Published in 1939, A05_Secrets of the Abbey takes place in May and June of l917, Abbey time. Joan and Joy Shirley are eighteen—they apparently have left Miss Macey’s school, although this is not explicitly stated. The story has two main components—discovering what happened to lay-brother Ambrose and his love Lady Jehane after the dissolution of the Abbey, and Jen Robin’s hard but valiant choice that shows that she lives up to the motto of the Hamlet Club.
The exciting cover illustration above shows Jen (fair plaits), Joan or Joy (red hair) and Jandy Mac (blue jumper) examining the entrance to a secret tunnel!
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Retiring Violet Queen Joan Shirley has just asked 14-year old Jen Robins to be her “maid of honor” or “brides-maid,” now that Joan’s former maid, Muriel, has been elected to be the next May Queen. Jen is touched and thrilled. Joan offers to embroider white and purple violets on Jen’s white frock. Jen thinks that Joan should have chosen Beatrice, a short, stout girl known as “Beetle,” who dances beautifully, but Joan assures Jen that she wants her because of their shared bond and their love for the Abbey.
Trouble is hinted at: Jen tells Joan that Nora, the overall games-captain of the school, has been after Jen to play cricket in the junior eleven (eleven players on a cricket team; the junior eleven at Miss Macey’s is captained by Jen’s friend and “husband,” Jacqueline “Jackie-boy” Wilmot), as Jen’s bowling is something special. But the school rules are that girls can only choose one activity, and Jen’s heart is given to dancing.
Joan tells Jen that there is a mysterious letter from their friend Jandy Mac (Janice MacDonald of Australia; as a baby she was courtesy-adopted by Tony Abinger, Joy’s uncle). Going through Tony’s papers, Jandy Mac found some mysterious documents on which Tony had written that they were given to him by “John Miles, of King’s Bottom Farm, who had it from his grandfather, whose father had given it to him when he was dying” (29). She indicates that it is a map but doesn’t want to say any more until the Abbey Girls can see it for themselves. They must wait for four weeks for Jandy Mac to arrive.
Note that while writing, or more accurately, publishing, this volume in 1939, Oxenham keeps to the travel times of the 1917-ish era. The dates in the story, such as Tony Abinger’s receiving the map in the 1890s before he left England, and the estimation that Old Miles was a late eighteenth-century highwayman fit with the early twentieth-century Abbey time as well.
The new Queen, Muriel, is crowned. Joan, as the retiring Queen and wearing her original crown of now-dead flowers, leads the way with Jen carefully carrying her train. She is followed by a small maid carrying a wreath of forget-me-nots on a while pillow and then the rest of the Queens and their Maids in order: Cicely, the gold Queen and the President of the Hamlet Club, the Strawberry pink queen, Marguerite, and Joy in bright green. The Queens process down an aisle of cheering, kneeling girls. At the dais, Joan gives a speech, and Joy, as the next-to-the-last Queen, removes the crown of dead flowers and crowns her cousin with the wreath of forget-me-nots. Then Joan and Jen process back again to fetch Muriel, the Blue Queen, and her Maid, Nesta.
The coronation over, Nora now confronts Jen about dropping the dancing and joining the cricket team—another school has issued a challenge to the junior eleven and there is no hope of winning without Jen’s wicked bowling, taught to her the prior summer by Australian Jandy Mac. Jack, captain of the junior eleven, does not pressure Jen, knowing how important the dancing is to her.
Jen agonizes over the choice and finally discusses it with Joan, who reminds her that the needs of the School come before that of the Hamlet Club, which is only a subset of the school. Jen slowly understands that, for the good of the school, she must “play up” (I’ll discuss this concept in a later posting), and Jen agrees to give up the Hamlet Club for the summer. Joan reminds Jen that the girls reenact the Coronation at Broadway, the home of Hamlet Club Cicely’s grandparents, who provide the queens with a silver medal and other gifts. She suggests that Joan wait to make up her mind until after this event, a week away, but Jen pluckily says that Nora and Jack will want her to start practicing right away, and that Joan’s new maid should have some of the fun. She suggests Beetle as the maid.
Word of Jen’s plucky choice spreads and Cecily hears of it. She invites Jen to lunch the day after the ceremony and tells her about the motto of the Hamlet Club, its symbol (a white cross on a green background), and that many of the older girls who helped to found the Club had had to face difficult choices, and had taken the harder, but better choice by giving up something that they wanted to do for the good of a relative or a cause. Jen is very touched by this story and the motto, and Cecily assures her that she can still be part of the Hamlet Club even if she cannot join in the activities that summer. Later in the tale, Jen’s bowling (seven wickets down!) wins the game against the other school.
Jandy Mac finally arrives and the girls pore over the mysterious maps. The girls deduce that the mapmaker was the late eighteenth-century highwayman Old John Miles, and that he may have hidden some treasure. The girls go into the crypt of the Abbey, move a big pile of rocks and bricks in the corner and discover a small entrance to a tunnel, which of course they explore. They find an elaborately carved, Tudor-era chest that turns out to have a secret lever that opens the back of the chest close to the wall and allows one to creep into another tunnel: another of the old monks’ secret escape routes. (Why did they need so many escape routes prior to the dissolution?) They also discover an old sack containing six golden guineas that they suspect Old Miles had dropped at some point.
The girls are wild to explore and, as Jen is getting into the chest, Joy—in true, unthinking, Joy-fashion—gives her a little nudge and Jen falls into the chest and sprains her ankle. She implores the other girls to go explore while she rests and they do so. Jen doesn’t hear the ominous “click” of the secret door closing as she has just discovered a stone in the floor with Hic Jacet Ambrosius chiseled into it—she has discovered the grave of the lay-brother Ambrose who loved Lady Jehane. Looking around she sees that the girls are trapped. With great bravery, she hops and crawls her way out of the crypt and onto the garth where, most fortunately, there is a group of eight young men, university students, who help rescue the other girls.
The next day the men help widen the tunnel entrance and re-locate and jam the lever, to keep the secret door permanently open. Joan makes a sudden discovery of an object and whisks it up to the Hall. It is a box, like the one that held Lady Jehan’s jewels, in a hollow scooped out in the wall behind the grave. It is carved with roses for Jehane and fleurs-de-lys for Ambrose (he was part French).
The men continue to open up the outer wall near the gate house out of which the girls had been rescued and they discover an old leather purse with the initials “J.A.” It looks to be about 100 or 150 years old. They surmise that the letter “A” stands for Abinger (Joy’s mother’s last name) and that Old Miles had robbed an Abinger ancestor and had later dropped the purse when hiding in the Abbey.
Jandy Mac receives a telegram from her Scottish grandparents—her grandmother is ill and they would like her to visit. Before she departs, the girls examine their findings: The purse reveals some rings, brooches, strings of pearls, a handful of guineas, a small locket and a lady’s gold purse with the initials “K.M” or “M.K.” on it—how this could be read backwards and forwards one doesn’t understand. The young men urge Joan to inquire of a magistrate whether they might keep the loot, and the string of blue beads, and they agree to ask old Mr. Broadway, Cecily’s grandfather. They discuss how they will divide the spoils: a guinea to each of the young men for their watchchains/mothers/wives; a bracelet and necklace each to Joan and Joy; a small snuff-box for Jandy Mac; a ring and brooch to Mrs. Shirley; and for Jen a ring, a chain of blue beads, the gold purse, and the locket with K.M. on it.
The men depart and Joan shows them the box which contains a book in Ambrose’s handwriting as well as a gold ring engraved with roses and fleurs-de-lys. Used to Ambrose’s hand, Jen quickly reads the book to tell the others that, after the monastery was dissolved, Ambrose went to London to be near Lady Jehane. He suggested to her that he renounce his vows as a lay brother so that they could marry, but she tells him not to, and that she won’t marry anyone else. She gives him gold to make the ring that he is to wear in remembrance of her and then dies of smallpox. Ambrose returns to the Abbey ruins to live as a good saint in the rooms above the gatehouse.
Here we come to an important Easter egg (that is, a hidden reference to something that happens in another volume). The girls are very touched by Ambrose’s devotion to Jehane and his feeling that she is in his heart forever.
“‘It’s a marvelous way to feel about anybody who has died.” Joy, the thoughtless, spoke with strong feeling in her voice. ‘I’ve sometimes thought I’d go out of my mind if I lost anybody I cared about very much. . . . if one could feel as Ambrose did—! I’m afraid I couldn’t be as brave as that’” whereupon Jandy Mac tells her bluntly that she might have to be (261-2). If you were reading these books in publication order you would know that Joy had already married and lost her husband, and that she did indeed have to be as brave as Ambrose (who is not referred to in the books published in the 1920s in which these events take place because EJO hadn’t invented him yet!).
Jen further reveals that Ambrose loved young Peregrine Abinger, whom he called his young falcon. It was Peregrine who buried Ambrose in the holy part of the Abbey with his book and ring near him. Joy wants to keep the book as it is part of her family history, but she generously gives his ring to Jen, who is overjoyed to have it.
In the course of the tale we have a couple of other Easter eggs. It is revealed that smack-dab right next door to Abinger Hall is Marchwood Manor, owned by the invalid Sir Keith Marchwood who has two younger half-brothers (EJO calls them “step-brothers” but this is inaccurate): one is an explorer and the younger lives on a farm in Africa. Jen suggests that she could marry one of them and live next door and then the ring would return to the Abbey—and, of course, she does. The girl reader who remembers that Joy loves to wander around the countryside and that her nickname is “Traveler’s Joy,” which is also a country name for the flower clematis, might, if she is clever indeed, think that an explorer would make a good husband for her.
Queen Muriel calls for an open dance at the Abbey, and Cecily explains to the rest of the Hamlet Club the meaning of the motto and how bravely Jen faced her choice.
For Folk Dancers
While dancing is mentioned frequently, there are few detailed descriptions. Early in the book, there is foreshadowing that Jen will have to give up the Hamlet Club to play cricket and Joan comments to Joy that Jen “‘. . .. is doing her bit for the school as a dancer. After a year of dancing, she’s one of the very best we have. She’s a joy to watch, and we’d miss her from our shows and festivals if we had to do without her. Her dancing has something special about it; I don’t know how to put it—something radiant and very happy.’ (16)” Comments like this suggest to me that Elsie Oxenham was probably a very good dancer herself. She certainly could recognize the quality in others. She clearly loved to dance and these are the words she puts in Jen’s mouth when the girl is saying why she doesn’t want to give up dancing in order to play cricket in the summer term:
“‘I do love our summer dancing out of doors! A sunny evening and a perfect lawn, and long shadows on the grass, and a cool wind after a hot day—and all the colours of the frocks—and Miss Lane’s fiddle sounding through the trees—and ‘Nancy’s Fancy’ or ‘Winifred’s Knot’ just beginning!’ (77-8)”
At the coronation the girls dance The Chestnut, If All the World were Paper, and the morris dance Rigs O’Marlow. At the concluding party they dance The Triumph, a longways dance, Rufty Tufty, Sellenger’s Round and Sweet Kate, a dance that isn’t danced much these days. Here’s the chorus figure, which probably will show you why (although children and the Abbey Girls like the dance):
B1 1 On the first beat of the bar all spring on to left feet; on the middle
beat, partners strike right feet together, swinging them sideways
from right to left.
2 That again, springing on to right feet and striking left feet together.
3 On the first beat of the bar all clap hands; on the middle beat
partners strike right hands together.
4 That again, partners striking left hands together.
5 During the first half of the bar all turn their hands as though they
were winding wool, on the middle beat each holds up one finger of
the right hand [no, no, not that finger—pointer-man!].
6 That again, holding up left hand.
7-8 Turn single.
Yes, it is silly, but having typed it out makes me want to dance it again! Here’s a facsimile from Playford’s 3rd edition, 1670, the first time the dance appeared in print:
So Sharp wasn’t making up the figures!
At the concluding dance evening, Jen jeers at Jack, her partner in Rufty Tufty, for using the wrong hand in the leads (Jack shockingly says what does it matter?) and this reminds me of how I learned that dance back in the days of May Gadd (The Little Robin), his disciple. In those days (the 70s and 80s), all “leading” figures were danced with partners taking right hand in right, meaning that the woman, standing to her partner’s right, had her arm across her body. Today, in the U.S. at least, we dance holding the inner or nearer hand, which spaces partners more widely apart. Sharp’s version of Rufty Tufty has the chorus figure as follows:
C 1-2 First man, with his left hand, leads his partner a double towards the left
wall; while second man, with his left hand, leads his partner a double
toward the right wall.
3-4 Both couples turn round and face eavh other; the men, with their
right hands, lead their partners a double to places.
5-6 All turn single.
7-10 First man, with his right hand, leads second woman up a double,
turns round and, with his left hand, leads her down a double to her
place; while second man, with his right hand, leads first woman down
a double, turns round and, with his left hand, leads her up a double
to her place.
11-12 All turn single.
Got it? L-R-R-L. keeps the woman’s arm across her body, making it clear that the man is leading her. This is one of those tricky bits that undoubtedly was part of the certificate exam! I remember that this “handing” came easily to me regardless of whether I was dancing as a man or as a woman, but that others had a harder time with it. Sorry to sound like a dance snob, but I loved and obsessed about country dancing even more than Joan and Jen! Which, of course, has led me to this blog.
Note: if you are confused in the above about the left/right wall, recall that in Sharp’s formations, in a two-couple set the couples face across the room so that the first man has his left shoulder pointing towards “the Presence” or the top of the room. This is why he and second woman dance “up” towards the Presence, while the other two are dancing down or away from the Presence.
My edition: Collins Seagull, 1949, 1951
© April 26, 2020 by Allison Thompson