ABOUT ALLISON THOMPSON
Speak, “friend,” and enter.
(Yes, one of my fandoms is J.R.R. Tolkein! Also P.G. Wodehouse.)
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of about eight, when I was galloping my way through Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, Cherry Ames, Nurse Detective, and that type of series books, and my mother told me to slow down—what would happen if I read them all? I responded that I would write them. Well I haven’t actually done that, but my trajectory has, in a way, incorporated an aspect of those early fandoms.
I majored in history at Earlham College, an institution that had a long-standing tradition of celebrating May Day. “Big” May Day, held every four years, was my senior year, and I was deeply involved in sewing the morris men’s tunics (white unicorns on a black background on the front; black and white checkerboard on the back), teaching the maypole dance to a number of helpers and then leading it (six simultaneous maypoles, I recall), and tootling away on the recorders. The whole faculty and most of the students (except those rebels who were celebrating “Prune Day” with a duly-elected Prune Queen) were involved. It was great fun! Thinking about it some years later, I wondered if other colleges celebrated May Day—and what had promised to be a short chapter in a book on calendar customs turned into May Day Festivals in America: 1830 to the Present. Check it out! (I mean, actually, buy it!) If you attended an historically women’s college, the odds are very high that your predecessors rose at dawn in early May and danced around with garlands while wearing Grecian tunics.
I fell in love with English country dance—and rapper and longsword and clog and morris and garland, etc.—in college, and attended many dance camps, becoming an English country dance teacher and musician. I play piano, recorders, button accordion, and concertina and am learning (slowly) the mandolin and tenor guitar. I have played folk dance music for almost four decades with Maro Avakian (piano) and Donna Isaac (violin) as the trio Amarillis, and we have made three recordings: Waltzing in the Trees, The Blind Harper Dances, and In-Step. I have edited three books of dances—Legacy The Blind Harper Dances, and Dances from Barnes Three—and written a number of articles on folk and historical dance. I am also currently the General Editor of Country Dance + Song Online, the online scholarly journal of the Country Dance & Song Society.
My passion for folk dance made me perk up my ears when I read an article about the English author Elsie J. Oxenham, who wrote more than 90 novels for girls and young women, about 40 of them following the lives and adventures of girls who do English folk dance. The series is known as the Abbey Girls series, and one of its features, in addition to an elaborate May Queen festival, is the idealized presentation of Cecil Sharp, May Gadd, Maud Karpeles and other leaders of the folk revival circa 1912-1930. Well, a reader of Nancy and Cherry was instantly captivated by this concept, and I began acquiring, reading, and perseverating about Oxenham and her world. I wrote a long essay titled Lighting the Fire: Elsie J. Oxenham, Cecil Sharp and the English Folk Dance Revival (now OOP) which I later reworked into a chapter of Step Change, edited by Georgina Boyes. Here in this blog, I set myself the goal of providing a plot synopsis and discussion of the dance elements of the Abbey Girl series and some of the “connector” novels. It’s a lot of books! I was forced to re-read them many times! What a hardship!
And, finally, Jane Austen. The first novel I read was Emma, as a college assignment, and I didn’t really like it. (It has taken me decades, until the summer of 2019, in fact, when I decided to teach a course on Emma, for me to really like that character. Some.) But something drew me back and I began to read Austen compulsively—at one point I was sitting on an otherwise deserted beach on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, holding my ten-month old baby while his father snorkeled, and reading Mansfield Park in the Oxford hardback edition, complete with dust jacket, when I suddenly thought: is this weird? No, it was the new normal, for me. (The book no longer closes tight, due to the sea air.) I have been a Life Member of JASNA for several decades now, and have given numerous talks on Austen, both from a pop cultural perspective and from an examination of eighteenth-century dance and customs. And Mansfield Park in the Caribbean is not as weird as I thought then—ask me why sometime.
About 15 years ago I was reading a study of Austen’s music in which the author mentioned, in a dismissive tone, “some little dance books.” Two of my passions were united, and, Reader, I was off to England! I got copies of the music (all of her music books have since been digitized), did a lot of research and, after a long gestation, the result is Dances from Jane Austen’s Assembly Rooms. It will, as I promise on the title page, Elevate, Instruct, and Amuse you. It was difficult for me to finish it because I was enjoying writing it so much.
As another obsessive-compulsive project, I decided a few years ago to start re-translating back into English the first French translation of Sense & Sensibility. The translator admitted that it was a “free” translation—and, boy howdy!, parts of it are so free that you could almost call it fan fiction. Yet this is the version that is still foisted on Francophones today! What a shame. Anyway, that’s about 52 chapters plus some commentary—between Raison et Sensibilité and the Abbey Girls, we have a lot of reading (and writing) ahead of us.