After A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club, Elsie Oxenham published eight books, many dealing with the Camp Fire movement, before returning to Miss Macey’s school and establishing the true beginning of the story of the girls who live in the Abbey of Gracedieu. A02_The Abbey Girls was published in 1920 but is set two years after Cicely’s story, running from February through May 1916 in “Abbey Time.” There is no mention of the War.
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Cicely, the first and only President of the Hamlet Club, is leading a ramble to the picturesque ruins of the Abbey of Gracedieu. Mean Girl Carrie Carter grumbles and elects to drop out of the hike, showing that she is a “slacker.” The other girls press on and meet not the grouchy old caretaker they expect, but a charming little “lady” and her lovely daughter, Joan, whose dark red hair is as bright as a new copper penny. Joan loves the Abbey and gives the girls an excellent tour. She explains that they had to come live in the country, and that she can’t go to school, but she’s “swotting” along on her own, hoping to catch up some day. Cicely admires her pluck.
Mrs. Shirley is the mother of Joan and the aunt of Joy—the cousins, whose fathers are both dead, were identical twins, and indeed Joan and Joy are often taken for twins. Joan is slightly older, with a calm and wise demeanor; Joy is impulsive, passionate about her music but unable to work at it, and given to rambling around the countryside on her own. Joy’s mother died when she was a baby. The Shirleys have lost their money, and have come to live quietly in the countryside for the benefit of Joy’s health. The Abbey is owned by a cranky old man about whom there is some mystery: he has quarreled with his son and had a daughter who died.
Cicely, knowing nothing about Joy, decides that she would like to offer plucky Joan a scholarship to Miss Macey’s School, as her wealthy grandparents have endowed the Hamlet Club with an annual scholarship. Joan is thrilled at the opportunity to go back to school—but after hard thought, asks if Joy, who needs the discipline of school much more than she does—could be given the scholarship instead. Cicely is disappointed but agrees. She is also impressed by Joan’s sacrifice, which fits the Club’s motto. Both girls attend one of the folk dancing evenings in an old barn and are entranced by the dances. Joan is heart-broken that she will not be able to attend in the future.
When Joy arrives at school, the girls of the Hamlet Club are making their annual vote as to who should be May Queen: a person who, in addition to presiding over the May Day festivities, acts year-round as a sort of prefect, helping younger, shy girls and breaking up rows, etc. The older girls—Mirry the White Queen, Cicely the Golden Queen, and Marguerite the Strawberry Queen—have decided that that new Queen should be a younger girl. Alas, there remains a division in the school between the Saints (the original and rather poor girls from the hamlets) and the Sinners (the wealthy snobbish girls). Votes are evenly divided between Edna (a Saint) and Carrie (a Sinner). Cicely determines that for the good of the school the Queen should be supported by at least two-thirds of the votes. After several unsuccessful attempts, Cicely nominates Joy, as the new girl who can’t possibly take sides, and Joy is made the fourth and youngest May Queen. In an attempt to mend fences, she asks Carrie to be her “bride’s-maid” or Maid of Honor. (EJO strongly stressed the bridal element of the ceremony in the earlier works; this is toned down as the series progresses and the girls really get married.)
Both the Saints and the Sinners try to win Joy’s attention but she decides that she will focus on her work instead. However, she writes down the various bits of advice that she gets from all sides and adds her “cheeky” comments—comments that are quite negative about Carrie and even some of the older Saints. In the meantime, Joan, who is struggling with feelings of disappointment and envy at not being at school, has given a cranky old man a superb tour of the Abbey. He turns out to be Sir Antony Abinger, the owner of both the Abbey and the nearby Abinger Hall. One day he spots the two girls practicing a minuet on the cloister garth and demands that they come to the Hall and dance the minuet and the morris jig Princess Royal for him. Joan feels sorry for him.
Joy’s book of snarky comments goes missing for a day and then is returned unexpectedly: she suspects Carrie of taking it and they have a terrible row. The older girls and Miss Macey are very unhappy at this bad behavior exhibited by the young Queen, but Joy refuses to explain, even though Joan’s advice is to show the older girls the book and explain and apologize. Joy begins to worry that when the time comes for her to abdicate her crown, she will not get the traditional wreath of forget-me-nots that show that the other girls love and admire her.
After seeing the dance and music Fête held in the fall that, with the exception of the crowning replicates the May Day ceremonies, Sir Antony has a stroke. He calls for Joy to be brought to the Hall, but dies before she can arrive. As the plot lines wrap up, it is revealed that Joy is his granddaughter and that she inherits a fortune and the Hall; Sir Antony gives Joan, whom everyone acknowledges he preferred, the Abbey. Joy mends fences with Carrie. Sir Antony has also paid the school fees for Joan, who is at the end of the book is about to be crowned as the fifth May Queen, the Violet Queen.
While in A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club we saw the very first coronation, in this book we see for the first time the panoply of the subsequent celebrations, in which the Returning Queens play an important part. This aspect of the May Queen celebration may have been based on the well-publicized May Day celebration at Whitelands College created in 1881 by John Ruskin. (For more on this, May Day in general, and maypole dancing, see my book May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present.)
Here, the abdicating Queen, Marguerite Verity, processes first, after two small girls scattering primroses have gone down the “aisle” of two rows of kneeling girls.
As Marguerite appeared, applause broke out, for she had been a favourite, and the girls clapped and shouted as she come slowly up the room, bowing to right and left, wearing a long white robe and wreath of faded flowers, and hanging from her shoulders the train of deep strawberry pink, bordered by white daisies, from which her nickname had been taken. It was carried by Edna, dressed in a white frock with pink girdle and touches of embroidery to show she was the pink Queen’s maid. She was followed by a girl carrying a white cushion on which lay a wreath of forget-me-nots; and then came Cicely, her train of old gold decorated with hand-painted autumn leaves and carried by Peggy in a gold-embroidered dress. Miriam, the White Queen, all in white with a dainty border of forget-me-nots to her train . . . ended the procession. Cicely’s crown and bouquet were of yellow daffodils, Miriam’s of sweet-scented white jonquils; the faded flowers were for the abdicating Queen alone.
There are speeches of thanks and then Cicely removes Marguerite’s faded crown and replaces it with a thick coronet of deep blue forget-me-nots and “with a hearty kiss welcomed her to the company of ex-Queens.” Marguerite then goes down the hall to bring in the new Queen. Joy walks down the aisle bare-headed, with her coppery hair loose on her shoulders, “her bright green train with its border of creamy stars [Joy’s flower is Traveler’s Joy (clematis) which is also her nickname since she wanders about the countryside so] carried by Carry Carter.” She is crowned, given gifts (many hand-made) and the medal or badge of her office given by Cicely’s grandparents.
The illustration below shows Joy processing between the two rows of kneeling girls in their dancing frocks, caps, and white stockings. Joy is not the universal favorite but she is very pretty, and the caption below the photo reads: “The girls knew the value of having a pretty Queen.” Carrying her train is Carrie. You can see the primroses scattered on the floor.
At the end of the book, a year after the story began, Cicely, now in Ceylon with her wealthy tea-planter father, and Marguerite, visiting relatives in France, are making plans to return for the school’s May Day celebration, to walk in the procession as Joy crowns the fifth Queen, Joan, who wears a train of deep violet with white violets painted on the edges.
For Folk Dancers
Dancing is integrated throughout the story. Early on, when the girls are making their first visit to the Abbey, they are caught by a thunderstorm and take shelter in an Abbey outbuilding. Cicely urges them to dance to keep warm and says:
“Edna, you must whistle. What shall we have?”
“We haven’t enough handkerchiefs,” Agnes objected. “We want two each.” [Editrix: of course, as well-brought up girls they are all carrying their usual one handkerchief.]
“We must do without. We might have ‘How d’ye do, sir?’ Or—oh, ripping! Good for you Edna!”
Edna has found some short green stakes in a pile of garden implements so they dance Bean-setting to Edna’s whistling and then Shooting.
Joan and Joy are invited to Cicely’s house to have tea and then go on to the dancing—this is also the moment in which Cecily tells Joy of the scholarship and of Joan’s sacrifice. She is pleased to see how moved Joy is by it, as up to this point she has considered Joy rather careless, and perhaps even shallow.
Cicely is wearing a “cotton frock of dull Liberty red, plain in the body, short and full in the skirt, short sleeves and cut low at the neck, with wide white collar and cuffs, and a ribbon of the same rich red tucked into her dark curly hair” (85). She explains that all the girls wear a frock like this but in their preferred color and they wear white stockings and low black slippers with cross-bands of black elastic.
Here it is a good moment to discuss the conventions of skirt lengths and hair styles of girls versus young ladies. In the period that EJO was writing first in (and later of), circa 1914-1920, girls from 6 to about 16 wore frocks (often covered with pinafore aprons called “pinnies”) that in very little girls would extend to the knee and would gradually be lengthened as the girl aged. Girls up to about age 17 or 18 (the age of Cecily and the older Queens) would wear their hair in long plaits. By the end of their school years, however, Cicely and her friends would be wearing skirts that would reach to their ankles, and their hair would be “up,” in some fashion, such as plaits in a coronet around the back of the head or Princess Leia-style “muffs” over each ear. So the fact that the dancing frocks are “short and full” is a bit of an anomaly, as normally Cicely would not be wearing such a short skirt. In addition, the older girls have let their hair down. Miriam, for example, is wearing a pale lilac dress and her yellow hair is down in two long plaits. Cicely approves: “’I’m sure you’ll dance better with it down, Mirry, eighteen or not. And it makes you look less old and staid” (97). In addition, schoolgirls wore black stockings—these white stockings for dancing are a novelty for them.
After this book, the dancing frocks that EJO describes become less fitted and more similar to those worn by the demonstration team of the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS) such as in photos seen below, although in real life, all the women wore the same color: blue. The EFDS frocks are mentioned in detail in at least one later book. EJO was very sensitive to color and this comes out strongly in most of her works.
Cecil Sharp is in the center. A very sensible feature of the official demo frock is that it has a loose, high waist, loose short sleeves and, apparently, a deep hem, making it easy for more than one woman to wear the same dress (not at the same time, of course!) by lengthening or shortening the hem.
Another feature of the Hamlet Club’s dancing attire is that they wear either a white hood or a white sunbonnet—this is a feature that Sharp’s demo team women did not adopt, and seems to hearken instead to the attire of his rival Mary Neal’s Esperance Club girls. The hood is used to show whether the girl is dancing on the men’s side, but EJO notes that they often forget to put it on or take it off appropriately. Sharp’s initial demo team was gender-balanced, so there was no need to show that a girl was dancing as a man.
The Club’s fiddler stands on a tub—“’They say the fiddler on the village green always stood on an upturned tub,” (99) says Cicely—and they start dancing: Pop goes the Weasel, Sellenger’s Round, Haste to the Wedding, the morris dances Country Gardens and the jig Ladies’ Pleasure, the minuet “in couples,” the song “My Boy Billy,” and other unnamed dances.
Other dances named at various times in the book are My Lady Cullen, The Merry Conceit, the Helston Furry Dance, the Derbyshire Processional, the morris dances Constant Billy and Princess Royal, and the maypole dance for 16 girls. Note that the maypole dance was not notated or published by Cecil Sharp—indeed, there is no one standard version of the maypole dance. Sharp probably disapproved of it as well as the other “wand” drills such as the ones Joan teaches the village children. Likewise, he was not a fan of the minuet, which was much beloved by the competing group that he called the “Airs and Graces” style of dancing, which focused on pointing the toes and affected and exaggerated movements, nor did he condone costumes. Here perhaps we see EJO influenced by non-Sharpian performances. He would not have liked her romantic “Puritan maidens” or village shepherdesses. Later in the series, while the maypole makes an occasional reappearance, the minuet fades away. Here are Joy and Joan dancing the minuet on the garth, watched by Sir Anthony.
This illustration by Arthur Dixon depicts the re-popularized version of the minuet, with its upheld arms, rather than the historically correct minuet.
Here are some additional covers, showing that the publishers updated dust jackets to suit the current reading generation of girls. The first shows Cicely, in the smart hat, at her first meeting with Joan in the Abbey. The second is inexplicable!