A visit to Drishane House: When David Marcus met Edith Somerville

Irish novelist Edith Somerville in 1916. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

High on my list of favourite Irish short stories ever since I had first read them were the Somerville and Ross Irish RM collections, and there was no doubt in my mind that if I could have a contribution from Edith Somerville in the first issue of Irish Writing, it would be the jewel in the crown. But she was then 88 and I had no idea what her state of health might be, so when I wrote to her at her Castletownshend home, Drishane House, I was fully prepared for a polite refusal.

The reply, however, was not from her but from her nephew, Sir Nevill Coghill, the Chaucer authority and Oxford don, who was at the time on holiday at Castletownshend. He wrote that his aunt would be happy to discuss my request with me and he invited me to Drishane House to meet her. He went on to say that if I were travelling by train I would have to stay with him overnight as the only train arrived at Skibbereen, the nearest station, at an hour after Dr Edith would have retired. I didn’t have a car, and anyway couldn’t drive, so the train and an overnight stay it would have to be.

How did one behave in such surroundings? What should I wear, for God’s sake? I, who had never in my life been inside a non-Jewish home, and here I was, galloping headlong into the Big House of Irish literature

The prospect appalled me. It had never occurred to me that my letter could lead to having to meet and talk with such a literary icon as Edith Somerville, but as the purpose of the visit was only to get her to contribute to the inaugural issue of Irish Writing, after a few days the prospect became more exciting than daunting. Unfortunately, the lapse of time allowed the other prospect – the overnight stay with such an august literary personage as Nevill Coghill – to become the real terror. How would I possibly maintain any extended, serious conversation with an Oxford don and authority on Chaucer, of whose work I was totally ignorant? He would not be expecting to have on his hands a mere callow youth presenting himself as the editor of a projectedly important literary periodical. I would be exposed as an impostor, a humbug, a charlatan.

And altogether apart from conversation, what about comportment? How did one behave in such surroundings? What was the protocol at table? What should I wear, for God’s sake? I, who had never in my life been inside a non-Jewish home, and here I was, galloping headlong into the Big House of Irish literature. It was a situation which Leopold Bloom, with some help from Joyce, might have handled, but Leopold Bloom I was not. However, there was no alternative. I had had to write to Sir Nevill accepting his kind invitation.

Nevill Coghill (centre) with his former student Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at Oxford University in 1966. Photograph: Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty
Nevill Coghill (centre) with his former student Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at Oxford University in 1966. Photograph: Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

From my home in Cork the train journey to Skibbereen was only 90 miles but it took almost four hours. World War II might have ended, but the Emergency, Ireland’s ironic euphemism for that little altercation somewhere off its shores, was still in force, so fuel was scarce and trains were running on what the wags called a mixture of coal-dust, peat, and splinters of wood borrowed from the more outlying parts of the third-class carriages.

It was a long and very cold four hours, which I made longer by spending the whole time worrying. The only consolation I could think of – and to call it consolation was a triumph of self-delusion – was that once I was met at the station by Sir Nevill, I would be so busy trying to create an impression that I’d have no more time for angst.

Immediately the train puffed to a stop I was out on the platform looking for my host. But this, surely, couldn’t be Sir Nevill – a small, jarveyish man, touching his cap and stretching his hand out for my little travelling case?

“Mr Marcus?” he enquired in a soft, country voice.

I nodded uncertainly.

“Follow me, sir,” and he led the way.

Ah, of course, the car, with Sir Nevill, would be waiting outside the station.

But there was no car there, only a small, round, horse-and-trap affair, like a tub on wheels – and no Sir Nevill in it. My guide opened the little door, put in my bag, handed me up and hopped onto the seat in front. Jogging the horse into motion, he said, “Sir Nevill is waiting for you in the house, sir.”

As we jolted and bounced over the miles I tried to keep calm but panic mounted inside me as we drew nearer our destination. I essayed a few conversational sentences. The weather allowed a speculative comment or two. Then our conveyance – “I bet the horse is used to this journey. He seems to take it easily,” I said. It was an even more inane remark than I suspected. “Aye,” was the considered reply, “she’s a good oul’ mare, is Nancy.” I said no more.

At last we turned into the drive of Drishane House and eased to a stop at the open door where my host immediately materialised. Though I had, of course, seen many pictures of Edith Somerville, I had never seen one of her nephew. I had imagined a dryish, donnish, smallish man. I found before me a giant, large-boned, long-handed, big-headed – a man so tall that his shoulders seemed slightly rounded from continued bending to communicate with his fellow-men.

Drishane House, home of Edith Somerville
Drishane House, home of Edith Somerville

Even more striking was his face – I couldn’t help immediately bringing to mind that old Frankenstein of the cinema, Boris Karloff; a warm, friendly, smiling, even good-looking Boris Karloff, to be sure, but withal a Boris Karloff. Sir Nevill betrayed no surprise at my extreme youth but politely showed me to my room, intimating that as soon as I was ready I could come down for a spot of food.

I was now so worried that I had to sit on the edge of the bed to cool off. How long should I delay? Three minutes? Five? Ten? Even before I could decide, there was a knock on the door. “Ready?” said my host, as he opened it and stooped in. I sprang up and accompanied him, feeling as if I was taking my last walk. Going downstairs he told me that his mother, Lady Coghill, and the other guests and family were in the village, attending the cinema, and would be back late. I heaved a sigh. At least that was something I did not have to face immediately. We entered the dining room. “I’ve eaten already,” he said, “so I’ll just sit and talk with you while you have your dinner.”

Dinner, I could see, was cold meat – and that faced me with my first dilemma. As an orthodox Jew I had never eaten non-kosher meat. What should I do? The ordeal of having to keep up a literary conversation with Sir Nevill was giving me enough to think about without affronting him at the outset by rejecting his food. I decided to swallow the meat along with one of the fundamental taboos of my upbringing.

If only that had proved to be my only problem! No sooner was I seated at the table than my host’s first words struck terror into my very entrails.

The dining room at Drishane House
The dining room at Drishane House

“You’ll have a drink?” he murmured, and for the first time I spotted a tumbler flanked by a bottle of Paddy, its regimental stance and golden glitter played on by the vying lights of a palatial chandelier and sparklingly reflected in the array of highly-polished silver, like rows of Royal Horseguards, on either side of the place-mat before me. The bottle was already in Sir Nevill’s hand. “You’ll have a drink?” had really been more statement than question, a conventional politeness to which – so his manner suggested – an affirmative answer was taken for granted.

But, alas, I was an exception. Not only had my Jewish home been strictly kosher as regards food, it had also been strictly non-alcoholic. When I was eight I had found an empty stout bottle and, smelling it, had recoiled almost in a dead faint. The memory never left me and resulted in my never taking a drink in my life. I had never even seen the inside of a pub!

But this was one challenge I couldn’t dare reject. I might look a mere youth but I was now playing the role of a literary bloke, and I knew that by reputation any literary bloke worth his salt was supposed to be able to take his liquor. Here was a chance, perhaps the only chance I might have in this company, to separate the man from the boy in me. The whole success of my venture into the Big House would surely depend on the impression I created on Dr Edith’s nephew. I couldn’t fail for the want of a bit of stomach lining.

The bottle was still being held over the glass. “Thank you,” I said, trying to suggest by my tone that Sir Nevill’s hesitation hadn’t really been necessary.

The whiskey began to chug into the tumbler.

“Say when,” I heard.

The instruction froze my already panic-stricken mind. When was “when”? I didn’t know. How much would be seemly as well as making the right effect? A quarter tumbler was surely too little, a half tumbler too much. Something in between? “When,” I jerked out, by which time I had rather more than half a glass.

I pretended nothing but nonchalantly started my meal. Inwardly, however, I was frenziedly debating the next nerve-wracking problem: At what stage does one drink the whiskey? At the start of the meal? At the end? In the middle?

Sir Nevill gave me what I thought might be a clue. “Some water?” he enquired. If the drinking were to be later, he would have delayed that, I told myself. Then I must drink now. But water? Did one take water with whiskey? Surely only immature novices would dare insult such an ancient and aristocratic beverage. In a moment of inspiration I casually covered the glass with my hand and shook my head.

“Certain?” asked Sir Nevill. I should have been warned by the strange note in his voice but I was too distracted by yet another dilemma. How did one drink whiskey – in sips or in one swallow? My memory was full of tough-looking, gun-toting screen cowboys who jerked their heads back and drained their glasses at a gulp. Naturally, that was it. Sir Nevill was eyeing me. I steeled myself, raised the glass to my lips and downed the drink in a single swallow – then bent to resume my meal.

Nothing happened for perhaps two and a half seconds and I was beginning to congratulate myself on the discovery of a wonderful, unsuspected talent. Then I seemed both to feel and hear something strike the wall behind me. It was the back of my head.

A fountain of fire was shooting up inside me and my face burned like a radiator. I could apprehend my host looking at me with a close, wide-eyed stare, evidently wondering if I was still conscious. I was – but only just

While it was slowly resuming its normal shape I sat speechless, almost transfixed. I could have been one of those Pompeian inhabitants, overtaken even at his meal by the stream of lava and fixed for ever in that common posture. A fountain of fire was shooting up inside me and my face burned like a radiator. I couldn’t move – I dared not move! It was as if the room and everything in it were held steady only by my paralytic stillness, and that the very slightest motion on my part would set the whole place in a mad whirl. I could apprehend my host looking at me with a close, wide-eyed stare, evidently wondering if I was still conscious. I was – but only just.

By a supreme effort of will I was hypnotising myself into maintaining sobriety. It was the only thing I could think of doing.

Slowly a modicum of self-control returned. I choked back a desire to cough, manfully prohibited my eyes from watering, and offhandedly resumed my meal. Sir Neville’s own responses were not, for a few moments, altogether smooth, and he seemed in some doubt. Then after a pause he lifted the bottle again and said, “Care for another?” But like every good magician, I knew better than to perform one’s pièce de résistance twice before the same audience. I politely declined, managing, I think, to imply that I really could do it again but wouldn’t be such a hog as to do so on his whiskey. Sir Nevill didn’t press me. He replaced the bottle with a somewhat regretful expression, as if he was sorry he hadn’t observed more closely when he had the chance.

Not surprisingly I have absolutely no recollection of the rest of our conversation. Presumably some conversation of sorts did take place, but whatever remained of my mental processes had other things to worry about. What further terrors would I have to undergo when Lady Coghill and her guests would return from the village? O bedtime, blessed bedtime! Could I survive until then, or would I collapse in the middle of the house-party festivities and be ignominiously packed off first thing in the morning without even seeing Dr Edith?

The return of Lady Coghill and her guests was akin to an invasion. They seemed to number anything up to 30 people between young and old, but possibly in my still muzzy state I was seeing double. Lady Coghill greeted me with friendliness and even a touch of deference, a mixture no doubt calculated to put me at my ease but in fact having the very opposite effect. The resemblance between her and Sir Nevill was striking, the same big build and the same Karloffian appearance, without Sir Nevill’s stoop but including his charming smile. She didn’t burden me with introductions, simply throwing my name out to the general assembly. But Sir Nevill included me in older conversation groups that immediately came together, seeming to be made up mostly of family members. He would quietly identify for me whoever held the floor at any one moment. More often than not it was a Somerville from the Royal Navy, giving me in my confused state the impression that the place was awash with Admirals of the Fleet. In keeping me from the younger guests I suspect that, having during the few hours we had spent together gauged my limitations and knowing what diversions were planned, he was saving me embarrassment.

Certainly I could not have made any contribution to the histrionics that followed, a succession of erudite charades based largely on classical allusions, Greek to me, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. This went on to general hilarity and applause with apparently inexhaustible energy and imagination until Sir Nevill bent to whisper in my ear that breakfast would be at nine o’clock, after which he would take me to Dr Edith, adding that the high spirits would probably continue for some time, so if I was tired after my long journey no one would mind if I slipped quietly up to bed. Feeling overcome with relief and gratitude, I thanked him for his consideration and bade him goodnight. Boris Karloff he certainly was not.

David Marcus in 2008. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
David Marcus in 2008. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

I slept heavily through the night, remembering just before I dropped off to repeat to my mind the order, “Wake at eight, wake at eight,” hoping my newly-found gift of self-hypnosis wouldn’t let me down. It didn’t, and I was able to present myself in the breakfast room at exactly nine o’clock.

Sir Nevill was sitting at the table, evidently not yet having eaten and with no food in front of him, though the handful of the older male family members present were happily munching away. I noted that none of the younger people had yet put in an appearance.

“Good morning,” my host greeted. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you. Capital!” I replied, hoping I was striking the right note.

“How about a little walk first?” he suggested. “Give us an appetite.”

On one side of the room large French doors were open onto a very extensive garden with a beautifully manicured lawn. No doubt a pre-breakfast constitutional was de rigeur, so I stepped out with him, though to keep pace with his Gulliverian steps required unused-to effort on my part.

“I was re-reading the Irish RM stories recently,” I said, choosing my ground. I had a good knowledge of the stories, and had quickly decided to lead the conversation and play to my strength with my opening gambit. That should keep me out of deep water and possibly earn me some brownie points into the bargain. We exchanged views and preferences, did one circuit of the lawn and arrived back at the breakfast-room. The array of food laid out in trays, bowls and covered dishes on a long sideboard, though momentarily taking me aback, presented me with no new problems.

“What do you fancy? There’s . . .”

“No thank you, Sir Nevill,” I cut in confidently, “I never eat breakfast. Just tea and toast is all I ever have.”

My host raised his eyebrows at this non-breakfast – which in truth was my normal one – but made no comment, probably deciding that such exiguousness in the intake of food was no more freakish than might be expected from someone with the capacity for whiskey that I had demonstrated.

Somerville and Ross
Somerville and Ross

After breakfast Sir Nevill accompanied me to meet Edith Somerville, who lived in a house of her own in the grounds. He brought me into her studio, introduced me and departed.

Though in her mid-eighties, Edith Somerville still possessed the brightness and mental agility of a woman in her prime, and her charm – evidently a family gift – was magnetic. She was ensconced in a large armchair at the far end of the studio, a long, wide, many-windowed room of brown panelling, the walls like those of a picture gallery prepared for an exhibition, so many were the pictures that covered them. Seeing me gaze about in some awe, she smiled and said, “Look around, do, before we have our talk.”

I dutifully examined the pictures nearest me, paintings delicately coloured, drawings and sketches, photographs of streets and outdoor scenes.

A sketch by Edith Somerville
A sketch by Edith Somerville

“Now sit here.” She motioned with her stick to the chair opposite her.

“One could spend hours admiring all these,” I said quite sincerely, for though I had been aware that as a young woman she had studied art, I had never seen any of her work. Gracefully she inclined her head in acknowledgement of my appreciation. Obviously the subject was dear to her, for she was happy to spend almost the first hour of our conversation talking about art and music – at least she talking and I listening as she regaled me with stories of her days as an art student in Paris.

“Now tell me about this Irish Writing of yours,” she eventually invited. I told her about my love of literature, of my plans and ambitions, and named some of the famous Irish writers who had already agreed to support the periodical. She seemed happy with my outline and to my delight promised to send me something.

“Nothing very exciting, you understand. Perhaps a piece about my collaboration with dear Martin Ross. Not that there can be anything in it that I haven’t said before. Would that suit you?”

The first edition of Irish Writing, featuring Edith Somerville
The first edition of Irish Writing, featuring Edith Somerville

I told her what it would mean to the success of Irish Writing to have such a distinguished contribution in the first issue. She waved my comment aside, then picking up a book from a small table beside her, opened it at its title page, took up her pen and said, “I’ll sign this as a present for you. One of my more recent efforts.”

As she finished signing I was about to hand her a blotter that was placed nearby, but she quickly forestalled me, saying, “No, never blot a signature. Let it dry naturally, just like a sentence ending.” The book was The Sweet Cry of Hounds.

Then “Come with me,” she said, rising and tapping me with her stick. “It’s such a lovely morning.”

She rang a bell, had her pony and trap brought out and took me on a descriptive tour through her beloved countryside. On our return, Sir Neville again materialised to greet us, and Dr Edith bade me goodbye, saying, “I hope you enjoyed that. At least it should fortify you for your horrible journey back to Cork.” It did, it and my memories of a very kind and wonderful lady. I returned home knowing full well how fortunate I had been to have met and talked with a writer of such nobility and fame. I had the feeling that the future of Irish Writing could not be more promising.
This is an extract from David Marcus’ memoir, Oughtobiography,  which was published by Gill Books in 2001. David Marcus (1924-2009) cofounded the Irish Writing literary magazine in 1946 and, in 1968, the New Irish Writing page in the Irish Press, which is still published each month in The Irish Times. Edith Somerville (1858-1949) wrote in collaboration with her cousin “Martin Ross” (Violet Martin) under the pseudonyms Somerville and Ross. Their most popular stories were The Real Charlotte and Some Experiences of an Irish RM. Nevill Coghill (1899-1980) was an English literary scholar, best known for his modern English version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.