Two Irish Girls in Bohemia by Julie Anne Stevens
Dublin academic Julie Anne Stevens is an expert on the great Irish writing duo Edith Somerville and her cousin, Violet Martin – who wrote under the pseudonym, Martin Ross. Prurient reader speculation on the exact nature of their relationship, however, remains unsatisfied. Were they more to each other than a professional team? Stevens quotes from a letter that suggests they shared the same bed. She also states that Edith rejected the advances of a well-known lesbian, Ethel Smyth. Other than that this book concentrates on their nascent feminism.
In the mid 1880s Somerville travelled frequently to Europe, studying art in Dusseldorf and Paris. She saw that men were more readily accepted into that world; women were thought of as muses or models rather than artists. Some of the sketches that Stevens has selected for Two Irish Girls in Bohemia are portrayals of women artists and others have women as central figures.
Violet Martin was often a subject of the drawings including one entitled Miss Neruda Jones which was part of a cartoon strip showing an androgynous being in spectacles, bowler hat and short hair.
Stevens suggests that there is comedy in the fact that Violet is pretending to be ‘Neruda’ who is herself posing as an artist. Somerville and Ross are mocking themselves by showing that their status as professional writers/illustrator is seen by the outside world as amusing frippery rather than serious work.
In Paris Somerville was able to live in a flat with other women artists, to study alongside men in studios and museums, and to move unchaperoned in the public parks. Combining her Anglo-Irish sense of social superiority with these new-found freedoms enabled her to define and develop a sense of professionalism which fed into the financial success that she and Ross, as impoverished latter-day members of their nearly extinct tribe, required.
Away from their family homes in West Cork and Connemara Edith and Violet were exposed to all sorts of exotic behaviours and these they diligently recorded. As well as being prolific correspondents they kept diaries and journals of notes and sketches. Stevens foregrounds many of the Edith’s drawings and suggests how they provide a context for the pair’s published work.
Although they spent time abroad Somerville and Ross wrote most memorably about Ireland. In their well-known works, The Real Charlotte and the series of Irish R.M. stories, they satirise all echelons of late nineteenth century Irish life. Visiting Englishmen, such as the eponymous Resident Magistrate, come in for the same savage treatment as the inhabitants of the Big House, the servants’ hall or the thatched cottage. They wrote more compassionately and enthusiastically about horses and hounds and pet dogs.
Violet Martin thought that, partly as a result of the work of Revivalists such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Irish had developed a ‘fear of being laughed at’ resulting in an ‘incapacity to recognise true art’. Ross and Somerville’s irreverent class and gender based humour was out of kilter with such works as W.B. Yeats and George Moore’s romantic Diarmuid and Grania. In their version of the tale Diarmuid becomes a skittish ‘horse called Dermot’ ridden and controlled by a woman.
In her informative, if somewhat repetitive, account of the lives and work of Somerville and Ross Stevens concludes that they might have been more lauded had they not been women with Anglo-Irish backgrounds who used ‘humour as the weapon to attack male vanity’. Their style, then regarded as vulgar, is now seen as ground-breaking.
Somerville, E. and Ross, M. The Real Charlotte. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1894
—. Some Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1899.
—. Further Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1908.
—. In Mr Knox’s Country. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1915
Stevens, J. A. Two Irish Girls in Bohemia. Dublin: Somerville Press. 2017.
Yeats, W. B. and Moore, G. Diarmuid and Grania. digireads.com. 2011.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 3rd February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.