Book Review: The Real Charlotte

 The Real Charlotte
by Edith ΠSomerville and Martin Ross
J. S Sanders and Company 1999, 386 pp.

Somerville and Ross are, of course, better known for their series of three books depicting the (mis)adventures of an Irish Resident Magistrate -- known collectively as The Irish R.M.. This book, however -- The Real Charlotte -- is generally thought of as their masterpiece and its tone is completely different from the humorous shenanigans of Major Yeates, Flurry Knox et al.
I first came across it in a reference by F.S.L. Lyons in his lecture Irish Ireland versus Anglo-Irish Ireland, one of a series of lectures delivered in the University of Oxford and collectively published under the title Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939. (A highly recommended book, by the way.) Later I encountered a mention in R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972. Both writers lauded its depiction of a moribund Anglo-Irish Ascendency and its odd place in the changing social and political scene in Ireland in the late 19th century. As had happened so often in the past, the main agitators for an independent Ireland and the main champions of a dying Gaelic culture were members of the moneyed, educated and leisured class, the Protestant Ascendancy, descendants of English planters of various eras. By the end of the nineteenth century they found themselves mistrusted by the Irish peasantry and often despised by the English aristocracy. They lived in an odd social limbo that was being increasingly threatened by Nationalist movements of the late 1800s.
The book does not go into the political ethos of the day and, indeed, even the more peasant characters seem to be politically neutral, which is not always the case in Somerville and Ross books. It does help, though, to have some knowledge of the political context of the times if one is to understand the observations made by Lyons and Foster. Still, even without that information the book is an excellent read and the social and political implications are not really that important.
It’s a long book, originally published (as was the fashion) in three volumes in 1894. It’s title character, Charlotte Mullen, was based on a real person, Emily Herbert, a cousin of Edith who it appears finagled Edith out of an inheritance. The notes in the book say “She was ugly, powerful, intelligent, a bully, and capable of underhand dealings in order to benefit herself. Edith thought of her as a sort of New Woman gone to the Devil”.
The story concerns Francie Fitzpatrick, a young woman of impoverished semi-gentility and cousin of Charlotte Mullen, who received an inheritance that was partly to go to Francie. (Shades of Emily Herbert, again.) Charlotte has connections, social and financial, with the local squirearchy and when Francie goes to stay with her she mingles in unfamiliar society. “Francie’s accent and mode of expressing herself were alike deplorable; Dublin had done its worst for her in that respect ...” But she’s a pretty and vivacious girl and very soon she’s leading a very complicated emotional life, further complicated by social and class conventions. She finds herself pulled by draws of duty, passion and ambition and Charlotte, all the while, schemes and connives.
It’s very elegantly written and the language of the Irish country people is well observed and colourful. Transcriptions of what are supposed to be Irish language phrases are, however, perplexing. It’s quite apparent that the authors had no Gaelic. Still, almost every page has a phrase or observation that makes one smile: “When Christopher was irritated his method of showing it was so subtle as only to satisfy himself; it slipped through the wide and generous mesh of his mother’s understanding without the smallest friction.”
In many ways, the book is reminiscent of Jane Austen as much as of Victorian writers and while it appears, at first, to be a novel of manners, by Volume Three, it’s a much darker and, at times, a difficult read.

1 comment

  • patricia coen louisburgh co.mayo

    patricia coen louisburgh co.mayo

    this book was recently recommended to me by my good friend nick harmon a retired journalist. i am enjoying it very much. such a strong character francie and very elegantly written. catholic ireland had a lot goingr onten i am giving this .boik. toodles!!!and then had so much going on. ten ou

    this book was recently recommended to me by my good friend nick harmon a retired journalist. i am enjoying it very much. such a strong character francie and very elegantly written. catholic ireland had a lot goingr onten i am giving this .boik. toodles!!!and then had so much going on. ten ou

Add comment