Edith: A Novel (Interview with Martina Devlin)

1921. While Treaty negotiations are being conducted in London, Ireland is a restless, uncertain, dangerous place. Edith Somerville is in her family home, Drishane House in Castle Townshend. The Somervilles, an Ascendancy family, have been there for centuries but their position is uneasy, for financial as well as political reasons.

Edith needs money to keep the house going and courage to stand her ground while night raids are carried out by the IRA and some of her neighbours are being burned out. Still grieving the death of her cousin and long-term writing partner, Violet Martin, she attempts regular contact through automatic writing and séances, despite the disapproval of the servants, who threaten to leave. Simultaneously haunted by one of their literary creations, Flurry Knox, Edith welcomes the ghostly presence of both and decides to write a play based on elements of the successful The Irish RM series of novels, to raise money.

Martina Devlin’s novel, Edith, explores the tensions of class, identity and conflicting loyalties that plagued Ireland at that time, while following Edith Somerville through the process of writing her play and trying to sell it in London’s West End. Along the way she encounters notable characters such as George Bernard Shaw, Dame Ethel Smyth, Nigel Playfair, James Pinker and a group of shadowy, threatening subversive figures who close in on her but can’t weaken her determination to continue living in her home, Drishane House, Castletownshend, overlooking Castlehaven Bay in Ireland.

***

Can you tell us where this novel came from, Martina? It springs from my trips to Castletownshend, which I first visited more than twenty years ago. It is impossible to walk about in the village without being conscious of Edith Somerville, who lived her life there and whose work was inspired by the area and its people. Edith was one half of the commercially- and critically-acclaimed Somerville and Ross writing partnership, and after Ross’s death she convinced herself they continued to collaborate beyond the grave. Edith was interested in spiritualism and practised automatic or trance writing, as others did at the time, but she took it a step further: she believed Ross was channelling plot and character suggestions from the afterlife. She continued to insist the books were written by Somerville and Ross, and her agent and publisher both humoured her because it created mystery – which is good for business. When Trinity College Dublin awarded Edith an honorary doctorate in 1932, she insisted that Ross (Martin Ross, nom de plume of her second cousin Violet Martin) should be cited alongside her.

The financial worries of running a house like Drishane ring true. There is a heart-stopping moment early in the novel when she confronts her brother Cameron (who owns the house, by virtue of being male) about his careless attitude to money and he tells her to stop criticising him: ‘You don’t have the right.’ Isn’t it the case that Edith Somerville had supported the estate for years through her literary earnings and this crisis wasn’t new? Can you say something about that? Yes, Edith was determined to keep that house in Somerville hands at a time when her neighbours were selling up and moving to Britain. It remains in the family today largely due to her efforts. She funnelled her considerable income stream from writing and other projects into maintaining Drishane House – a property she knew she would never inherit because she was female, although the eldest child, with five brothers and their sons in line ahead of her. She helped to keep the house intact using her writing and illustration fees (she was a talented artist and illustrated the Somerville and Ross books, plus she designed two of the covers); rental income from properties bought with her book earnings; and revenue from horse training and farming. Clearly, she was a hard worker and highly motivated. She earned her first money at the age of sixteen by designing a greetings card.

It’s striking that Edith is the person who feels rooted in Castle Townshend and is determined to stay there despite the risks, while the rest of the family (who have rights of ownership) have scattered to safer territory. There’s a scene where her cousin Lottie says, ‘Those old houses suck your blood and grind your bones.’ Edith replies ‘Not if you love them.’ But it’s not just the house that holds her in place. Your Edith loves Ireland, although Somerville and Ross have been accused of exploiting Irish people and exaggerating stage-Irishness. Can you say something about that? She was extremely attached to West Cork and to her family’s place there, and considered herself to be both British and Irish. She was an early adopter of hybrid identity, as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement many decades later. When the new Irish State was born, amid violence, and neighbours were leaving – fearful for their safety – she wrote to her sister Hildegarde saying their family had enjoyed several hundred good years in Ireland, and must stick it out and hope for the best.

You’re right to point out that Somerville and Ross are accused of Oirishness, and some of their dialogue smacks of Paddywhackery today. However, they were careful about noting down vivid phrases as they heard them, and sat through court cases in Skibbereen (refashioned as Skebawn in the Irish R.M. stories) taking copious notes of local idiom. To my mind, the work is largely affectionate rather than exploitative, but with definite traces of ‘de haut en bas’. The characters who get up to no good tend to be the native Irish, although Flurry Knox and his grandma Mrs Knox have rascal tendencies and belong to Somerville and Ross’s class, while the authors save their sharpest barbs for English people visiting or stationed in Ireland. Their work is also valuable as social history because they were charting the demise of their caste as it was happening.

Introducing Flurry Knox as a character is an inspired idea – can you talk about that? Where did the idea come from? I was looking at Edith’s illustrations and it struck me that they show us Flurry, the “half-sir”, exactly as she saw him. And then it occurred to me that he was the closest she had to a son – he was partly modelled on a couple of her brothers – and must have been someone she spent a lot of time with mentally. There has always been speculation about which parts of their work Edith Somerville wrote and which parts Violet Martin/Martin Ross wrote, but I believe Flurry was almost entirely Edith’s. She was unfailingly indulgent towards his faults – George Bernard Shaw thought her far too forgiving of Flurry’s misbehaviour. Flurry was useful as a character in my novel because he allowed me to show her dwelling on the glory days of the past, at a time when she felt a failure. And failure is more interesting than success.

Drishane, the house, is a living character in this novel. Can you talk about your research and your extensive, detailed knowledge of the place – its topography, its architectural details and its history? Edith reads like a new kind of Big House novel … and of course this period in Edith’s actual life was followed by The Big House of Inver, whose story, in terms of the declining fortunes of a wealthy family, is not a million miles removed from the story of Drishane as you tell it. Drishane is a handsome Georgian house with spectacular coastal views, dating from around 1780 – home to the Somervilles for nine generations or 250 years. You step right inside history when you walk through its doors. Every corner tells a family story, Edith’s artworks (and earlier paintings of her ancestors) hang on its walls, and if the village has a strong sense of her presence, then the house is even more permeated with her. It has a sweeping central staircase, and it’s easy to imagine her running down it because the dinner gong had sounded, or up it to change out of muddy hunting clothes. She also used the enclosed servants’ stairs or back stairs, which lead into the kitchen, when she wanted to pass undetected. She was quite athletic in her youth, known to hop out through a window near her bedroom onto the flat roof just below it, and make her escape that way. Anything to avoid an interrogation from her Mama about her movements.

Similarly, you send Edith on a visit to the home of George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte (who was Edith’s cousin) in Ayot St Lawrence. Did that visit actually happen? And was GBS really such a bad driver? Shaw was a notoriously bad driver! He was always having to pay for damages. And yes, Edith did visit Shaw for advice on her play in 1922, following a brutally frank letter from him saying she should give up all thoughts of playwriting because she was too ladylike to make a proper job of it. Shaw’s wife Charlotte was a cousin of Edith’s, and intervened, inviting her to stay with them. He was working on St Joan at the time but appears to have tried to suggest cuts to Edith’s play, Flurry’s Wedding, over the course of that visit. I have read various versions of the play – she worked and reworked it over a seventeen-year period – but it is always too long, and clunks. Shaw’s advice went unheeded.

The novel is full of authentic contemporaneous detail, whether about weaponry, historical events or domestic routines. How do you carry out research into all of that and how long does it take? I spent about four years working on Edith. It helped that I was able to visit Drishane House and wander about, seeing the studio where she worked, along with personal possessions (riding boots, sunhat, easel, artwork, annotated manuscripts). Much-loved and well-worn possessions bring a character to life for me – it stimulates me to see objects that mattered to them. Those visits allowed me to get the layout of the house into my head. Her studio was conveniently situated for the stable yard – a reminder of how horses and dogs were the two abiding loves of her life. It was also useful to read her letters in situ, held in the family archive, and talk to the Somervilles about their ancestor. It reminded me she was a much-loved relative as well as a famous writer.

Drishane – and Edith’s presence in it – would not survive without the loyalty and care of Philomena and Mrs O’Shea in the house and Mike Hurley, who looks after the horses.  Can you say something about the bonds and the tensions and undercurrents that exist between all these characters? In your earlier novel, The House Where it Happened, the protagonist was a servant. Was it interesting to assume the opposite point of view for Edith? I thought about telling Edith from the perspective of the servants because it is a viewpoint that comes more readily to me. But I decided to push against my comfort zone (William Golding said the writer should be a moving target i.e., not rest on their laurels) and consequently the stance is Edith’s. However, Philomena the housemaid does challenge her about the automatic writing, which makes the servants uneasy. You can see that Edith is friendly with them – especially when her brother is absent and she doesn’t feel it necessary to maintain the distance between employer and employee. But at the end of the day it is an economic arrangement and power is not equally distributed.

Drishane – and Edith’s presence in it – would not survive without the loyalty and care of Philomena and Mrs O’Shea in the house and Mike Hurley, who looks after the horses.  Can you say something about the bonds and the tensions and undercurrents that exist between all these characters? In your earlier novel, The House Where it Happened, the protagonist was a servant. Was it interesting to assume the opposite point of view for Edith?

I thought about telling Edith from the perspective of the servants because it is a viewpoint that comes more readily to me. But I decided to push against my comfort zone (William Golding said the writer should be a moving target i.e., not rest on their laurels) and consequently the stance is Edith’s. However, Philomena the housemaid does challenge her about the automatic writing, which makes the servants uneasy. You can see that Edith is friendly with them – especially when her brother is absent and she doesn’t feel it necessary to maintain the distance between employer and employee. But at the end of the day it is an economic arrangement and power is not equally distributed.

Having just seen a rehearsed reading of your most recent play, Curves of Emotion (about the Joyces), I was struck by the proximity of your playwriting experience to the writing of this novel. I know the play came after the novel had been completed, but it must have been in your mind somewhere – and you wrote your first play (about Constance Markievicz) fairly recently. Did that experience attract you to the idea of Edith Somerville’s play? Or how did your interest in Edith’s failed play come about? I stumbled upon Edith’s failed play by chance. I found references to it in the Drishane archive when I was doing research there, and followed them up. I found multiple versions of the play in Queen’s University Belfast’s special collections, including a handwritten outline complete with marginalia.

I think it’s just a coincidence that I wrote a novel about a writer’s failure to have her play staged, and followed it up by writing a play myself about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, Curves of Emotion (which was staged, fortunately). But maybe there’s no such thing as coincidence. That said, the Markievicz play Call Me Madame has just been published by Arlen House. Something theatrical is undoubtedly whirring away in the background.

Letters from various historical figures play a part in the novel – are those letters real? Or did you invent them? The Shaw letter is real – it’s in the archive – but the rest are invented. Edith was a typical Victorian lady in some ways, although not in others, and wrote thousands of letters, as well as keeping a diary for most of her life. I loved reading her letters because they were her unmediated thoughts – when she and Martin wrote to their agent, Mr JB Pinker (James Brand) asking about royalties due, they called them their stand-and-deliver letters. When they felt they ought to write letters of apology, they referred to them as grovels. The pair had a well-developed sense of fun, and their humour shines through in the letters.

What are you working on now? I’m writing about Charlotte Bronte and Ireland, but far too slowly for my liking because I have been doing other things. Interesting things, but still. I’m happiest when I’m immersed in novelising. Note to self: focus. This novel has been bubbling away for two years now. At least I’ve managed plenty of research, always my favourite part. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels for that wonderful line, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” It was published in 1847 – an early statement of female independence. As you can see, I am drawn to remarkable women.

Martina Devlin
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3 Responses to Edith: A Novel (Interview with Martina Devlin)

  1. grainnemhaol says:

    This is terrific and I must get that book. I have unfortunately never managed to stick with any Somerville and Ross (discomfort with the kind of Oirish dialogue that did not chime with any speakers I heard round me in Armagh) but perhaps this is a way in.

    • Lia Mills says:

      Thanks Grainne – I agree that the Oirishry is off-putting but I think we have to park our political brains when we read S&R. I have a lot of sympathy for the life and work of both women. I read somewhere that Edith had to hide in a cupboard to avoid being dragged out on good works by her mother – even though it was her work that was keeping the estate going (financially).

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