With A04_Schooldays at the Abbey, published by Collins in 1938, we begin the cluster of nine books known as the “Retrospective Titles.” They fall after A03_Girls of the Abbey School (1921) and the order resumes again in publication time with A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922). The nine retrospective titles were published between 1938 and 1957, three years before Oxenham’s death. They feature younger girls, particularly Jen Robins, who will become an important avatar of the Abbey, and were slotted in at the publisher’s request both to bring in younger readers and to feature the original Abbey Girls (cousins Joy and Joan Shirley) while they are still teenagers and before romance and babies begin. The books have many exciting discoveries of jewels, secret passages, pictures, and the story of the lay-brother Ambrose’s love for Lady Jehane. While still very entertaining to read, they are slighter works, in my opinion.
However, it was only when re-reading these books, sometimes not even until a third time through them, that I began to realize how cleverly Oxenham had layered in her stories. The references in this book to the Earl of Kentisbury and his aviator son, Lord Verriton, pass over one’s head unless one has read Rosamund Kane’s story arc, written before this novel, but set in Abbey Time long after it. This is a prodigious feat! It is also fun for the girl reader (and the not so girlish reader; I initially did not read them in order either!) to try to put all the pieces together. Can you figure out the sequence of the Queens and their colors and flowers? Can you draw the Kentisbury family tree?
On the dance side, we are reminded once again of the importance of learning directly from the Prophet, as EJO termed him, or from his certified teachers, rather than from books. We are also made aware of English country dance as being alive, fresh, spring-like, May-like, lively, gay, pretty—all words the EJO uses to describe it—and, above all, as English.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Seventeen-year-old Janice Macdonald and her aunt have arrived from Australia and are visiting the Abbey, which Janice has been told about from a “courtesy” uncle, Tony, who used to live there. We know that Janice’s parents are dead, her father having died before her birth. A maid tells her that the coronation of the May Queen is to occur that very night, and Janice wangles an invitation to attend from Miss Macey. In the course of their conversation we find that Uncle Tony had died two years previously and left everything he had to Janice (Jandy Mac), even though he wasn’t a real uncle, but had wanted to marry her mother, who had died suddenly a week before the wedding, when Janice was two.
In the next chapter we meet thirteen-year old Janet or Jen Robins, who has two long plaits of fair hair. It has been her first night at school and she is looking forward to making friends. She tells Miss Macey that someone with red hair wearing a silver badge had taken care of her and introduced her, and Miss Macey says that that was Joan Shirley, the new May Queen, and that this is part of her job, and that she is to be crowned that very night.
Miss Macey introduces Jen and Jandy Mac and this is pictured on the cover illustration above from a Collins reprint of 1961. As with the cover shown farther down on this post, the attire is that of the year of publication or reprint, in order to appeal to the reader of that time. In neither cover are the characters wearing the clothing or hairstyles of May 1916, which is when the story occurs in Abbey Time.
Now through Jandy Mac’s eyes we see for the third time the coronation in which red-haired Joan Shirley (the Green Queen) crowns her look-alike cousin Joy Shirley (the Violet Queen). The next day, Janice and her aunt go to visit the Abbey, and we learn that Uncle Tony’s last name was Abinger, and that he was the only son of Sir Anthony Abinger and should have inherited everything. We now learn that the timing of the father’s and son’s deaths is critical to the inheritance of the title and everything that goes with it: the fortune, the Abbey and the Hall. This information Jandy Mac and her aunt keep to themselves.
Joan shows the pair around the Abbey and, after Jandy Mac questions her, reveals her family story and that Sir Anthony had left Abinger Hall to Joy and the Abbey to Joan, even though the latter was not related to him. Joy is his daughter Joyce’s daughter, whom he never forgave her after she ran away to marry Jim Shirley. (This is explained more fully in A02_The Abbey Girls.)
In private, Jandy Mac and her aunt discuss the situation—that had things only been a little different, Jandy Mac might own the Hall. She says that she will not reveal the relationship, and would never take the Hall away from Joy. Despite this lofty claim, we find now that Uncle Tony died in a mysterious shipwreck.
The next chapter takes us to three days after the coronation and we discover that because diphtheria has broken out and the school has to take up all the drains, the girls have been taken in by Joy Shirley and are all living at the Hall. (This is explained a little differently in A03_The Girls of the Abbey School, but no matter!) Miss Macey talks to Joan, saying that she has had a letter from Janice, who does not want to travel with her aunt to Canada, but would like to come finish her term at an English school. Joan says she’ll give up her room to Jandy Mac and go sleep at the Abbey.
Everything is arranged and Joan and Joy meet Jandy Mac at the train station to take her to the Hall. She says that she is anxious to explore the countryside. Joy says that she knows all the tracks around and Jandy Mac asks if she knows the Monks’ Path. The girls are surprised—they only heard of this mysterious underground pathway to the hills a few weeks earlier, Abbey time. The Abbey Girls tell Jandy Mac that they have only just discovered the “underground” of the Abbey, and the secret tunnel from the Hall to the Abbey, as a result of the shenanigans of two kids, Della and Dick, who were staying with Ann Watson, the Abbey’s caretaker. (This story is told in A03_The Girls of the Abbey School.) They have found Lady Jehane’s jewels and the tomb of the first Abbot, Michael. Jen and her “husband” Jacky-boy have “adopted” Della and are trying to make her see the right way to go on. Jandy Mac says she doesn’t think that the path is underground. Nobody asks her why she thinks this.
The next day, Joan and Jen show Jandy Mac the underground part of the Abbey and she is touched by their evident reverence for and love of the place. Jandy Mac reveals that, while in Scotland, she visited her grandfather Fraser, who used to be the factor (estate manager) for the Earl of Kentisbury. We hear that his son is an aeroplane flyer. Young Lord Verriton and his wife and two small children, Rhoda and Geoff, the heir after him, visited Jandy Mac’s Granny Fraser. (We will learn much more about the Kentisbury family in books A22 (1933) through A27 (1938).) Jandy Mac then discusses the topic of Love with Joan—she has met a cousin, Alec Fraser, who is a sailor, and she thinks that he could be The One.
Jandy Mac receives a letter that distresses her. Alec has met an old sailor who says that when Anthony Abinger’s ship went down, he and Uncle Tony lived on an island for a year, and that Abinger did not die until around Christmas, two months after Sir Anthony’s death, and that therefore the Hall should be hers. He also says that the sailor had Abinger’s ring with him, set with seven small sapphires—Alec says that Jandy Mac will remember it, for he wore it often. Jandy Mac vows to give the Hall back to Joy when she comes of age in three years, and goes down to dinner where she sees Joy wearing a ring with seven sapphires. “From her earliest days [Jandy Mac] had seen its twin on Tony Abinger’s finger.” Joy’s ring had belonged to Joy’s mother. Inscribed inside it is “J.A.,” indicating that Joyce had had it before her marriage. Jandy Mac recalls that Uncle Tony’s ring looked much older and that he had said it was a family heirloom—she deduces that he had had a copy made for his sister, but says nothing about it. Janice goes to the Abbey to reflect on this disturbing inheritance issue, and is calmed.
The next morning, Jen Robbins has discovered from Ambrose’s book that the ring was one that he made for Lady Jehane. Everyone is thrilled, but when Jen finally sees the ring, she says it doesn’t have Ambrose’s engravings of fleur-de-lis (for himself; he was part French) and roses (for Jehane) on the interior. The girls wonder where the original could be, since this is clearly a copy. Jandy Mac is silent. She has written her letters of renunciation of the possible inheritance to the lawyers and Alec and now must wait for the result.
Joan, Joy, Janice and Jen decide to look for the Month’s Path. They find it and follow it to its end at the top of a hill. Jen notices seven white stones in a pattern half-hidden by heather, which is not native to the area. The stones are in a pattern that reminds Jen of a fleur-de-lis. The girls hope that it is something that Ambrose left. Here is a cover illustration of that moment: Jen is in blue and Joy and Joan are looking at the notebook.
When the girls are finally able to explore more thoroughly, they find that behind the pattern is a cave, and that seven white stones are pressed into one wall. Under this sign is buried a modern-looking metal box that contains an ordinary notebook, with the initials “T.A.” and a fleur-de-lis inscribed on it. It was Tony Abinger’s, and it is evident that Joy knows about “the man who died in Australia.” Janice is shaken. She feels that she ought to have the book, as she knew Tony and Joy didn’t.
Tony writes that he is going to leave home as his father is getting more and more irritable with him, and about having a copy of the ring made up for Joyce. He talks about the roses and fleurs-de-lis on his ring and that he’ll keep it. He wonders how it came into the family. He calls the cave the Hermit’s Cell and mentions that if he ever has children out in Australia, he’ll tell them to look for the Monks’ Path. Jandy Mac sees her danger and quickly asks if he married and the Shirleys say no, but do not twig to the connection. A last revelation about the old ring is that Tony has long wondered why the initials “J.” and “A.” are set across the ring from each other, not next to each other. Joan is positive that they stand for Jehane and Ambrose, who can never, of course, be together. They decide that the Cell belonged to Saint Ethelwyn, who also had a hut near the holy well in the Abbey.
Janice can’t take the pressure of the secret anymore and spills the beans to Miss Macey, who grows quite cold towards her when she thinks that Janice might take the Hall and Abbey away from the girls—this seems a little harsh of her, given the inevitability of English inheritance rules. They then make up and must wait for the lawyers’ investigation.
Exams are upon the girls, and Mrs Wren (Jen) finds that her parents can’t take her at the holidays as her father is unwell; Jandy Mac’s aunt visiting Canada is also unwell and proposes that Janice go to relatives in Scotland which she is reluctant to do–thus Joy takes both girls in.
One morning, Jandy Mac receives some letters and a small package which she opens in Jen’s presence. It’s the original ring! Jen shrieks with excitement and Jandy Mac tells her that she is not to tell anyone until she has read her letters. Both Alec’s and the lawyer’s letters say that another sailor has come forward to testify that Anthony Abinger actually died before the shipwreck and that he had been given a letter and the ring to deliver, which the first sailor stole from him. Janice is not to inherit after all.
She runs downstairs crying out that everything is all right, shows the ring, and Joy instantly jumps to the conclusion that Janice will take the Hall from her and becomes very angry. (Her quick temper and inflexibility are her character flaws.) Joan points out that Janice started off by saying “it’s all right,” and Joy is abashed and apologizes. She gives Jehane’s ring to Joan, and receives Jandy Mac as an almost cousin. Jen says that it is the spirit of the Abbey to adopt and be kind to strangers, and this is indeed a theme that will be explored in the canon. Jandy Mac says that she’ll marry Alec and go live in the South Seas.
As Waring and Ray point out in Island to Abbey, this introduction of a girl who could (and does!) plausibly have children before Joy and Joan even get married, was brilliant for plotting purposes—it allows Jandy Mac’s daughter Joan-Two or Littlejan to attend Miss Macey’s school in A29 (1941) and be the bridge to bring in younger readers until Joy’s and Joan’s girls are old enough to be of interest.
For Folk Dancers
There is a lot of dancing in this book, although style points are not described as thoroughly as in some of the ones written earlier, when EJO was more involved with the EFDSS.
The opening coronation scene is again described lovingly—remember that most girls reading these books would be reading them out of best-reading-order, so repetition is necessary. The girls in their brightly-colored frocks come running in, “Some were bare-headed and carried ribbons which streamed behind them as they ran, and contrasted in colour with their frocks; others had no ribbons but wore little white caps on their hair.” An “imperative chord” rings out and the girls suddenly form sets and dance the Ribbon Dance. EJO presents this image as first a “confusion” of dancers and then the pattern of the under-and–overs of the ribbon arches. Jandy Mac is thrilled and says to her aunt: “’This is real dancing Aren’t they all alive!”. She is reacting to what she perceives as the simplicity, gaiety, and naturalness of the dancing—as well as its Englishness. EJO cleverly does not spell out what the dance alternatives are; in 1916 it would have been the waltz, polka, couple dances like The Gaby Glide and the foxtrot, and “fancy” or “aesthetic” dances featuring elves and fairies and pointed toes. However, we don’t need to know what the actual popular dances of any reader’s period was—we are presented with this idealized “English” performance that contrasts just as well to the Twist as it does to the Tango.
The girls dance the circle dance Gathering Peascods, then the two-couple dance Hey, Boys, Up Go We, followed by the longways dances Haste to the Wedding and We Won’t Go Home ‘till morning. There is no indication of how long each dance runs. The Queens process in: the current Queen (Joy) in bright green and with a wreath of faded flowers on her hair, followed by a dark girl whose train is strawberry pink, followed by the Golden Queen and then the White Queen—each attended by her “bridesmaid,” as EJO sometimes termed it. Then Joy goes to bring out the new Queen, her cousin Joan, the Violet Queen. The White Queen sings a welcoming song, men bring out the maypole with ribbons of violet, green, gold and white to honor the current and preceding Queens (pink next to the red-headed Joy and Joan is verboten in this color scheme), and some girls dance the maypole dance.
Girls dance the morris dances Laudnum Bunches, then the stick dance Hunting the Squirrel, Trunkles, The Blue-Eyed Stranger, and Bean Setting. Then there are songs: William Taylor, Lord Rendal, Whistle, daughter, whistle! and Come, Lasses and Lads. Janice from Australia is struck by the tunes with their “haunting quality, a strange note which had been in many of the dances also, and Janice found herself tormented all next day by half-finished phrases and curious little bits of airs, which did not seem to end.” She is referring to the modal tunes, which Sharp, a professional musician, tended to prefer; he sometimes substituted a modal tune—which he perceived and valued as being older and therefore more “English” —for one that he didn’t care for but that had interesting dance figures set to it.
Then the country dancing begins again with the four-couple dance Goddesses, and the circle dance Sellenger’s Round. (Pages 23-27, passim)
Not only the girls, but the audience have prodigious endurance! And the musician!
Later, Jen starts to teach Janice the setting step and the figure called siding (swirly or Cecil Sharp siding as we now call it). She says of the music that Joy plays the best, but if she can’t play they have to “put up” with a girl from the Musical Club “. . . and they’re not the same. They don’t dance themselves, and it seems to make a difference.’” Jen (and Oxenham) are quite correct—it does make a difference to have a musician who dances! They are able to put in the “lift” and they understand that you can’t go back to correct mistakes or you lose the rhythm.
At Janice’s first dance at the Hall they dance Oaken Leaves (a round for eight), Rufty Tufty for two couples, The Boatman, for three couples, Nonesuch for four couples, Argeers, a very complicated dance for two couples, and The Old Mole for three couples. These are all quite challenging dances that require a lot of memorization of figures—that is, they are not repetitive like the longways dances. Janice enjoys herself but wakes up the next morning very stiff from the unaccustomed movements. Later she learns Althea and Picking Up Sticks—again both are complicated set dances. Other dances mentioned are The Triumph, a longways dance, Scotch Cap for three couples, If All The World Were Paper, a round for eight, and Nonesuch for four couples. Jen is not yet qualified to dance the latter.The girls remark that the dances always “balance,” by which we understand that one ends up where one began, although this is not actually true of Nonesuch, which ends with the fourth couple at the top of the set. It is clear that Oxenham was entranced by how the patterns of these set dances work out. In other books she will also use the word “balance” with regard to how the dances, dancing, and dancers themselves are “wholesome” and “sane” and provide balance to girls who need it. Balance was a key concept for her.
Much later in the book, Cecily Hobart, the President of the Hamlet Club (her story is in A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club), who has taught the girls all the dances they know, says smugly that she will teach them a new one, one that she has learned from a book (a cardinal sin in Sharp’s world):
‘. . . [it has a pretty tune], but I think the book must be wrong, for only the first couple are in their right places at the end. The seconds end up in the third position. I’ve never known that happen in any other dance, so it seems as if there must be some mistake, though I can’t see where it is. It’s called ‘Maiden Lane.’”
Jen clamors to dance it and Cecily smugly replies:
“’It’s better not to learn anything that might be wrong. I don’t think we’ve done much wrong so far,” said the President, with the self-confidence which seldom deserted her, and complete unconsciouness of the shock she was to suffer three years later over these same dances.”
When the Abbey Girls and Cecily go to the EFDSS vacation school with Sharp and other real teachers, they are in for a rude shock because their dancing is so wrong. They have learned from books—horrors!—not accredited teachers. This is one of the key books for folk dancers to read: A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School. We’ll get there eventually!
Back to Maiden Lane: Cecil Sharp was brilliant and working on ground that had not been extensively explored before he started. But he didn’t always get things “right”—and “right” is a term of debate. Armed with greater knowledge, reconstructors who followed him have sometimes come to different conclusions. Sharp’s version of Maiden Lane, a three-couple dance, ends with the original first couple at the top and the third couple in the middle—unlikely for the period and it doesn’t “balance!” You can view Marianne Taylor’s more balanced interpretation on Colin Hume’s website. Colin writes extensively about dance reconstructions, so there is much to peruse here.
Back to righteousness—I am aware that others have reconstructed dances like Newcastle and Nonesuch in different way than Sharp. But I like his versions! And, in contrast to this conservativism, changes have crept into his versions of other dances—and I like those changes! What’s a girl to dance? This dilemma comes down to the fundamental disagreement between Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal in the early years prior to when Oxenham probably started dancing. Sharp wanted song and dance codified, so that he could certify teachers who would teach it all the same way in schools, so that all English children would learn the same things the same way. Neal not only perceived but embraced the concept that dance and song is organic and that it changes with time and place. Linguists call these approaches “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” This tension continues today in dance as well as language.
However, returning to the world of folk dance that Elsie J. Oxenham knew, there was no tension: it was the Sharp way all the way. It is not until A31_An Abbey Champion (1946) that we will hear about other people discovering “new” dances.