Flowers, May Queens, pretty girls in brightly-colored, loosely-swinging frocks dancing English folk dances on the green garth of an old Abbey, friendship, babies, and spirituality—this is the world of Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girl books, published between 1914 and 1959. These books written for girls and young women feature descriptions and appreciations of English morris, sword, and country dancing as well as homages of the founder of the English Folk Dance Society, Cecil Sharp, and his teachers.
Welcome to the first installment of my “Dancing with the Abbey Girls” Project! I am indulging myself—and hopefully you, dear Reader—by examining each of the books in reading order (more about this later). Why? Partly to introduce modern folk dancers to the world of the early days, partly to help non-dancing readers of Oxenham’s novels to better understand the dances (though some have gone on to become dancers already), and mostly because it gives me great pleasure to spend time with the Abbey Girls.
Together, we’re going to visit about 50 of the nearly 80 titles EJO saw published in her lifetime: the 38 Abbey books plus as many of the “Connectors” as I can find. (More about Connectors in a later post.) For each of these I’ll give a plot synopsis and then a summary and an analysis of the folk dancing mentioned in the book. The dance scenes can range from zero to a substantial amount, and they tell us a lot about both the style of dancing and of teaching in the early years of the folk “revival”—the standards were high and the rules were strict. Here’s an example: the girls have organized a workshop weekend to learn new dances and brush up on skills and have invited a teacher from London (meaning a Sharp-approved teacher) to lead them. She says that she wants to see their skipping step and asks them to dance Rufty Tufty, a dance for two couples, facing each other. Here’s the reaction of the first Abbey Girls, now May Queens of the Hamlet Club, who are sitting on the platform when the teacher makes her request:
In frozen horror the Hamlet Club stared at her. Not a Queen but raised her head with a jerk of dismay. Maidlin’s eyes were like saucers; the President [Cecily] looked actually frightened; Jen whistled under her breath; Rosamund stared accusingly at Cecily [she is vexed that Cecily chose an apparently incompetent teacher]; Joan gazed steadily at the teacher who asked for skipping in “Rufty.”
There was a long moment of stunned awful silence. Then a small voice [Joan’s daughter Littlejan] from the platform cried—“She’s pulling our leg—all our legs! Look at her face! It’s a joke! She knows we can’t skip in ‘Rufty’.” (A31_An Abbey Champion, 1946, p.146)
Oh, the horror of it all! There is no skipping in Rufty Tufty! In Sharp’s interpretation, Rufty Tufty is a fairly stately dance, with dancers leading toward and away from each other. The music is indeed not very “skippy”—although in my experience people can skip to anything they put their minds to. The Hamlet Club Queens’ reaction is priceless, though! We’re going to have fun looking at scenes like this!
Folk dancing for Elsie J. Oxenham represents the following:
It is English—only the English could create these dances, not the graceful French or the fiery Spanish, etc. This nationalistic feeling is part of why Sharp began to collect folk songs and then dances.
It is wholesome and healthy and jolly good fun and the people who do it have those same qualities. Folk dancing can “save” girls who are morbidly shy or living in a dream-world. Even the poor as well as those better-off can enjoy and be nurtured by folk dancing—although this precept is not consistently held violated, especially as Oxenham grew older.
It has mystic and inexplicable qualities.
Cecil Sharp is “The Director” or “The Prophet” and his teachers are minor gods and goddesses.
There is only one right way to do the dances or sing the songs, and that is the Sharp way. To demonstrate proficiency (and to promote the Sharp brand), games mistresses (gym teachers) would attend classes and camps in order to pass rigorous tests to earn a certificate and a silver badge, and thus to get better jobs.
The next posts will look at the structure of the series, the concept of “Abbey Time” versus real time, and where to obtain copies of the books, as well as a brief glance at some of EJO’s themes and the meaning at this time of the word “girl.” Then we’ll dive into the book that started it all: Girls of the Hamlet Club, with its prodigious “old” English May Day performance in which the girls, ranging in age from the “babies” of seven or eight to the big girls of fourteen to seventeen, perform—with less than a day’s notice to pull the show together—around 35 songs and dances.
I can’t wait to get started! We’re going to have a ripping time!
Yours, in Abbey friendship,