Elsie J. Oxenham’s fictional universe is a large and complicated one, and in the Abbey Girls’ world time moves slowly. Oxenham wrote more than 87 novels and numerous short stories, and she had multiple publishers. While there are some stand-alone novels, she tended to write series novels set in the same school or location and following the stories of key girls there: the “Sussex” set, the “Wood End” set, the “Swiss” set, etc., of course including the Abbey School or Abbey Girl set of 38 books. Girls from some of these sets wander in and out of each other’s stories, giving Oxenham’s world a certain realism and richness. Books from one set that introduce characters that end up in the Abbey set are called Connectors. Some of these Connectors include a lot of folk dancing—Marjorie Meets the Roses (part of the “Rainbows” set), and Two Form Captains (part of the “Swiss” set) being two good examples. I will post about those Connectors that I have read that have the most interest for folk dancers. (And, no, I have not yet read all of her works!)
Within the Abbey set there are three groups of titles: the First Generation Set that tells the stories of Joy and Joan Shirley, Jen Robins, Maidlin di Ravarati, and Rosamund Kane. These five are the true “Abbey Girls” as they live at Abinger Hall, owned by Joy, which is next door to the Abbey owned by Joan. This group begins—in publishing terms—in 1914 with A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club and ends in 1959 with A38_Two Queens at the Abbey. Between A03_The Girls of the Abbey School (1921) and A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922) there is an inserted group of seven Retrospective titles, published between 1938 and 1957. These go back to the years when Joy and Joan are still teenagers at Miss Macey’s School and carry on with the adventures of the younger girls, especially those of Jen and her friend Jackie. According to Stella Waring and Sheila Ray in their study Island to Abbey (2005), in those years EJO’s publishers were looking for titles to appear to younger girls. The stories are brilliantly and almost seamlessly woven into the existing plots, although, as Waring and Ray point out, these books cannot allow the older girls to grow and change as that would interfere with the already-published stories of the Abbey Girls as young women. While crammed full of adventure and fun discoveries about the Abbey and its history—jewels! highwaymen! secret passages! burglars!—I find the Retrospectives to be slightly weaker and much more sensational novels.
The First Generation Set, which continues with the romances of the original Abbey Girls, ends with A27_Rosamund’s Castle, published in 1938. After this we turn to the eleven titles of the Second Generation Set: the stories of the daughters and their friends. The mothers, all of them May Queens and producing babies at a prodigious rate, remain in the background to lend a helping hand, Abbey-style.
Because some titles, especially of the stand-alones or the less popular sets, went out of print rapidly, and because of the multiple publishers involved, I do not believe that any listing of the complete publications of Oxenham was ever produced in her lifetime, nor a suggested reading order, so a reader picking up an EJO title even up through the 1990s might well be puzzled as to what is going on. This was how I originally read the books, completely out of sequence. It was perplexing, to say the least! It is amazing how much more rewarding it is to read them in order.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Oxenham was publishing one Abbey title plus two to three other titles a year. Even from the beginning, the Abbey Girl series was designed to have time move slowly; she did not want the girls to grow up too fast. Thus, the events of many of the books overlap slightly; sometimes an event like a coronation is seen through the eyes of one character at the end of one book, and by a new character at the beginning of another. Sometimes, especially in the later of the First Generation books, events in several novels are happening concurrently, but only the careful reader, reading in story order, will be able to spot this.
EJO-expert Ruth Allen’s Timeline shows the long publishing arc of the Abbey series, anchoring us with both publication dates and Abbey Time dates. Abbey Time begins in the autumn of 1912—Ruth Allen dates this with the reference to Cicely Hobart and her father, who adores Peter Pan, visiting the bronze statue of him erected in Kensington Gardens in London earlier that year. That story, A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club ends, in June of 1913. The next book in the series, A02_The Abbey Girls, published in 1920, runs from February 1915 to May 1916. While first editions of some of the early books talk about current events—particularly World War I—Oxenham quickly learned to avoid dateable details. Subsequent editions removed references such as people being driven in horse-drawn carriages versus automobiles and there are few descriptions of attire—which of course is very dateable—except for the dancing frocks and the ubiquitous Loose Frock (more on that later!). The series ends with A38_Two Queens at the Abbey, published in 1959 but set in April and May, 1939.
Perusal of Ruth Allen’s timeline shows that Oxenham must have planned some of the Abbey girls’ story arcs carefully and in advance. Waring and Ray note that one clue to her planning ahead is that she reserved two popular springtime flowers—daisy and buttercup—for the twins who conclude the series as the twenty-eighth co-Queens. (Here is a list of the May Queens and their flowers and colors.)
You can purchase Elsie J. Oxenham’s books on Ebay and Advanced Book Exchange, among other sites. The Elsie J. Oxenham Society is republishing—one or two a year—books whose copyrights are still held by Oxenham’s niece. These are attractive paperback reprints of the first editions of several different series, including a number of the Second Generation set. Girls Gone By Publishers produced paperback editions of some of the Abbey titles and these are also of excellent quality.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Oxenham’s main publisher, Collins, produced updated versions of some of the earlier titles: you can tell because of the shiny covers, which look in size and style like the Nancy Drew mysteries of that same period. (The image at the head of this post is one of these reprints.) In doing this, partly to appeal to younger girls and partly to use less paper, they also did some textual updating, removing a lot of the “thoughtful,” descriptive, or religious passages. I have several of these Collins Seagull editions in my collection because it is difficult to find the originals and I wanted the entire story sequence, but in many cases I have no idea what was cut out. These books preserve the action of the story but erase some of the charm. In the one or two cases where I have both an early edition and a Collins Seagull I will point out the differences when we reach that point in the series.
Happy Abbey reading! I find that retreating to her world is very calming in these troubled times and hope that you will too.