Letters of Distinction: Somerville and Ross

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The Irish RM book coverIn this episode of the Dublin City Libraries and Archives podcast novelist and journalist Martina Devlin discusses the fascinating letters from Somerville and Ross to their literary agent in the early 1900s.

Edith Somerville and her second cousin Violet Martin may have been Victorian women, but their flair, business expertise and ambition were ultra-modern. From their light-hearted Irish R.M. series of stories to darker novels including the classic The Real Charlotte, their skills as the Somerville and Ross writing duo were wide-ranging. Their talents extended to their correspondence, and the voices of these irrepressible, talented Women of Letters emerges in their dispatches to Lady Gregory, their literary agent, James Pinker – and to each other. Sometimes, the letters revealed more than their sender intended, as writer Martina Devlin discovered when she read their archive held at Trinity College Dublin, as part of her PhD there.

Letters from Somerville and Ross to their literary agent show how ‘The Irish R.M.’ authors were not just talented writers, but business-minded – quick with suggestions about how their books should be marketed in the crowded marketplace of the early 1900s. They took their craft seriously but also wanted to earn a living from it. Key to that was their lengthy collaboration with one of the first literary agents, Mr. J.B. Pinker of London, who was on the receiving end of a stream of letters from two extremely determined ladies.

They never lost their sense of fun, and as well as reminding him about royalties due, Mr Pinker was inundated with invitations to go hunting or buy horses from them. He may have been agent to luminaries including Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but it’s easy to see he met his match in the irrepressible Somerville and Ross. In addition, Edith pursued opportunities as a children’s author and illustrator, and worked on two of her own. The first, The Discontented Little Elephant, is now a collector’s item, and Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street has one of the copies.

Novelist and journalist Martina Devlin completed a PhD at Trinity College on Somerville and Ross – literary collaborators who have been described as the mothers of the Irish short story. Martina's books include About Sisterland, The House where it Happened, Ship of Dreams, Truth and Dare: Stories about Women Who Shaped Ireland, which includes a story about Somerville and Ross. She is also host of the City of Books podcast.

During the podcast Martina refers to illustrations from 'The story of the discontented little elephant told in pictures and rhyme'. This has been digitised at the Internet Archive from a copy at the University of California Libraries:

 

You can subscribe to the Dublin City Libraries and Archives podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. This season is based on recordings from the 2018 Dublin: One City, One Book events. Dublin: One City, One Book is an award-winning Dublin City Council initiative, led by Dublin City Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, that encourages everyone to read a particular book during the month of April every year. 2018's choice was 'The Long Gaze Back' which you can read on Borrowbox and of course you can order it from your favourite bookshop.

The Dublin: One City, One Book for 2020 is Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey, available electronically on our BorrowBox app and from your favourite bookseller.

Finally if you’re interested in podcasts why not check out the Dublin Festival of History podcast which features recordings from the free annual event and the new City of Books podcast with Martina Devlin, the podcast for people who believe stories matter. And that you can never have too many books.

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