When work, life, and other things conspire to keep me at home, surrounded by visitors, at the height of the season there is only one thing to do. I turn to my bookshelves and I look for a Virago Traveller, knowing that those books can take me on wonderful journeys in the best of company.
There were many wonderful possibilities – I really should turn to those particular shelves more often – but the names of Somerville and Ross caught my eye and I knew I had to go with them.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my last journey with those Anglo-Irish Victorian lady writers, to the vine country in the south of France, and a trip to their native land was a lovely prospect.
Our journey began in London:
“My second cousin and I came to London for ten days in the middle of last June, and we stayed there for three weeks, waiting for a fine day. We were Irish, and all the English with whom we had hitherto come in contact had impressed upon us that we should never know what fine weather was till we came to England. Perhaps we came at a bad moment, when the weather, like the shops, was having its cheap sales.
Things came to a climax one day when we had sat for three-quarters of an hour in a Hungarian bread shop in Regent Street, waiting for the rain to clear off enough to let us get down to the New Gallery. As the fifth party of moist ladies came in and propped their dripping umbrellas against the wall behind us, and remarked that they had never seen such rain, our resolution first began to take shape.
” Hansom ! ” said my second cousin.
” Home ! ” said I.
” England is no fit place for a lady to be in,” said my second cousin, as we drove away in our hansom with the glass down. “
I’d be ashamed to show such weather to a Connemara pig,” I replied.
Now Connemara is a sore subject with my second cousin, who lives within sight of its mountains, and, as is usually the case, has never explored the glories of her native country, which was why I mentioned Connemara. She generally changes the conversation on these occasions ; but this time she looked me steadily in the face and said,
” Well, let’s go to Connemara!”
Now I knew that this account must be at least lightly fictionalised – because this book was derived from a series of articles commissioned by The Ladies’ Pictorial – but the two ladies were just as I remembered them and I quite prepared to believe that the spirit of the account was right.
I wondered about the wisdom of travelling to the west coast of Ireland to escape rain, but as soon as I thought of that I was offered an explanation. Somerville and Ross knew that they couldn’t escape the rain, but the trip was the thing and Ireland in the rain would be much more fun than a damp grey London.
And so we were off.
The sea crossing, on a busy ferry, was an uncomfortable one, but the ladies were in spirits spirits and they were more than ready be entertained and to entertain.
“An enterprising advertiser asks, ” What is more terrible than war ? ” We answer unhesitatingly, oranges in the hands of young children.”
You do have to accept that Somerville and Ross were rooted in a particular class and a particular age, but as long as you can accept that you can have a lovely time in their company.
After a bus trip and a night in a hotel they looked out of their window and they began to make a plan:
“We cast our eye abroad upon a drove of Connemara ponies, driven in for sale like so many sheep, and my second cousin immediately formed the romantic project of hiring one of these and a small trap for our Connemara expedition.”
It was a lovely idea but it wasn’t one that could be turned into reality in a small Irish village. After some difficulties the ladies succeeded in hiring a governess cart and a yellow jennet – who they would find had very firm opinions about speed and choice of route t0 to pull them. They loaded their luggage and a good supply of provisions onto the card and set out, full of confidence.
They didn’t have the most comfortable of journeys, they had adventures and misadventures, but they accepted it all with good grace and had a lovely time admiring the countryside, visiting attractions and meeting a wonderful variety of characters.
All of this was turned into a wonderful entertainment, full of wit, and wonderfully observed and described.
I loved this description:
“The coast thrust long rocky fingers into the sea, and we drove across the highly-developed knuckles ; that is, if not picturesque, the most practical description that we can give of this stage of our journey. To try to convey the blueness of the sea, the variety and colour of the innumerable bays and creeks, the solemn hugeness of Lettergash mountain that towered on our right, is futility, and a weariness of the flesh.”
I particularly enjoyed this stop along the way:
“Given a sloping, sunshiny bank of shingle, a mass of yellow lichen-covered rocks between it and a purple-and-emerald streaked sea, a large empty morning, and a cock-shot, there is no reason why one should ever stop throwing stones. That is how my second cousin and I occupied ourselves the morning after our arrival at Renvyle.”
Renvyle was the home of the famous Grace O’Malley, and I must share the ladies’ thoughts about her:
“Grace O’Malley is a lady of too pronounced a type to be ignored, and even our very superficial acquaintance with her history compels us at least to express our regret that such a female suffragist as she would have made has been lost to our century. If she had lived now she would have stormed her way into the London County Council and sat upon that body in every sense of the word;and had the University of Oxford refused to allow her to graduate as whatever she wished, she would indubitably have sacked the town, and borne into captivity all the flower of the Dons. In the reign of Elizabeth, however, her energies were confined to the more remunerative pursuit of piracy.”
There really are so many memorable and quotable passages in this book.
I still don’t know what each lady contributed, but William Trevor’s excellent introduction to the Virago edition of this book explains that the cousins talked over events, debated what should be said in each report, and then one of them was charged with writing it down. That seemed exactly right.
I could see the roots of this book in separate articles – sometimes the chapters didn’t sit together as well as they might – but that did the book no great harm.
I had a wonderful trip in excellent company, and that I’m looking forward to meeting Somerville and Ross again.