William Dalrymple is a famous writer who works and lives in India. One of his books, From the Holy Mountain, contains a chapter about the monastery of Iviron. In that chapter Dalrymple informs the reader about the avaton, the rule that women are not allowed to enter the Holy Mountain.
He states that in 1857 one of his Victorian forebears, Virginia Somers, spend two months in a tent on the Holy Mountain. So she claimed she had broken the ban on women entering the Holy Mountain. The even more intriguing part is that Dalrymples writes that she had written a letter about her extraordinary experience. I was intrigued by this letter. I searched the internet for that letter. But I could not find it. I did find some nice pictures and drawings of her, but unfortunately no texts at all and certainly not the desired letter.
So I decided to send a letter to the famous author via his publisher. But regrettably, no response so far. Probably the author has a very busy life and could not find time to answer. Maybe some of our readers can help to find the letter.
This is a very early photograph, by an unknown photographer. It’s an albumen print, taken in the mid 1850s, from the National Portrait Gallery in the United Kingdom. The portrait was taken in the same decade of her illegal stay on the Holy Mountain.
A portrait of Virginia Somers-Cocks (née Pattle). She lived from 14 January 1827 (born in Calcutta) till 29 September 1910. She was a countess. She became the mother of three daughters: Isabella Caroline Somerset; Adeline Marie Russell and Virgina Somers Cocks.
William Makepeace Thackeray wrote of her: “When she comes into the room, it is like a beautiful air of Mozart breaking upon you; when she passes through a ballroom, everybody turns and asks who is the Princess, that fairy lady? Even the women, especially those who are the most beautiful themselves, admire her”.
She spend the two months on Athos together with her husband Charles Somers-Cocks, the 3rd Earl Somers who was a politician, and who was elected in the House of Parliament for the Conservative Party in 1841. When he inherited his father’s earldom in 1952 he entered the House of Lords. The other man in the party was the pre-Raphaelite painter Coutts Lindsay, who lived from 1824-1913. He was an painter and photographer. Dalrymple calls him “seedy”.
Dalrymple writes that in the letter, Virginia Somers tells that monks took her to a garden and offered her fruits from every tree they encountered. She tasted pomegranates, citruses and peaches. Which is strange because these fruits do not ripe at the same time of the year. Anyway, Dalrymple concludes that his great aunt is the only woman who was allowed on the Holy Mountain in its thousand year of history. And her letter is certainly the only report of a woman staying on Athos.
I’m looking forward to reading her letter one day.
More about avaton.