- E. Œ. Somerville and Martin Ross: Female Authorship and Literary Collaboration by Anne Jamison
Anne Jamison’s book on the co-authorship of “Somerville & Ross”—the “company name” that Edith Œnone Somerville (1858–1949) and Violet Martin (Martin Ross, 1862–1915) adopted as a pseudonym—marks a milestone in scholarly analysis of this fascinating phenomenon. In introducing this study, Jamison quotes from arch-canon-maker T. S. Eliot’s little essay “Phillip Massinger” in Elizabethan Essays (1964), stating, “the threads of authorship and influence” underlying drama compel the critic to “ponder collaboration to the utmost line” (qtd. p. 1). By “ponder[ing]” the frequent literary collaborations entailed in theater as a matter of “influence,” however, Eliot quietly undermines the notion that two minds might prove inextricable. Jamison reaffirms this phenomenon for Somerville and Ross, despite their being often forced to collaborate at a distance, and she situates their work amid other important modern co-authorships, including Eliot’s with Ezra Pound. At the same time, the invocation of Eliot cannily implies that Somerville and Ross merit inclusion among the great writers of the twentieth century, internationally. Jamison does not always do justice, though, to her own predecessors when, for example, she suggests her analysis unusual in “rethink[ing] the collaboration beyond a purely domestic and personal affair” and instead “a challenge to dominant nineteenth-century conceptions of the post-Romantic author as male, originary and singular” (pp. 1, 2). Her study represents an important contribution nonetheless to an area first opened up by the critics of the late 1980s and 1990s, whom she cites. The archival research undertaken at the Edith Œnone Somerville Archive in Cork, Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and the Berg Collection enables Jamison to offer numerous insights into these writers’ “defiant cultural position” (p. 2).
Like Bette London, who in Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships (1999) examines both professional literary co-authorships and ghost writing as notable types of collaboration at the turn of the century for women writers like Somerville and Ross, Jamison focuses on this Anglo-Irish couple as “literary professionals” whose collaboration survived Ross’s death, thanks both to the ample unfinished material left behind and to Somerville’s occult practices. Like Jack Stillinger in Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius (1991), Jamison’s first chapter, “The Legality and Aesthetics of Victorian Authorship,” reviews the history of copyright in the long nineteenth century, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s anxieties about collaboration. Jamison extends that history to pay attention to Anna Mary Howitt and the Howitt family’s collaborations, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to the effects [End Page 490] of the Royal Commissioners’ 1878 Report on Copyright, which affirmed it as a property right. Like Jill Ehnenn in Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture (2008), Jamison’s second chapter, “The Erotics and Politics of Female Collaboration,” evaluates the sexual politics of Somerville and Ross’s co-authorship, though departing from Ehnenn to advance an argument that their relationship is primarily a friendship (with occasional erotic overtones), tracing this kind of relation back to Aristotle. This chapter enacts a fresh reading of Somerville and Ross’s fourth novel, The Silver Fox (1897), where “masculine colonial power . . . is metaphorically overcome by an erotic female authority” (p. 61). Chapter two further provides lengthy analysis of their epistolary relationship throughout their careers, which, as Jamison argues, formed much of the bedrock of their collaborative methodology.
Jamison historicizes Somerville and Ross’s work carefully, resituating it, for example, in an intriguing episode in the history of modern media. Chapter three, “Women’s Popular Literature in the Commercial Marketplace,” etches the duo’s professionalism during the moment when the literary agent was born. This section investigates the groundbreaking work of the agent James B. Pinker, who pursued a successful professional relationship with them. This chapter also scrutinizes the genealogy of the famous Irish R. M. stories (1899–1915). Jamison recounts the plagiarism of a story by a male...