Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Big House of Inver

I’ve been aware of Somerville and Ross books for as long as I’ve liked Molly Keane – so a number of years now, but mostly because I have the impression that ‘Some Experiences of an Irish R.M’ would be a bit like James Herriot without the cows (I have no idea if this is true or not it is absolutely blind prejudice) I’ve never read it and generally it’s the only Somerville and Ross book I see for sale. Some research – ok a quick look on amazon- shows Peter Bowles on the cover which explains my thought process. Irish R M has Sunday night television all over it; a cover with a hunting scene looked far more appealing (sorry Peter).

‘The Big House of Inver’ hasn’t entirely dispelled my prejudices but I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be looking out for more of their work. It seems that the initial idea for the plot came from Ross after seeing an empty house somewhere on the southwest coast of Ireland in march 1912 and discovering something of its history, Somerville went on to write the book alone after Ross died (so I don’t know how typical of their work this is), publication was in 1925.

Typical or not it’s an interesting addition to my small collection of Irish ‘Big House’ novels – so far generally comprised of Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen. The Anglo Irish ascendancy is a subject I find fascinating, especially at the point they start to fall. English society looked down on Irish titles, and the Irish nobility generally seem to have been seen as irredeemably provincial in London (despite a determinedly English and expensive education) yet as English educated protestants however long a family had been established in Ireland it seems fair to say they would always be seen as other, a situation only exacerbated by a rigid class system. A visiting English Baronet in ‘The Big House of Inver’ frequently states that the country is unfit for white men perfectly expressing the lack of sympathy between English and Irish culture.

Most of the action takes place in 1912, and generally has the feel of an Edwardian society with one exception. Peggy the upwardly mobile agent’s daughter who forms the main love interest in the latter half of the story read like a post war girl to me, something that made a lot more sense when I checked the publication date after I finished reading.

The story is that of the Prendeville family and the first 70 or so pages rush through 150 years of history charting the rise of this particular branch of the gentry, and their fall bought about through pride and profligacy. A series of liaisons with peasant girls, including marriages, dilutes the blood line and blurs the boundaries between village and big house. When we arrive at 1912 the Prendeville family is all but ruined and living in ungracious poverty. All that’s left is held together by the eldest and illegitimate daughter of the house, all her hopes are centred on restoring her younger legitimate brother to what she perceives to be his rightful position.

The stage is set for tragedy of some sort, and it slowly unravels before us, complete with a suitably Irish element of the supernatural. There are morals aplenty, principally the idea of pride coming before a fall and the likelihood of the sins of the fathers being visited on the children. There is also the vexed question of the eldest daughter, Shibby’s legitimacy. Despite her sordid beginning she is shown time and again to be the true heir of her family’s heritage, but the lack of a name or formalised position holds her back.

This is an old fashioned sort of read, but the ending is unconventional enough to make it well worth the read, the humour is equally fresh, even the colloquialisms work. I first found this book in a relatively expensive 2nd hand emporium before getting it far more cheaply on amazon. If you find it cheaply enough it’s well worth a read, and possibly one day a reprint. I shall keep my fingers crossed for it.

1 comment:

  1. I think the inspiration for the book is Tyrone House near Kilcolgan, Co Galway which was the home of the St Georges. I asked a man about the house and the St Georges and he told me "they're all St Georges around here". The house is very beautiful and stark and stands on a hill above the mac mansions that sprout like spare pricks all around the landscape here. Its a well worth while diversion of the Limerick road just as you come into Kilcolgan.