Elsie J. Oxenham’s ninth book, published in October of 1914, is the “origins” story of the Abbey Girls series, and is one of the books that contains the most folk dancing, culminating in a lengthy description of a performance of folk dance and song to honor the first-crowned May Queen of the series. If you are a folk dancer who doesn’t think you are going to make it through all of the 38+ books of the series, this is definitely one to read. This is a very long post indeed! The image above shows Marguerite (black plait), Cicely in her red Liberty silks, and Mirry.
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Fourteen-year-old Cicely Hobart’s mother died when she was a baby, and she has been living with a kind family in London as her father spends most of the year at his business in Ceylon. When the story begins, Cecily wakes up after a long journey with her father to find herself in a beautiful cottage in the hamlet of Whiteleaf near the small town of Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, in southeast England. Her father explains that this is the county that he and her mother grew up in, and that he has brought her here because her grandmother has been ill, and might want to see her at any moment, although her grandparents have hitherto refused to see Cicely or have anything to do with her after her mother’s death, thinking that it was too painful for them.
Cicely does not want to leave London and her friends and schoolmates; she is angry at her grandparents for ignoring her all her life. Her father leaves for a few days on business asking her to think about her decision and that he would like her to be near her grandparents.
Cicely meets a pretty, tall young schoolgirl (Miriam “Mirry” Honor) with fair plaits, who sings folk songs as she strides along. She also meets an artist, Margia Lane, to whom she confides her conflicts. Margia tells her that everyone has to make choices sometimes between the thing they want and a harder thing to do. Margia confides that her sister, an art teacher at Miss Macey’s School in Wycombe, has “broken down” and that Margia has been asked to teach, when all she wants to do is paint. She reminds Cicely of her hero, John Hampden (he is an historic figure from the English Civil War whose story is only hinted at; English girl readers are expected to know it) who also made difficult decisions to follow the right path for the people.
Cicely decides to do the right but difficult thing and stay in her hamlet to be near her grandparents. She overhears two girls talking about Dorothy who is being brave about returning to school after some mysterious but terrible debacle in the prior term. Cicely tries to make friends with Miriam, and her two pals Georgie Gilkes and Marguerite Verity (Honor and Truth—get it? EJO rarely indulges in such easy and overt symbolism), but when they learn she is going to go to Miss Macey’s school with them they are rather cool to her, which troubles her.
On Cicely’s first day at school, she cycles in wearing her expensive Liberty skirt, silk blouse, and tie. She meets Dorothy who describes her problem—in the prior term she had been new to school and did not know that one wasn’t supposed to look at the answers at the back of the math book—everyone thinks she deliberately cheated. Cicely decides to champion Dorothy, whom the other girls want to “put into Coventry” (not speak to her). Cicely finds that the school is divided into two camps: the Townies, who are wealthy (but not necessarily upper-class) who run clubs like the cricket team and the school newspaper and levy expensive subscriptions (membership fees) to join them, and the others, who are generally speaking poor girls from the little hamlets of the countryside (a hamlet is a cluster of cottages—there is no church, post office or market). These girls can’t afford the subs and are excluded from the clubs. The Town girls, led by Hilary, see Cicely’s expensive clothes and try to influence her to join them, but Cicely perceives their shallow, mean side, and refuses. Mirry explains that she and her hamlet friends were cool towards Cicely at first because they felt she ought to have an opportunity to decide which group to belong to, and if she started her first day in their company the die would have been cast.
Cicely is united with her wealthy grandparents, who begin to enjoy her company, but she refuses to reveal the fact that she is rich to anyone but her closest friends. She continues to cycle into school.
Dismayed at the division in the school, Cicely joins forces with Mirry and her friends, and they start the Hamlet Club, for the girls who live in hamlets. Their motto is “to be or not to be” and at first that phrase just means “to be” from a hamlet and in the club, or not, but all along Cicely has known that there is a deeper meaning to the phrase: one about making the right choice, perhaps giving up a desired personal pleasure, and doing so gracefully and without resentment. In an effort to give the club a focus Cicely teaches the girls folk dancing: morris and country dances. Some of these she has learned at her London school—some she learns from books, which will be her downfall in The Abbey Girls Go Back to School. The club keeps their activities secret from the town girls; however, Cicely is determined to bring harmony to the school. When the town girls play a big cricket match, Cicely urges the Hamlet Club members to attend and cheer “for the good of the school.” They do so, and the Townies are surprised and somewhat impressed.
In the spring term, the Townies are to put on As You Like It and are immensely excited about it, to the extent that they shirk their studying. The Hamlet Club girls continue working intensively on their dancing (EJO notes that there is nothing much to do in the hamlets!) and plan a May Day celebration for Cicely’s “grannies.” Alas, the day before the big play, two key actresses come down with measles (we will eventually find out that Wycombe is the measliest town in all of England!)—and most of the costumes are with them, measled! Throughout the pre-vaccine and pre-penicillin Abbey series, serious diseases like measles or “dip” (diptheria) require several weeks of quarantine, a convenient plot device! It is too late to cancel the event. Even though this will mean giving up the Club’s precious secret, for the good of the school Cicely convinces Miss Macey that the Hamlet Club can provide two hours of entertainment for the assembled audience, many of who attend in “evening dress” (this means white tie for the gentlemen), and they do, through a spectacular exhibition of morris and country dancing, one that is pretty much unimaginable to be led by a 14-year old girl. Miriam Honor is crowned the first May Queen of the school: the White Queen, as she wears all white. The book concludes with the beginnings of a fragile rapprochement between the Townies and the Hamlet Club, though it is made clear that there is a long way to go. Who will be the next May Queen? Perhaps a Townie?
For Folk Dancers
Girls of the Hamlet Club is filled with folk dance and song—so much so that it is difficult to summarize here. It concludes with a long, loving, and romantic description of what EJO calls a “traditional” May Day Festival: a depiction of English morris and country-dancing, the maypole dance, and the crowning of the May Queen. It is notable that this “ye olde Englishe” ethos is reasonably well-known by many: Miss Macey is convinced that the performance will be acceptable by Cicely’s use of the terms “side” and the references to the old figures of the Fool, Maid Marian, etc.
Before delving further into Oxenham’s depictions, let’s turn to Cecil Sharp, who became the preeminent leader of the folk dance and song revival. He began by notating the tunes of morris dances, then the figures of them. He published The Morris Book (part I) in 1907. It contained eleven dances, all of which EJO mentions. He published The Country Dance Book in 1909 which contained 18 dances that he had collected in villages. These include Haste to the Wedding, Bonnets so Blue, The Butterfly, We Won’t Go Home Till Morning, and Three Meet, or The Pleasures of the Town—all dances that EJO mentions often. In 1911 he published The Country Dance Book, part II, which contained 30 dances taken from John Playford’s publication of The English Dancing Master, 1651, or later editions. These include some challenging “set” dances (meaning dances for 2, 3, or 4 couples with complicated patterns) such as Hey Boys, Up Go We, Gathering Peascods, Rufty Tufty, and Newcastle, as well as some longways dances such as My Lady Cullen, New Bo-Peep, etc. More publications followed.
There will be more in a later post on Oxenham’s actual dance experience, but Girls of the Hamlet Club shows that she was already a competent dancer and perhaps dance teacher. Here is how she shows Cicely teaching the other girls, several of whom find it difficult:
Dorothy could not forget the fancy steps and gliding movements of the dances she had hitherto known, and could not remember to use her heels and knees as she had to do to ring her bells properly; and Marguerite’s French blood found the sturdy, vigorous morris step strange and difficult. . . .
[Cicely says:] “. . . . I’ll call the movements, and you’ll soon get into them. Georgie, always cross with your right shoulder to your partner’s or you’ll have us in endless muddles. In chain [the hey], remember you follow me, and Marguerite and I go in the shape of a big S. That’s right Now let’s practice Capers.”
“High-stepping, you know—like this. You can’t dance too hard to too high. Don’t go over on your back when you first try it, though.—Swing your hands, Dorothy.—Feet higher, Marguerite; but keep your balance.—Always right foot first, Edna.—Remember the jump, Dorothy. Now try Slow Capers—like this.” (197-8)
The attitudes expressed here—that “French blood” finds the sturdy English step difficult, that one has to forget ordinary ballroom, ballet, or “fancy” dancing, and that one had to dance vigorously to ring the bells, could have come from Cecil Sharp, and probably did. (More on this in a later post). Here’s what he had to say about men and morris in his 1909 work:
The Morris Dance is essentially a manifestation of vigour rather than of grace. . . . It is, in spirit, the organized, traditional expression of virility, sound health and animal spirits. It smacks of cudgel-play, of quarter-staff, of wrestling, of honest fisticuffs. There is nothing sinuous in it, nothing dreamy; nothing whatever is left to the imagination. It is a formula based upon and arising out of the life of man, as it is lived by men who hold much speculation upon the mystery of our whence and whither to be unprofitable; by men of meagre fancy, but of great kindness to the weak: by men who fight their quarrels on the spot with naked hands, drink together when the fight is done, and forget it, or, if they remember, then the memory is a friendly one. It is the dance of folk who are slow to anger, but of great obstinacy—forthright of act and speech: to watch it in its thumping sturdiness is to hold such things as poinards and stilettos, the swordsman with the domino, the man who stabs in the back—as unimaginable things.
The Morris dance, in short, is a perfect expression in rhythm and movement of the English character.
He added: “The first step . . . towards acquiring the true art of the Morris-man is to put away all thought and remembrance of the ballroom manner—really to unlearn, so far as possible, the lessons of the dancing-master and all his exhortations upon and exhibitions of glide, pirouette, chassez; the pointed toe, the gently swaying body, the elegant waving and posturing such as become the finished performer of round and square dances in the drawing-room.”
This image is from Playford’s Country Dances, arranged by Mary H. Woolnoth (J. Curwen & Sons, Ltd., 1913) illustrating a figure from her very romanticised version of Bo-Peep. This is the kind of dancing and affect that Sharp deplored: the pointed toes, the rounded arms, the dainty head tilt, etc. But here you can see the shepherd’s smock and slouch hat on the “boys” and the dainty white cap and apron on the “girls.”
In Girls of the Hamlet Club and some of the other early books, before EJO became more knowledgeable, although the girls enjoy dancing morris dances, there is no identification of them as being from one village or tradition or style than another. They do not discuss, for example, whether they are dancing in the Bampton tradition or Headington or any other. They refer to them only as “real” old dances.
Some of the dances the girls enjoy are not in the Sharp repertoire: one is the Rheinlander, a German couple dance that seems to have many variations. Here’s my favorite Youtube version—after the intro it becomes a vigorous couple dance and you can understand why the folk dance leaders felt that dancing was good physical exercise! It does not quite match up to EJO’s description, below—perhaps the dance has changed over the years. The girls are dancing in the woods. Cicely takes the woman’s part and Dorothy, another girl who has been to a “good” school where folk dancing was taught, the man’s role.
The ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ took hands, and stood for a moment, bending slightly, laughing at one another, Cicely humming a few bars of an air. Then they ran daintily forward over the red leaves, two bending, swaying white figures [they are wearing white frocks, not their school dress or gym tunics], sometimes back to back, sometimes clasped closely as in a waltz, sometimes with hands linked lightly, feet flying, every moment picturesque and graceful. The [other] girls, watching breathlessly, could not remember much of the movements, but three were impressed on their minds—one, when Dorothy suddenly fell on one knee on a patch of bare ground, with such a resounding clap that it seemed she must have bruised her knee, and Cicely, holding her hand lightly, danced round her, looking down into her upturned face; one, when the ‘gentleman’ threw wide her arms in invitation, and the ‘lady’ sprang into them and was clasped to her partner’s breast; and another, when, at the end of the dance, Dorothy caught her ‘lady’ round the waist, and tossed her high into the air. Cicely holding herself stiffly upright as she flew up and down again. Then they paused, as at the beginning, bodies bent, hands caught lightly, and then danced off among the trees, followed by rapturous applause from the audience (188).
The girls then talk about folk dancing and morris, where they will wear bells on their ankles (in the early EFDSS women wore bells on their ankles and men just below the knee, as done today; however, a few pages later the girls are fitting bells below their knees). They discuss morris and how each village had its “side” (team). Why shouldn’t they do the same? Dorothy Darnley offers a barn of her father’s for dancing in, and they will ask the artist Margia Lane to fiddle for them. After learning some morris dances, they then practice Sir Roger de Coverly, Three Meet and Bo-Peep. Cicely gives the orders for Three Meet: “’Link arms, men! Women also!’”
“’You might say gentlemen and ladies!’” Dorothy suggested, and Cicely responds: “In our dance-book it was always men and women. I like it. It sounds so quaint and country-like. We’re village dancers, you know. Advance and retire, twice. Now Dorothy and I lead up the middle; all follow in couples. Now we swing, and so on. You’ll soon get used to it. I like ‘Gathering Peascods’ too, but we want more to make that go well.’” (201)
The figure of Three Meet is lines of three with linked arms advance and retire, first couple with crossed hands casts off and then leads up the middle, followed by the other two couples, first couple lead down the center and back, and first two couples in ballroom position dance once-and-a-half around each other to change places. Sharp described it as a triple minor set.
At the Christmas holidays, Cicely goes to London to visit the family she grew up with, and Dorothy, Miriam, Marguerite, and Georgie plan a surprise for her: the various “sides” have been practicing hard and the older girls arrange for costumes for them. Cicely sits alone in state in Dorothy’s decorated barn and to the tune of “Green Garters” (Bonny Green Garters, a morris processional), the other girls dance in—each team of six dressed alike but different from the others.
Dorothy’s ‘side,’ girls from Speen, Hughenden, and Terriers, were dressed as boys, to their great delight, in green smocks and soft slouch-hats. Miriam’s from Risborough, Hampden, and Saunderton , wore white summer frocks, with white ribbons in their hair. Marguerite’s from Penn and Haslemer, wore cotton frocks of various colours, such as all possessed for summer use, but with the addition of little white aprons, dainty lace fichus, and sun-bonnets. Georgie’s girls, fron Kinshill and Prestwood, wore their drill tunics, as did the younger girls whom Edna captained, with some help from her sister [Georgie]. (238)
They dance Country Gardens and Step Back (morris dances) and My Lady Cullen, a three-part longways dance from 1651. Later they dance Dull Sir John, a quite complicated dance in three parts for four couples in a square (these girls learn fast!).
The big May Day festival concludes the book and begins the school’s tradition of crowning the May Queen. The entertainment that the girls—aged 7 to about 16—display is prodigious (and somewhat unbelievable): there are 32 songs, recitations and dances which at, say, 4 minutes each is well over two hours in total. The performance begins with a walking on by the girls: 42 morris dancers and about 20 others, some in costume as Robin Hood, the Fool, the Cake-Bearer, etc. The audience do not know what to expect.
First came a dainty gray-clad Puritan maid, with a white hood on her loose dark hair; then a “boy” in a green smock and slouch-hat [i.e., a shepherd’s costume]; then a girl in white, with white ribbons in her hair; then one in dark-blue gymnasium dress, with white blouse and tossing green girdle; then a girl in a coloured dress and sun-bonnet, with white lace fichu and little apron [i.e., a shepherdess]; another gym. costume; and one in a coloured print frock and white pinafore, with a wreath of flowers in her hair—Dorothy’s second “side.” Because the dresses were dainty and the effect pretty and bright, and because the girls were obviously excited and enjoying themselves, the audience clapped sympathetically and wondered.
The music broke off suddenly; there was a moment’s kaleidoscopic confusion, when colours and costumes seemed hopelessly mixed up, and then each girl found her place, and the seven “sides” stood revealed, each set dressed alike, every girl with bells jingling on her ankles and a white handkerchief in each hand (278).
They then proceed to dance straight out of Sharp’s 1909 book:
Rigs o’ Marlow
After the morris comes some longways dances: London is a Fine Town, or, Watton Town’s End, Flowers of Edinburgh, and The Triumph.
The girls form rings of ten for Gathering Peascods, a set dance from 1651.
Song: The Bailiff’s Daughter
Cicely’s song set to the tune Early One Morning
Shepherd’s Hey and Constant Billy—these two morris dances are performed by the “babies” side: these are 7- and 8-year olds.
Recitation: The ballad of Robin Hood’s rescue of Will Stutely
Song: Why are you wandering here, I pray?
Song:My lodging is on the cold ground
Bluff King Hal, a morris dance.
A well-earned break
Election and coronation of May Queen
Three Meet, or the Pleasures of the Town
Recitation of part (presumably the happy part) of Tennyson’s poem The May Queen
A selection of Old English airs played on the violin
Song: No, John; no, John; no, John, no!
Song: Drink to me only with thine Eyes
The Glory of the West and Cheerily and Merrily: these are both Playford dances and are referred to as “fancy” dances.
The festivities end with Sir Roger de Coverley, better known in the U.S. as the Virginia Reel.
Other country dances done in the course of the story include: New Bo-Peep, or Pickadilla, Rufty Tufty, Parson’s Farewell, Greensleeves, Green Garters, Green Stockings, and Sweet Kate “’. . . where you twiddle your first finger round and point it at your partner as if you were poking her eye out—awfully funny!’” says Cicely. The girls also the Dahl (I have been unable to find out anything about this dance), as well as the morris dance How d’ye do, sir? with its mock fighting that Georgie enjoys. Other songs include The Red Shore, All Around the Maypole, Joan to the Maypole, and Once I loved a maiden fair.
Cochin China is really the Danish dance The Crested (or Tufted) hen for three dancers: a man and two women. The dancers circle to the left with a step hop step, then back to the right; then the two women drop hands, putting their free hands on their own hips, and one ducks under the arch made by the other, with the man following; then the second arch; then repeat ad lib. The dance was called The Crested Hen because in the “folk dress” of Denmark, the man wore a long stocking cap that looked like a hen’s crest. The women dancing with him would merrily try to pull the hat off his head.
The identification of Glory of the West and Cheerily and Merrily as “fancy” dances is perhaps because, unlike the Ribbon Dance or Bonnets so Blue that are identified by Sharp as “village” dances, they are from the Playford collections, the first of which was published in 1651. In this period and even through the 1920s, however, “fancy” dances more generally referred to what we would loosely call modern dance, although there was a dainty cast to them: many fancy dances depicted flower fairies, gnomes, pixies, nymphs, etc.
One of Elsie J. Oxenham’s great strengths was her ability to describe scenery, buildings, and activities that she had seen herself—this is why, when we get to the books that describe Sharp and his teachers, we can rely on them to a significant extent with regard to their teaching style or thoughts on folk dance. The detail of the girls’ exhibition lead me to believe that EJO must have seen a similar performance.
It will be six years and eight more books before EJO returns to Miss Macey’s school with A02_The Abbey Girls, in which we are introduced to Joy and Joan Shirley, who do indeed live in an Abbey.