29 JULY 1989, Page 28


The invisible seam

Bevis Hillier


Faber, 114.99, pp. 308

If you wanted to be mean about this book, you could say that it is a prolonged orgy of spiteful snobbery indulged in by two old maids between 1886 and 1912. If you wanted to travesty it, you might des- cribe it as a collection of Irish bulls by two Irish cows.

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who as 'Somerville and Ross' won fame with the Irish RM stories (and have won renewed fame with the televising of the stories) were snobbish, and sometimes malicious. They claimed to be able to tell from a person's laugh whether or not he was a servant. The darts they hurled at each other, let alone those they aimed at others, were tipped with venom; by com- parison, EF. Benson's Mapp and Lucia seem amateurs of invective. Let's not pretend that these qualities make the letters more boring.

Though their works were praised from the beginning, Somerville and Ross have had a league promotion not unlike that of the painter George Stubbs. For a long time all three of them were regarded as jolly merchants of horseflesh. Stubbs, thanks largely to the proselytising of Basil Taylor, was elevated from a mere horse-painter to sit on the right hand of Gainsborough and Reynolds. Somerville and Ross can now be seen as figures comparable — in their modernism, their lesbianism and their date — with Colette. They can even be seen, in these letters, as direct precursors of James Joyce, in the cinematic momentum of their reportage — with prodigal use of dashes when in haste — and their frequent re- 'course to a cryptic, alternative language. (This was called 'Buddh', a contraction of 'Buddha-like', a term intended to suggest the self-satisfaction of the two women's relations. Distant cousins, Edith and Mar- tin, as they called each other, were both descendants of Charles Kendal Bushe, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. Buddh words included 'camae, any unnecessarily complicated and costly contrivance for effecting a simple purpose; 'flahoola', a large loud woman of stupendous vulgarity; and `gub', a vague pursuing horror.) When the pair began collaborating in the 1880s, England was posturing away with the Aesthetic Movement, led by the Irish- man Oscar Wilde; and by the 1890s Irish literature was dissolving in the numinosity of Yeats's Celtic Revival. Somerville and Ross were not ensnared by either move- ment. Edith met Wilde and was unimpress- ed by him, partly, no doubt, because he rejected her drawings for his magazine. (Like Evelyn Waugh, Edith first trained as an artist.) Astonishingly, Richard Ellmann

— otherwise so conversant with Irish liter- ature — did not beam in on this meeting in his biography of Wilde. When Edith visited Wilde in 1888, the future dramatist was editor of The Woman's World, not of The Lady's Pictorial as Gifford Lewis suggests. Edith wrote to Martin: He is a great fat oily beast. He pretended the most enormous interest — by Egerton's advice I said I was the Bart's niece as Oscar knows him well — but it was all of no avail. . . He talks great rot that 'French subjects should be drawn by French artists' — I was near telling him, as Dr Johnson said t can't be any good. It's not in any troub e with the hygiene authorities.' — 'who drives fat oxen must himself be fat'. He assumed deep interest in the 'Miss Martins', asked if they were all married: I said 'mostly all'. He was kind enough to say that Edith was so pretty and nice — and bulged his long red fat cheeks into an affectionate grin at the thought of her.

Yeats was far more congenial to the two women, though they made fun of his goggling susceptibility to myth. 'He is mad about his old legends and spirits,' Martin wrote to Edith, 'and if someone said "Thims fine lobsters" or anything, he would begin "There's a very curious tradi- tion about lobsters" and then he was off.' The more portentous champions of the Celtic Revival got very short shrift. Martin attended a play which contained the echoing speech, 'Grand will be the burning of Diarrnid, but grander will be Grania's welcome to Finn.' She commented: 'If this is the lofty purity of the Irish drama I am indeed mystified.'

Surprisingly, the letters don't give a satisfactory answer to the question every- one wanted to ask Somerville and Ross: how do two women write as one? You do see them criticising each other, and the criticisms could come straight from the word-processor of a modern editor. (Edith to Martin: 'What struck me when I read it first was a certain tightness and want of the ideas being expanded. It read too strong. Like over-strong tea. . . It now reads like a sympathetic and unusual news article but not a magazine one.') But how did they achieve a collaboration in which, as Lewis felicitously suggests, 'The two imaginations became one, working with the dual harmony of a pair of hands knitting a scarf'? It was perhaps the most successful collaboration in literary history. Only the Goncourt brothers and Auden and Isherwood in their plays bear compari- son. On lower rungs would be George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a No- body, Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That and Frank and Queenie Leavis's Dickens the Novelist.

In the letters we see the Siamese twins, as it were, separated — yet I defy anyone to open the book at random and to guess which of the cousins is writing. By the same token, it is impossible to credit one of them with more genius than the other. Lewis slightly favours Edith, if only to smack down the old canard that there was 'a worshipful adoration of the genius Martin by the "hack and amanuensis" Edith'. This idea, Lewis thinks, is a side-effect of the conception of Somerville and Ross as 'a beautiful, ultra-feminine genius paired with a masculine, obtuse hack writer'. With satisfaction, Lewis shows Edith's describing one of Martin's odes as `pukey rubbish'. Not exactly a V.S. Pritchett critique — but point made, point taken. Any anthology of best lines from the letters would probably give just about an equal sampling of both writers. Both of them coin phrases of dancing vivacity. (Edith: 'he darted in and out like the needle of a sewing machine'; Martin: 'dreadful little dwindled dressmakers'; Edith (after a party where loud music was Played): 'The piano notes have been lying down with their legs in bandages ever since; Martin: 'I swear that the blush tnckled through my fingers'; Edith (on dancing with another woman): 'I had a turn with her but she felt too much like a swift smooth little planchette, easily steered'; Martin: 'Miss C. had huge sleeves and long black gloves and her arms looked like poodles' legs.' Both women excelled in action writing — the hunting scenes out- Siegfried Sassoon. And their poison darts are equally deadly. If they have a flaw it is that they are less adept at human still-life than at action-painting. Compare, for ex- ample, Martin's portrait of Andrew Lang With that of a true master of personal Comment, Max Beerbohm: Martin: A.L. is very curious to look at — tall, very thin, white hair growing far down his forehead and shading dark eyebrows and Piercing-looking, charming brown eyes. He has a somewhat foxy profile, a lemon pale face and a black moustache. Altogether very quaint looks and appropriate.

Max: The long nut-brown neck was not more sharply relieved by the white of the turned down collar than was the nut-brown fore- head by the silvery hair that wavily caressed it, than were the nut-brown cheeks by the silvery vapour they had of whisker. And the moustache was jet-black, and jet-black were the eyebrows and the eye-lashes. . . The eyes told nothing at all. . . Nature had in some corner of the earth produced two large brown diamonds, of which she was very proud: and it had seemed to her that Andrew Lang's face would be the best of all possible settings for them. So there they were.

Lang, who became a friend of Martin, tried to prise from her the secret of the col- laboration, but Martin just teased him: To me then Andrew L. with a sort of offhand fling —'I suppose you're the one who did the writing —' I explained with some care that it was not so — He said he didn't know how any two people could equally evolve charac- ters etc — that he had tried, and it was always he or the other that did it all — I said I didn't know how we managed, but anyhow that I knew little of bookmaking as a science.

If anything, the letters are even more enjoyable than the stories because in the letters the cousins did not need to throw in the splashes of melodrama which they thought their Victorian readership deman- ded, such as the elopement in 'Oh Love! Oh Fire!' The letters come to us with a delightful foreword by Molly Keane, who remembers an Ireland where ladies of 'the Quality' used to say 'me dear'. Gifford Lewis's introduction is just as clever, learned and funny as anyone who has read her 1985 picture-biography of Somerville and Ross would expect it to be. Some of her introductory notes to the letters are as witty as the letters themselves. (Edith's uncle, Sir John Joscelyn Coghill, had sit- tings with the medium Daniel Dunglass Home: 'Of all the people levitated by Home, complete with chair, Sir Joscelyn was the only one to keep sufficient pre- sence of mind to sign his name on the ceiling,' Lewis writes.) In other respects, however, Lewis's edit- ing has the character so often (and no doubt so unjustly) ascribed to the Irish

nation: it is lackadaisical and slovenly. Far too many references are allowed to float mystifyingly by without an explanatory note. The reason for this may be that Lewis is so erudite that she takes it for granted we will know all the answers. When Martin says she is 'thankful that Shorter cannot interview us', I think we should be told that this is Clement King Shorter (1857- 1926), journalist, editor and frightful poet, who wrote a twice-weekly column of gossip for the Star and in 1891 became editor of the Illustrated London News. When Martin joins 'the Waterfords' in London at Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887, presumably these are John Henry de la Poer, 5th Marquess (1844-95) and his lady. Apart from the secret of their collabora- tion, the other thing people want to know about Somerville and Ross is, what was their relationship? This is not mere pruri- ence. Lewis reacts sharply against the crude and amateurish psychoanalysis of the two women made by Maurice Collis in the 1968 biography written at the instance of Edith's nephew Nevill Coghill. She rejects (on the grounds that it is not supported by the manuscripts) Collis's theory that Edith had an adolescent homosexual crisis when Ethel Coghill married James Penrose in 1880. (Collis thought that this left Edith psychologically undeveloped for the rest of her life, searching for another female 'Twin'.) But clearly there was something 'special' about the Somerville and Ross relationship. Twinges of jealousy show throughout the letters: usually Martin is being bitchy about Edith's dogged but unsuccessful suitor Herbert Greene, an Oxford don. Os Herbert writing anything these times beyond Errata?' she sniped.) When Edith is an art student in Paris, we find her telling Martin that she may have to share her hotel room, and somehow we feel pretty sure that she will have to (as indeed is the case). In 1892, Martin, describing for Edith a case of mistaken- identity incest, significantly comments: 'That sort of thing sets one wondering if Nature or we ourselves are wrong.' Honi soil qui tnal y pense. Perhaps a great collaboration requires, not a submerging of self, but a merging of selves.