the signature sport of their elite class in England and Ireland: Fox Hunting. Both women rode to hounds and Somerville, especially, was known as one of the finest horsewomen in Cork. Though it seems ironic, both were devoted to animals (Ross counted among her ancestors Humanity Dick Martin, a founder of the first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals) and had wanted at one point to write a “dog novel.” While the R.M. stories remain their acme in this area, a number of their titles betray their enduring outdoor interest: The Silver Fox (1897), A Patrick’s Day Hunt (1902), Slipper’s A.B.C. of Fox Hunting (1903), Dan Russel the Fox (1911). The hunt was a mounted illustration of the elevated position of the ruling class. In the midst of land agitation, hunts had frequently been suspended in Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century, but the 1890s saw a more or less full resumption, and Some Experiences, with a softly deprecating satire, lovingly documented the practice for those readers with sufficient experience of the sport to be interested.
The narrator and protagonist of the stories is one Major Sinclair Yeates, a well-bred and partly Irish Englishman who has arrived in a remote district in the southwest of Ireland to serve as R.M. In the first story, Yeates has just arrived at the weathered house he will live in for the duration of his tenure. The prevailing pattern of the collection is established at this early stage: A series of outlandish incidents, which usually involve Yeates being beleaguered by the wily natives, will illustrate for the Major that he is not master of his own house, let alone a potential master of the new culture he is expected to regulate with British law and order. A rogue’s gallery of poachers and squatters, horse thieves, drunkards and squabblers conspires to threaten the Major’s sanity. As the narrative pace clips along and the gentry and peasantry mix, the mayhem is not infrequently orchestrated by the “squireen” Flurry Knox, at once the Major’s friend and hoodwinker and usually the character most popular with readers.
Because of their miniature plots, these “Experiences” would generally be referred to as tales, sketches, or anecdotes; the more artistic connotation of being considered stories was a genre later popularized by Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. There is artistry in the language and dialogue, certainly, and much work has been devoted to the devising of the situations that are the pretext for essentially slapstick comedy, but less attention is paid to the formal protocols of beginning, middle, and end that we tend to expect from stories. The collection, with its emphasis on the local tones of speech, owes much to older forms of oral story-telling popular in Ireland. Interest in the variant usage of English in the British colonies was growing at this time and was abetted in Ireland by the scholarly cultural nationalism of the nineteenth century. Though their own interest was motivated more by a kind of verbal realism, Somerville and Ross had definite views on Irish-English. In their essay “The Anglo-Irish Language” (1910) they argued that English as spoken in Ireland “is a fabric built by Irish architects with English bricks, quite unlike anything of English construction. . .it is a tongue pliant and subtle, expressing with every breath the mind of its makers.” Their first collaboration in manuscript form was a dictionary of words and phrases that celebrated the inventive brand of Irish-English used among their families. Both women kept copious notes, often in letters to each other, of snippets of gossip and anecdote relayed in local idiom and, ignoring the considerable differences between the demotic accents of Cork and Galway, they combined these notes in the devising of voices and situations for their characters. Though the Ireland they draw in these stories can seem a cartoon country, it was a country they felt they knew intimately. “One after the other of Major Sinclair Yeates’ friends and neighbours came effortlessly to our call,” Somerville later revealed: “It seemed as if we had always known them.”
Despite the patrician disposition characteristic of their class, Somerville and Ross felt wholly native to the extent that they had complete faith in their ability to provide a kind of comic literary documentary of late-nineteenth-century Ireland. They were more self-critical than is often assumed: Major Yeates is in the end telling these tales against himself, thus ridiculing, along with the Irish peasantry, the pretensions of the very class to which the authors belonged. Ambivalence and ambiguity dominate here. While Major Yeates’ real-life counterparts did actually wield real legal power over the Irish, it was a power that was, at the time Somerville and Ross were writing, frequently frustrated and ignored in practice; courtesy of a rising nationalist challenge, its end was in any case nigh. All this is culturally implicit in Some Experiences.
A common critical recommendation is that readers should not damage the possibility of enjoying these mainly horsy stories by wondering what they are about. They were written as entertainment and can prove evasive in the face of the cranky analyst. To the admiring Frank O’Connor, an acknowledged Irish master of short-story theory and practice, the R.M.’s experiences were to be recommended as “yarns, pure and simple.” Their authors seemed to have written these tales, he said, not in imitation of any of the literary fashions or obsessions of the time, but “just to enjoy themselves.” Stylistically explicit in Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. is the invitation to the reader to enjoy its lively retinue in the light of what the authors themselves considered all fine people of humor to be: conversational, light-hearted, and, above all else, good company.
John Kenny is a Government of Ireland Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Settlement and Historical Change, National University of Ireland, Galway. He specialises in Irish literature and culture of the modern period, particularly the areas of fiction and literary journalism.
Posted June 30, 2014
Posted March 24, 2001
The compilation of the above title and a few other works by the same authors, 'The Irish R.M. and His Experiences' is one of my all time favorite books. A must for anyone who has foxhunted in freezing downpours and visited first hand the foibles of horse folk. The phrasing is wonderful, the characters mostly deplorable, and the whole thoroughly worth reading and re-reading whenever you crave the country and the honesty of life on the back of a horse.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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