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literature

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Somerville, Edith (1858-1949) and Violet Martin (1862-1915)  

Authors of numerous hunting sketches, short stories, and novels, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were second cousins and members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Somerville was born May 2, 1858, in Corfu and died October 8, 1949, at Castle Townshend, Ireland. She was raised in her family's West Cork eighteenth-century "big house."

This upbringing provided material for her writings, most of which she co-authored with her companion Violet Martin, who was born at Ross House, County Galway, on June 11, 1862, and died on December 21, 1915, in the home she shared with Somerville in Drishane, County Cork.

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The collaborative works of the two women explore, often comically and with particular attention to Irish idiom, relations between the landed classes and the peasantry. A keen huntswoman and suffragist, Somerville was also in later life a close friend of lesbian composer Ethel Smyth.

Trained as an illustrator, Somerville met Martin in 1886. The encounter was pivotal: As Somerville recalled in Irish Memories (1917), the meeting "proved the hinge of my life, the place where my fate, and hers, turned over. . . ." Somerville's is the language of Romantic Friendship.

The two women became life and literary partners. Their families were initially shocked by the latter relationship: Writing seemed a vulgar occupation. Although both women took pseudonyms--Martin was "Martin Ross," Somerville was "Guilles Herring"--only Martin's endured.

The cousins' collaboration yielded a highly successful partnership that lasted nearly three decades and, arguably, even longer. Although Martin died in 1915, Somerville believed that communication with her continued via automatic writing; Somerville's later works were published under both their names.

Somerville and Ross are best known for Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1899), a collection of comic short stories, but the early novel The Real Charlotte (1894) is their most important literary achievement.

Like the authors themselves, the two principal characters of the novel are cousins; and Charlotte can best be understood in terms of her cousin Francie, her physical, emotional, and economic counterpoint. Where Charlotte is plain and middle-aged, Francie is beautiful and young; where Charlotte is a ruthless schemer, Francie is a good-hearted blunderer; and where Charlotte steadily gains wealth and land, Francie refuses the marriage proposal that would afford her the same.

In these respects opposites, the women are nonetheless both placed in plots of frustrated desire. Not even Francie's marriage to the man whom Charlotte loves and the latter's consequent attempts to ruin the couple financially can disrupt the powerful kinship between the two women. The romantic aspirations of each are thwarted because the woman lacks either one or both of those conventional ingredients of female mobility, looks and wealth. Charlotte and Francie constitute the real couple of the novel.

Criticism of The Real Charlotte, perhaps the finest Irish novel of the nineteenth century, includes uneasy speculation concerning the authors' private lives, which serves to discount Somerville and Ross's achievements. The partners have been called "eccentric" and their literary productions "unlikely."

Although Somerville never spoke of her relationship with Ross as lesbian, her memoirs indicate clearly that it was passionate and primary. To judge from the authors' thirteen published volumes, it was also nourishing.

Margaret Soenser Breen

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Cronin, Anthony. "Edith Somerville and Martin Ross: Women Fighting Back." Heritage Now. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Mooney, Shawn R. "'Colliding Stars': Heterosexism in Biographical Representations of Somerville and Ross." Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 18.1 (July 1992): 157-175.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Breen, Margaret Soenser  
    Entry Title: Somerville, Edith and Violet Martin  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 4, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/somerville_martin.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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