The Irish artist and writer Edith Somerville said that she ‘was taught in Paris that it was the first impression that mattered – paint rapidly so as to keep it fresh’. A new publication published by Somerville Press entitled Two Irish Girls in Bohemia (The Drawings and Writings of E. Œ. Somerville and Martin Ross) captures those initial impressions in its study of Somerville’s sketchbooks from 1880 up until WWI. The book, by Julie Anne Stevens, with a foreword by Bruce Arnold, shows how visual art became central in fiction about Ireland that Somerville co-authored with her cousin Martin Ross (Violet Martin).
Somerville & Ross, who lived in Castletownshend and maintained strong links with West Cork, travelled back and forth from Ireland to continental Europe throughout the Belle Époque. The sketchbooks and other ephemeral material – including first drafts of Somerville & Ross’ great realist novel, The Real Charlotte (1894), correspondence, children’s books and cartoon strips – bring to life the risks and delights that female artists/writers faced at that time. With little money but plenty of friends, Somerville and Ross managed to establish a writing partnership that produced a range of comic works bringing together picture and text.
This book is about the struggle to create art. It shows the Anglo-Irish network that supported, but also constrained, the young women writers. It describes reactions to a modernising world, whether it is introducing the bicycle to Connemara or impressionist ideas to the developing Irish short story. And it reveals the extent to which Somerville & Ross responded to the art and literature of the day, especially Irish writers like Oscar Wilde, Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Moore.
The author of this new book, Julie Anne Stevens, is originally from Great Falls, Montana, but came to Ireland with her family as a teenager. She lived in Cong, Co Mayo and studied Irish literature in University College Galway, before moving to Dublin where she continued her research in Trinity College. She now publishes and lectures on Irish literature and the visual arts, illustrated children’s books, and short fiction. She published The Irish Scene in Somerville & Ross in 2007 and co-edited The Ghost Story from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century in 2010. She lectures in the School of English, Dublin City University, lives in Dublin and visits Montana whenever she can.
• Two Irish Girls in Bohemia was launched at the Royal Irish Academy on Tuesday, September 5th. It is published by Somerville Press and rrp is €20. www.somervillepress.com