The witty Irish satire that inspired a 'Masterpiece Theatre' series; An Irish R. M., by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross. New York: Penguin Books. 591 pp. $4.95 (paperback).
From the essays of Jonathan Swift in the 18th century to the novels and stories of contemporary writers like William Trevor and Jennifer Johnston, the literature of the Anglo-Irish Protestant, until this century the most powerful class in Ireland, has been marked by a decided penchant for irony and satire. No where is this more comically evident than in the work of two turn-of-the-century , thoroughly Anglo-Irish spinster cousins living in the southwest of Ireland, Edith Somerville and Violet Martin.
Working together in one of literature's most extraordinary collaborations, these two women turned out volumes of novels, stories, and memoirs that cast a highly ironic and often remarkably self-critical eye at the shabby-genteel, Big-House world of Protestant landlords and Roman Catholic tenants, fox hunts and horses, dinner parties and balls. And, especially in the three volumes of stories reprinted in this new edition and originally published between 1899 and 1915, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (Violet Martin's pseudonym) also made major contributions to the development of the modern short story in Ireland.
The stories are set in a symbolically dilapidated Big House in West Cork, taken over by the district's newly appointed resident magistrate, Maj. Sinclair Yeates. The tales all center on Major Yeates and his experiences in this remote part of Ireland. The major is of Irish extraction, but he also brings to his post a decidedly English view of the native Irish as slovenly, undependable, and more than a little bewildering. ''In the inevitable atmosphere of wet frieze and perjury,'' Yeates says in describing his work on the bench, in the first story of the collection, ''I listened to indictments of old women who plucked geese alive, of publicans whose hospitality to their friends broke forth uncontrollably on Sunday afternoons, of 'parties' who, in the language of the police-sergeant, were subtly defined as 'not to say dhrunk, but in good fighting thrim.' ''
Somerville and Ross have been accused of making literary capital out of the Irish stereotype that earlier Catholic writers like Gerald Griffin and William Carleton had tried to eradicate, but the charge will not, in general, hold up. Like so many Anglo-Irish Protestant writers - divided between a loyalty, however vaguely felt, to the British crown and a deep-seated commitment to their native land - Somerville and Ross viewed their world with an ironic detachment that was often turned against their own class. The humor in their stories is rarely enjoyed at the expense of the Irish, and they reserve their sharpest satire for the English, whom they portray as hopelessly naive about the country they presume to govern.
Many of the stories turn on a comic reversal of the master-servant relationship, in which Major Yeates is outwitted by the people that he sits in official judgment of. The stories tend to move through a complex series of fast-paced events that leave the major in the dark until the very end, but when he finally understands what has happened - how his house has been occupied by secret squatters, how he has been duped into being discovered by the police in an illegal drinking house - he usually ends up admiring the imagination, cunning , and wit of the Irish with whom he has come into contact.
Yeates also comes to respect the faith in the individual that he finds among the Irish, as opposed to the bureaucratic mentality of English government. In one of the best known of these tales, ''Poisson d'Avril,'' Yeates finds himself waiting for the inevitably late train and being attended to most personally by the stationmaster. ''Before the train signaled,'' he thinks, ''I realized for the hundredth time the magnificent superiority of the Irish mind to the trammels of officialdom, and the inveterate supremacy in Ireland of the personal element.''
In some ways, these stories represent the last gasp of 19th-century Irish fiction. Certainly the world that they portray is gone forever. But the stories have survived well into this century - as evidenced by this new reprinting, timed to coincide with a ''Masterpiece Theatre'' dramatization currently seen on PBS - partly because of the high quality of their humor, and partly because of the realistic accuracy of their portrayal of certain aspects of Irish rural life. For one thing, these two cousins, who lived most of their lives in the kind of world that their stories describe, had a flawless ear for local dialect and humor.
The stories of Somerville and Ross also still merit acclaim for their formal properties. As opposed to the short fiction in Ireland that preceded them - for the most part, loosely arranged narratives plagued by digression and didacticism - these stories are remarkably compact.
But for all their humor, realism, and formal perfection, these stories do come up conspicuously short in some important areas. They deal brilliantly with the surface of social manners and customs; but characterization rarely goes beyond caricature, and there is little attempt to explore the inner life. After listening to Major Yeates's voice through three volumes, the reader realizes that he still does not know the man intimately.
Nonetheless, if, as Frank O'Connor once said, these tales of the bizarre experiences of a resident magistrate in the wilds of West Cork are, finally, ''yarns, pure and simple,'' that is, perhaps, praise enough.