I’ve just finished reading a wonderful Irish novel written at the close of the 19th century. ‘The Real Charlotte‘ was written by Somerville and Ross, a pair of female cousins who co-authored a number of books including one of my all-time favourites, ‘The Memoirs of an Irish RM’ (‘RM’ meaning Resident Magistrate). The title sounds dry, but the tales are brilliantly funny.
Though I’ve read ‘The Irish RM’ several times over the years, I had never even heard of ‘The Real Charlotte’ until I read Hermione Lee’s biography of another favourite writer, Penelope Fitzgerald. In that biography I read that Penelope Fitzgerald had once numbered ‘The Real Charlotte’ amongst her Desert Island Books. I looked it up and discovered that it had recently been re-issued by Capuchin Classics, so I lost no time in acquiring it.
And what a treat it turned out to be. I can hardly believe that such a fine book has fallen out of the public eye. I tend to assume that anything of real quality will endure, but I suppose I should know by now that this isn’t always so. It’s a little scary to think of the vagaries of fashion and politics which sweep some works of art into the margins, or out of the picture altogether. Anyway, ‘The Real Charlotte’ has been a great discovery. The authors’ understanding of character and motive is remarkable, and their description of life in Ireland at the end of the 19th century is memorably vivid. Even better, the intricate plot closes slowly upon its characters like a giant pair of pincers. The best compliment I can pay the book is to say that I had lots of other things I should have been doing instead of reading a novel, but ‘The Real Charlotte’ drove them out of my mind, and kept me happily stuck in a chair for hours by the window.