Edith, by Martina Devlin, The Lilliput Press, 279 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1843518303
The arrival of Martina Devlin’s latest novel, Edith, coincides with the 2022 commemorations of the Irish Civil War. The very first page refers to the Troubles and – pace Northern writers ‑ it is gloriously refreshing that the war in question isn’t of the 1968-98 variety.
The eponymous protagonist is Edith Somerville, who was part of the writing duo Somerville & Ross, famous for co-writing The Irish R.M. trilogy. At the start of the novel in 1921, she is facing the prospect of eviction from her ancestral home, Drishane House, due to her feckless brother Cameron’s profligacy and IRA incursions. While the IRA wreak havoc in the Co Cork countryside, Edith tries to write herself out of financial difficulties with a play entitled Flurry’s Wedding. Edith, however, is so much more than a narrative tale; it is a Big House novel about a future Big House novelist who is attempting to become a playwright, which transforms it into an ingenious metanarrative about storytelling.
A delicious dark tension and gothic sensibility animate the early chapters. Drishane is under threat of being torched by rebels and Edith’s paranoia grows to the extent that she can’t even trust her servants. The impending menace is especially apropos since Maria Edgeworth was one of Edith Somerville’s progenitors. One of the difficulties with writing about a writer is that the sedentary nature of her life can let down the plot, but Devlin ensures that the heart-spinning fear of Ireland’s troubled war follows Edith to London.
As a resolute contemporist, I have two questions to ask of any historical novel: a) does it sound authentic and b) what does it say about now? In terms of authenticity, Devlin’s pellucid pen reflects its time. There are archaic references to girls as “chits” and people being “susceptible to novels”. The metaphors are also delightfully visual. Of a local butcher, Devlin writes that “sawdust leads from his boots back to the door, like a fairy-tale trail of crumbs through the forest”. An American journalist’s teeth are “luminously white, as if each separate tooth has a built-in electric light”.
The challenge in representing an early-twentieth-century woman is to avoid updating her or making her unduly subservient to the mores of her era. Edith obeys societal conventions by keeping a self-protective distance between herself and her servants, but she still is a woman of action. It’s clear that, but for the ludicrous practice of primogeniture, she would be far better suited to running Drishane than Cameron. Throughout the novel, she finds herself bargaining with power-mongering men, from the IRA squad to theatrical bigwigs.
One of the biggest joys of Edith is its observation of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and especially the literary set. Edith’s cousin is married to the “crank” George Bernard Shaw, who is blisteringly portrayed as a combative, ascetic, weight-obsessed mansplainer.
Edith’s opinions on writers exhibit an entertaining brutality. She dismisses Yeats and Lady Gregory as “the Celtic Twilighters”. She also makes a sideswipe at Joyce as “Tasteless, puzzling and anarchic. Ulysses deserves to sink without a trace.” Devlin thoroughly relishes trashing some reputations here – and why not?
Edith has one notable peccadillo – an unswerving belief in ghosts and seances. Her automatic-writing sessions are a means by which to ask the advice of her beloved ex-writing partner Violet Martin (the pseudonymous Martin Ross) who died nearly six years earlier. She also has private conversations with one of her fictional characters, Flurry Knox. Devlin imbues these encounters with a convincing realism, but the fact that Violet and Flurry vainly assure Edith of theatrical success in London casts doubts upon their powers of prophecy.
Martina Devlin is a native of Omagh from a Catholic background and has a sure-footed insight into the Protestant perspective. Edith’s words ring resoundingly true: “We’ve been in Ireland nearly as long as the potato. We belong here.” Protestants are indeed as Irish as the potato which was, of course, imported by an Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh. Brendan Behan’s hilarious description of the Anglo-Irish as “a Protestant on a horse” is similarly evoked by Edith’s equine obsession. When Edith reluctantly offers her jewellery to the IRA to save Drishane, Cameron comments tartly: “Feed a crocodile and it always returns for more”. This is clearly a precursor of Arlene Foster’s sentiments about Sinn Féin, which returned to bite her with a vengeance.
So, what does Edith say about contemporary Ireland? One century on from partition, Northern Protestants aren’t imperilled like Edith Somerville, but there is a growing call for a border poll, which destabilises the future for those of a unionist persuasion. As a Protestant writer, I strongly identify with Edith’s statement that “nationalist Ireland has always been lukewarm about The Irish R.M., perceiving slights where none were intended”. There is no doubt that my own work about loyalist culture has met with a lukewarm reception from certain quarters.
As Devlin is all too aware, Irish nationalism has buried inconvenient family narratives throughout the centuries. Cameron points out that the parents of many new Sinn Féiners fought for the British army. “That was then,” says Edith, indicating how the Irish have always turned a blind eye to history. Devlin is astutely alert to Irish/British complexity. She embeds it in the novel with culturally contradictory details such as the IRA captain who carries Shakespeare’s sonnets. She also observes how the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful instils the Big House status quo into its congregation: “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high and lowly / And ordered their estate.”
The Protestant tragedy is forever that they are the wrong kind of Irish, exemplified in this terse exchange between Cameron and Edith.
“You always stand up for the Irish, Edith.”
“Why not? I’m Irish, after all. So are you.”
“Not that sort of Irish.”
Still, the kindness of Edith’s forebears protects her: “One of her ancestors saved two local men who were Fenians. That hasn’t been forgotten.” Edith Somerville was known during her lifetime to have nationalist sympathies, but Devlin is too clever a writer to let her heroine become a political mouthpiece. She permits her to tread an even-handed path, declaring that “the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries are just as bad as the Republicans”. The contrast between the politics of then and now lends playful irony to such remarks as “America would never side with Ireland against Britain.”
Devlin pinpoints identity as the key to the future: “Edith is hybrid and can live with her hybridity. But can the Irish, who are bound to take over one of these days, live with it too?”
These lines advocating Irish and British fusion are more relevant than ever. Protestants’ political ability to survive in today’s Northern Ireland is as much down to “local support” as it is for Edith. The American journalist warns her: “Some might think your family’s exploited the Irish for centuries. Payback time’s just around the corner.” The threat of payback continues to loom large in Protestant consciousness.
Reclamation of forgotten female novelists is very much in vogue. Martina Devlin first wrote about Edith Somerville in her 2018 short story collection Truth and Dare, revealing her particular fascination with Protestant writers of an Irish nationalist persuasion such as Alice Milligan and Lady Jane Wilde. The critic and academic Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado has been resurrecting from obscurity another writer of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Devlin is similarly restoring Edith Somerville’s reputation, but more than that, she exhibits a rare genius in delivering a layered, palimpsestic text full of themes that speak to the contemporary reader.
Surprisingly, many of the issues behind Edith’s foray into scriptwriting are the same for modern writers. Edith acknowledges that her career would have been far more successful if she’d moved to London ‑ which applies to most of us currently writing in Ireland. She is wracked by self-doubt, as all writers are. She understands the poverty of being a writer, although she has the amusing luxury of worrying how a lack of servants will impact on her work: “Her play will never get written if she has to spend her time thinking about mincing leftover beef into sandwich meat.”
One of the biggest questions in these days of LGBTQ+ awareness is whether Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who lived together as writing companions, were gay. Devlin suggests that Edith was asexual, or at least a non-practising lesbian, and that she was spiritually and intellectually drawn to women rather than physically. Edith’s close friend, composer Dame Ethel Smyth (who went by the moniker of Boney), was open about her lesbianism. The novel makes this evident early on when Boney raves about Edith’s appearance and mentions how she shared a tandem “with a friend. A very dear friend. She was … rather special.” Edith ignores these intimations and refuses to join Boney in a skinny-dip. When Edith’s cousin informs her that Boney “has a flop on you”, Edith replies that they are “just good friends”.
Towards the end, however, Devlin does leave room for conjecture.
“Shall I come up and keep you company while you bathe, Edith?” asks Boney.
Mabel’s eyebrows are scandalized.
“Would you mind not, dear?” says Edith. “I’m too exhausted to concentrate on a word anyone says.”
The gentleness of Edith’s response suggests that Boney may well have kept her company on a previous occasion.
Moreover, their relationship passionately explodes in the later chapters when Boney tells Edith that Martin is gone and implores: “You can have me if you want me.” It is an ultimatum between past and future, between living and dead. Edith seems unable to choose between Martin and Boney, but it’s evident that she will continue to live with them both in her own way.
Martina Devlin masterfully sets up further precursors of the future. Edith is incisively contemporary in depicting the ageing woman writer who experiences increasing rejection. Shaw tells Edith, “You write like a lady in the worst sense of the word.” His dramaturgical advice is to update Flurry’s Wedding from the 1890s to the present day and his disagreement with Edith reflects the current debate as to whether Northern Irish authors should write about the Troubles or contemporary matters. Edith’s literary argument is that audiences desire escape from the war into the nostalgia of the past, but Shaw’s counterargument is that Edith’s play has no relevance, especially in London where people have had enough of the troublesome Irish.
Having berated Edith, Shaw hypocritically reveals that he too is writing a play set in the past – Saint Joan. He claims to have been working on it for two years and insists upon Edith redrafting her own play before sending it out. Edith retorts: “The hotter the work the sooner the finish,” and she is, of course, right to point out that the length of time lavished on a play does not correlate to the greatness of the writing. Contemporary writers like Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson have completed plays within a week ‑ to huge acclaim.
Devlin generates terrific fun from lampooning the male-dominated theatrical world. Edith’s agent Mr Pinker advocates converting Flurry’s Wedding into a musical and suggests bringing horses onto the stage to make it “a spectacle”. The impresario at the Lyric, the ironically named Nigel Playfair, is even more dismissive. When Playfair rudely gives Edith “an unconditional refusal”, Boney urges her to “plant a tomahawk in his skull.” There is still the occasional equivalent to Playfair in modern theatre, though I’m happy to report that it’s rare.
Edith is emblematic of the erasure of the older female writer. “When she looks around, she sees faces where the features are blurred. But perhaps she is the one being rubbed out?” By contrast, Boney is going from strength to strength as a composer, but it is her increasing deafness that threatens to derail her career. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition; Edith’s struggles are external while Boney’s are internal.
After Edith is ousted from London, the final chapters see her return to Drishane House. Drishane is the solid bedrock of Edith’s existence and the founding strength for Devlin’s powerful edifice, beautifully evoking the vagaries of the writing life and the sheer impulse for survival. The novel feels so truthful: it is as if Devlin embarked on her own automatic-writing session with Edith Somerville and tapped into the candle-flamed reality of those tumultuous times.
The author’s note is the perfect coda to everything that has gone before. Edith’s Anglo-Irish ancestors have inextricably tethered her to the land while the travails of the Irish War of Independence have shown her what she must now write. The 1921-22 Troubles have set the Irish country houses and Edith’s imagination ablaze, but the brightest fire of all resides in the brilliant flare of Martina Devlin’s vision.
Rosemary Jenkinson is a short story writer and playwright from Belfast. Her current collection is Marching Season, published by Arlen House.