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.
So pity of them to try to violate Avaton. This is a big sin,
Dalrymple’s work is an excellent piece of travel literature where he tried to replicate in the modern times, the path followed the 7th century by byzantine monk Ioannes Moschos who travelled the known christian world of his time and is described at his book ‘Leimonarion’. Leimonarion was a reference pilgrimage travel guide at those early times, used for many centuries by other pilgrims.
Interistingly, what Dalrymple describes was not the the only known tresspassing of the Avaton at that time. Early 19th century show many such violations, most prominent being the fleeing of women and children to the peninsula as the greek independence revolution started when respectfully the ottoman troops didn’t enter to chase them and the uprise of Tsamis Karatassos some years later when again people from nearby villages entered Athos again to seek refuge.
Virginia on the other hand was not the first english lady either to enter Athos at her time. A few years earlier, at 1850 the respected british ambassador to the sublime port, Stratford Canning, made a formal visit to Athos officialy accompanied by his wife Eliza Charlotte Alexander. Patriarch Anthimos who personally allowed that visit, had a few years later denounced the visit asking for such non-curriculum visits never to be repeated. Was it perhaps because other incindents such as this of Lady Virginia Sommers started to occur?
Virginia Patlle as was her birth name before marrying Sommers https://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/about-us/news/object-focus-lady-dalrymple/ (there’a also a nice video of William Dalrymple at the page above talking about her), was a sister to Dalrymple’s great-great grandmother Sophia as well as to the famous portrait photographer Julia Maragret Cameron and also to the great grandmother of Virginia Wolfe among others.
Although we don’t know (yet) of the letter his great-great aunt wrote about her athonite adventures, we have another account of that visit, from another letter written by writer and painter Edward Lear -which we knew he made a visit to Athos a year before Lady Somers did, more for him here: https://athosweblog.com/2016/02/10/1790-edward-lears-visit-in-1856/ -, to his friend Chichester Fortesque, stating that he met Victoria on a trip and she recounted to him her adventures at the holly mountain.
“The knock-shock-sprain which I got in that Southampton train bothered me a good deal as I left England, & it is by no means clear away yet, but I got off hook or by crook on the 20th, & had a neasy passage over to Boulogne, none the less so that there was Lady Somers to talk to & look at: ― she is certainly the handsomest living woman. It seems that she, S. & Coutts Lindsay really landed at Athos, & lived there 2 months! in tents, various mucilaginous monx coming now & then to see them. A few more such visits would bust, or go far to bust, the Greek monasticism, I think.”
More info about the incident and the letter, and I believe this is the actual source that Dalrymple originally took the info from, can be found at the brief paragraph on mount athos at the biography of their painter companion “Coutts Lindsay 1824-1913”, written by Virginia Surtees.