I discovered Edith Somerville (Irish, 1858-1949), cousin and writing partner of Violet Martin (Irish, 1862-1915), while searching the Library archives for content to post on the NSLM’s Facebook for Women’s History Month. One of my favorite things about my job are the opportunities I have to research our collections and share them digitally, but I felt that Edith Somerville’s story deserved more than Facebook post.
Somerville was a writer, an artist, a suffragist and feminist, horsewoman, and believer in the occult. In 1903, she became the first female Master of Fox Hounds in Ireland. She was President of the Munster Women’s Franchise League, was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by Trinity College Dublin in 1932 and was invited to become a member of the Irish Academy of Letters by W.B. Yeats the following year.
In 1866, Somerville met her second cousin Violet Martin and the two quickly became close friends and working partners. Writing under the pseudonym E. OE. Somerville & Martin Ross, they immediately set to work on their first novel An Irish Cousin in 1887 whose popularity would lead to another 4 novels, 3 travel books, 3 collections of Irish R.M. tales, 4 collections of short stories and many more essays and articles. Though they are most well-known for their comical Irish R.M. tales, The Real Charlotte, written in 1894, received the most critical acclaim of any of their works and is considered one of Ireland’s great literary masterpieces. The NSLM Library holds 84 volumes by Somerville & Ross, including The Real Charlotte, Irish Memories, and Through Connemara in a Governess Cart. Our archive also holds a letter from Edith Somerville to Harry Worcester Smith – if you’d like to learn more about this letter, please visit our blog post “Somerville Letter, May 4, 1942.”
Somerville was a professionally trained artist, studying in Düsseldorf and at the Colarossi art studio in Paris. She created the design and artwork for the E. OE Somerville & Martin Ross publications, although some of the illustrations in their travel books have been heavily edited by publishers wishing to depict a more refined version of the traveling female. Throughout her life, Somerville returned to Paris to continue studying art. Many of her works can now be found in major art galleries or museums across the world, including the NSLM.
Both Somerville and Ross were involved with the Suffragist and early Women’s Rights movement in the United Kingdom. They actively took part in demonstrations and electioneering campaigns across Ireland and England. As part of the Suffragist movement, Somerville became President of the Munster Women’s Franchise League (MWFL) in 1910. Within the first year of her presidency, she established multiple branches of the organization across Ireland. She wrote many pamphlets and speeches stressing the importance of a strong and practical education for women.
Though Edith Somerville had prior interest in the occult, she began to delve deeper when Ross died in 1915. Spiritualism was popular in the early 20th century and it was said that one of the ways the deceased could contact the living was through Automatic Writing. This writing practice allowed a spirit to use a host to convey a written message. The words originate from a supernatural source and are transferred through the living host and on to paper. Theoretically, the living person writes without being conscious of what was actually being written. Using a medium who specialized in this practice, Somerville began to communicate with Ross daily. Through this process, Somerville & Ross penned another eight books together.
Edith Somerville died in 1941 at the fine age of 91. She is buried next to Violet Martin in Castletownshend, Co. Cork, Ireland.