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Tell me about … your fascination with writer Edith Somerville

June 1st, 2022 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

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Martina Devlin on how the West Cork writer paved the way for her and other female authors

When did you first become aware of the writing of Edith Somerville?

I was aware of her from The Irish RM television series, which we watched as a family. I liked how the locals weren’t the butt of the jokes but managed to get one over on their so-called betters. Later I read the RM stories (there are three collections) and found them vivacious, fast-moving and funny. They conjure up a time and place, and their use of dialect and colourful phrases is spot-on. Somerville and Ross must have listened intently to conversations going on around them. Also, they were brilliant at endings. The stories were sent to cheer up the troops on the Western Front during World War I.

What was most significant about her, in your opinion?

She was dynamic, hard-working, creative and loyal, with a well-developed sense of humour. Women like her could have ruled the world, but instead kept the home fires burning for their husbands, brothers and fathers. At least Edith had a fulfilling career as a writer and artist, but she had to push hard to be allowed to do those things – young ladies of her class didn’t tend to get involved in the hustle of life. She used to hide in a wardrobe when her mama wanted her to stop writing, and go out to pay social calls.

Did she leave a legacy for other Irish female writers do you think?

Of course, we’re standing on their shoulders – they helped to pave the way. Edith and her co-author Martin Ross (real name Violet Martin) refused to be treated as dilettantes, they approached their work in a professional manner. They had one of the first literary agents, JM or James Brand Pinker, who handled a literary who’s who from Henry James to Joseph Conrad. They were always badgering him to have the work published in cheap editions to achieve volume, and make sure their royalties were paid promptly – when they wrote to him reminding him of the latter, they called them ‘stand and deliver’ letters. They knew their worth – and that’s a good lesson for women of all professions to absorb.

• Edith: A Novel by Martina Devlin is published by the Lilliput Press

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