A03_The Girls of the Abbey School introduces the important character of Janet (Jen) Robins, who will go on to become one of the strongest exemplars of the “Abbey spirit” of helpfulness and good will. Published in 1921, a year after Oxenham attended the 1920 Vacation School where presumably she discovered, as the Abbey Girls themselves will soon, how wrongly she had been dancing, the book contains a lot of dancing. It is dedicated “To those members of the English Folk Dance Society from whom I have received so much helpful enjoyment this story of dedicated in grateful acknowledgement of all their kindness.” The illustrations are by Elsie Anna Wood, perhaps Oxenham’s best illustrator, and certainly the one that she took to actual folk dance classes in London so that she could see the movement and patterns at first hand. The frontispiece above depicts the dance Newcastle, with the four men dancing a right-hand star (Note the high hand hold! We don’t dance it that way today–although see my comment at the end of the post.) while the four women skip around in the opposite direction. The girls dancing as men wear caps in this illustration, though in the books EJO is somewhat inconsistent about the usage: sometimes those dancing on the women’s side wear bonnets and those dancing as men wear caps while at other times the “men” are bare-headed. She frequently notes that the girls themselves forget to change or remove headgear when they change dancing roles!
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
This book picks up immediately from The Abbey Girls: TAG ended with the coronation of Queen Joan; this one begins with it. Joan and Joy are 16 years old. The coronation is being watched with great interest and admiration by 13-year old Jen Robins. Her first day at Miss Macey’s School had been the day before, and Jen recognizes in the May Queen the pretty, red-haired, older girl who had taken her under her wing and introduced her to other girls in her form. Jen is one of the twenty boarders that Miss Macey takes each term (the other students are day girls).
While watching the coronation, Jen makes friends with another girl, Jacqueline (Jack or Jackie-boy) Wilmot, and they agree to be chums, pledging to be “engaged” for a week as they try their friendship out before they get “married.” Jen and Jack watch the dances and Jen really wants to learn them. Jack is keen on cricket and intends to join that club; Jen already plays cricket at home with her older brothers and is entranced by the folk-dancing. Jen leaves to spend the weekend with her aunt.
On Monday the news is broken that diphtheria has broken out, one girl is in the hospital, and the rest of the boarders must be quarantined. Joan suggests quietly to Joy that she offer the Hall to Miss Macey for the day school girls. Before the rest of the school arrives, Jen, as the sole un-quarantined boarder, is invited to stay at the Hall with the two Queens, who begin to teach her the morris step and the minuet.
Unbeknownst to Joan, Joy and Jen, a Lady Jessop, accompanied by 13-year old Della and 12-year old Dick, is bullying the current caretaker of the Abbey, Ann Watson, the children’s former nurse, into taking charge of the children for a month or two (!) while Lady Jessop accompanies her husband to South Africa. Ann demurs, knowing how headstrong and difficult the children are and how much Joan will fear for the safety of her Abbey, but Lady Jessop overrides her, and the children are boarded with Ann’s parents. Ann weakly (she is not “straight”) does not tell Joan (who owns the Abbey) about this development and Dick and Della immediately begin exploring the Abbey and causing mischief. They discover tunnels under the Abbey, one of which leads out to the woods and one that leads towards the Hall. There they tap on walls and make spooky noises and scare the day-girls who are now coming to the Hall for lessons. Unthinkingly using her privilege as a guest, Jen takes the key to the gate between the Hall and the Abbey and shows Jack around, under the watchful eyes of the two naughty children. Dick carves the letters J – E into the wall of the chapter-house and when this is discovered, Joy impulsively accuses Jen of doing it, though Joan defends her.
Joy, Jen and Jack now discover the tunnels starting from the Hall end and follow them to the Abbey, finding Dick and Della as they go. They present the culprits to Joan who says they have the choice of being sent in disgrace to their relatives in London or going to live at the Hall and attend school. They reluctantly accept the latter choice, but Della, tired and unnerved by a long day in the tunnel, reveals that the children had uncovered a secret door in the tunnels and that there were “things” behind the door.
In the middle of the night Joan, Joy, Jen, Mrs. Shirley (!) and Miss Macey race via the underground tunnels to the room and discover many old Abbey salvers and platters, hidden by the monks just before Henry VIII’s men destroyed it. Jen also discovers a cache of old books.
Jen and Jacky-boy decide to adopt Della in order to bring her up right, but Dick is left to his own devices. He recruits a village boy, Micky, to go at night to explore more of the underground of the Abbey, and they stumble upon the original church, underneath the semi-destroyed Abbey, with a great tomb in the middle, an old well, and the mysterious phrase “Jehane III” inscribed on a wall.
Della complains to Jen and Jack that Dick has called her “pi” (pious) and goody-goody now that she hangs around with her adopted family. They tell her that she needs to be “straight” and dependable and that this quality is not pi at all.
Jen reads one of the books, which turns out to be a sort of diary of Ambrose, a lay brother, who loved the fair Lady Jehane. Jehane’s new step-mother wanted her jewels, so Jehane gave them to Ambrose, a jeweller in former life, who replaced them with colored glass. The last thing he wrote in the book before slipping it into the cache was that he had hidden the jewels. Jen has many romantic thoughts about this story, and both she and Joan are thrilled to be able to add people to the story of their beloved Abbey.
Dick is determined to find the jewels. One night, when the girls are dancing in the moonlight, he and Micky go back to the old church. In the course of their prowling about, Dick falls into the old well and breaks his leg. Micky runs away. Dick lies there for the rest of the night and realizes that, if Micky doesn’t bring help, no one knows where he is or that the old church even exists. He realizes then the value of being straight and that his own life was dependent on “the doubtful honesty of a boy younger than himself and of much more doubtful training” (291)—
— and here we come to one of Oxenham’s complexities and by modern standards failures: her attitude towards class. In some books, villagers or the poor people who inhabit London’s East End, are depicted with sympathy: even they can learn to dance and enjoy it. But underneath this democratic view lurks the Victorian attitude towards the poor: they are not dependably “straight,” they often dance in a heavy, lumpy fashion, and they are fundamentally different from the middle- and upper-class Abbey girls.
Dick is missed at breakfast and the girls look for him. Micky, who has made himself sick over the predicament, is brought to Miss Macey and he gasps that Dick is dead in the well in the old church. Joan and Miss Macey follow his directions and find Dick. Joan helps Miss Macey jump into the well to care for him—sporty Miss Macey!—and runs for help.
Later that day, the girls with the help of a gardener, successfully dig up a stone and find a box with Jehane’s jewels in it. We are assured that Dick’s long night in the well and his understanding of the importance of being straight will help him in future trials.
For Folk Dancers
There is a lot of dancing in this story. The book opens with a long and evocative description of the dancing associated with the crowning of the May Queen. Later, we see Joy and Joan teach Jen the basics of both country dance and morris, with Mrs. Shirley, Joan’s mother, stepping in to make a fourth in Rufty Tufty and Hey Boys. This is most peculiar, because in every other book she is depicted as old, frail, feeble, etc., though if Joan is 16, Mrs. Shirley is probably only around 40! She does, however, decline to dance Goddesses (a four-couple dance in any case), due to all the skipping in it. But at least she shows that she’s been watching!
The morris dances mentioned include Trunkles, Blue-Eyed Stranger, Bean Setting, Princess Royal jig, and the Bacca Pipes solo jig,
The country dances include Sweet Kate, Sellenger’s Round, Heartsease, the minuet, the maypole dance, the Ribbon Dance, The Butterfly, Halfe Hannikin, Gathering Peascods, Rufty Tufty, Hey Boys, Up Go We, Goddesses, We won’t go home till morning, The Mary and Dorothy, Hit and Miss, Grimstock, The Old Mole, Mage on a Cree, Bonnets so Blue, if all the World were Paper, Galopede, Row Well Ye Mariners, Newcastle. These dances come from Sharp’s country dance books published between 1909 and 1916.
Songs: The Lover’s Tasks, The Bonny Blue Bell.
Here’s Joy’s description of The Mary and Dorothy, which she calls a “baby” dance: “‘Set with your partner and turn single—eight beats! Ring with the next couple—eight beats! Number Ones—you’ll be One, if you’re with Joan [the reigning Queen, who takes newcomers under her wing]—lead down the centre, four beats, and back, cast out round the Twos—twelve beats altogether; and there you are, ready to begin again!’ (202)”
Oxenham is exactly right per the Sharp interpretation. Here’s a link to the dance instructions from the fourth country dance book (1916). It is indeed a simple dance.
But, here is a facsimile of the dance from Playford’s The Dancing Master, vol, 3, ca. 1728:
I would interpret these instructions in this particular period to mean that even if there is a long set of couples, only the top two couples would initiate the dance with the setting (possibly towards partner, possibly towards the center of their little circle) and then turning single, then the ones dance a short slip, probably with both hands joined, down the center and back up then a quick cast to second place followed by the four changes of rights and lefts that Sharp unaccountably left off. (Note that last line above.) The original first couple would then start dancing with couple 3, while couple 2 would wait until there was a couple that had progressed up to join them. This would continue like a concertina opening and collapsing until everyone was back to places.
The original music for The Mary and Dorothy is two four bar phrases, A and B, each one repeated twice. Sharp’s version, which you can see if you click through to the music in the link above, writes out the A phrase twice and then gives the B phrase just one go. Why did he leave off the four changes of rights and lefts? It makes a much better-balanced dance tune-wise and also with the phrasing of the gallops/slips and the cast. Now that I have discovered this, the tune makes me feel queasy!. The Mary and Dorothy, for all that it is referred to in the EJO canon, is rarely danced in the U.S. these days—perhaps because it is too easy and perhaps because of this inherent imbalance.
But back to the book. . . .
Jen is amazed that the girls talk while they are dancing, and Joan tells her it is because they are having a good time and are not showing off to anybody. This was an important concept in Sharp’s approach—he wanted people to dance naturally and simply and without pointed toes or affectation. Joan also tells Jen about the importance of the music and that she must feel it and keep time to it. She adds that you can’t talk “in a morris” as it is far too “earnest,” and that if you are doing a “‘brainy country dance, like ‘Newcastle,’ it’s some time before you can talk much without getting tangled and putting every one else out. But in these little long dances, why not?’ (203)”
The dancing climax of the story comes when Cicely Hobart, the Gold Queen, Marguerite Verity, the Pink Queen, and Mirry Honor, the White Queen, along with their “bridesmaids” join the Hamlet Club for a dance in the afternoon. It is also to be a full moon, and Joan secures permission for the Queens, the maids, and Jen herself to dance on the cloister garth in the moonlight. Joan has secured this permission for young Jen because of the girl’s intense appreciation and love both of country dancing and of the Abbey itself.
[Cicely] wore a dancing frock of dark red, with wide white collar and cuffs; Miriam’s was of a soft lavender shade, and her hair was yellow; Marguerite, in green, had very dark eyes and black hair, and she was even more graceful than the other two, though all walked and held themselves in a way which Jen, watching with eager, appreciative eyes, described vaguely to herself as ‘topping.’ Four years of folk-dancing, just at their growing stage, had done its work with them, and none of them could have been awkward if she had tried (265).
In addition to her appreciation of grace and color, Jen has a keen appreciation of the romance of dancing at midnight:
. . . of the strangeness of the scene—the silence, broken only by the quaint Old English music from Miss Lane’s fiddle, or the occasional cry of an astonished owl, or a laugh from one of the dancers—the beautiful high windows of the refectory above, and the broken but still beautiful arches below, the old windows and doorways, the intense white light and black shadows—the weird quietness of this dancing on the velvet turf, with none of the tapping of the feet she was used to in the hall—the light-coloured frocks, and white feet and hoods of the dancing girls (279).
Doesn’t this make you want to dance? Douglas Kennedy (EFDSS Director after Sharp’s death) acknowledged that many dancers were brought into the English Folk Dance & Song Society because of Oxenham’s evocative works.
—But let’s not dance Sharp’s version of The Mary and Dorothy!
Here is Wood’s cover illustration of A03_The Girls of the Abbey School. The girl on the left with the long fair plait is probably meant to be Jen, which might make the girl on the right Joan, though the frocks are never described as having a printed pattern. But you can see the white stockings, the black-banded shoes, and the front and back of the bonnet. It is possible that the up-held hands of the girls were drawn that way by the artist to mirror the pointed arches of the window behind them.
My edition: Collins’ Clear-Type Press, n.d.