Published by Collins in 1950, the same year as A34_Guardians of the Abbey, this is the fourth of the Retrospective titles and carries on with the exploits of young Jen Robins, one of the most popular of the Abbey Girl characters. In “Abbey Time,” the story takes place in July through September of 1917, beginning a few weeks after A06_Stowaways in the Abbey, ends. The latter installment was published in 1940; it is amazing to me how Oxenham was able to seamlessly interweave these stories published so far apart.
While it entertainingly relates another discovery about the lay-brother Ambrose of the Tudor period and about a late eighteenth-century highwayman, Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey is somewhat repetitive, uneven in tone, and a little disappointing, particularly with regard to EJO’s treatment of class. I have commented before that EJO had a very mixed approach to distinctions between the village people, the working classes of London, and the privileged girls. In some of her earlier books, the poor are presented sympathetically; they enjoy folk dancing and gain as much from it as the middle-class girls. But in later books the village people are presented as slow, stodgy, rather childlike, unthinking, etc. The Abbey Girls treat them rather patronizingly. This view comes out strongly in Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey. Perhaps as Oxenham aged she was reverting to the late-Victorian views of her childhood about villagers.
There is no folk dancing in this episode.
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Joan, and Joy Shirley are recovering from the measles (remember that this was a disease that required being quarantined—more on this in a later post). Janice Macdonald (Jandy Mac) is visiting relatives in Scotland and will come soon to the Hall before going off to the South Seas to marry her sailor fiancé. Mrs. Shirley takes Joy to the seaside to continue her recovery. Joan tells fourteen-year old Jen Robins, who is staying with them, that the great elm tree at the gate-house of the Abbey—the one that Ambrose used to sit under—must be felled due to
Dutch-elm an unnamed disease that a Gentle Reader has assured me cannot be Dutch Elm disease as that did not devastate elms in England until the 1970s.
Jen rushes off to comfort the tree where she finds a little girl, Lavinia (Vinny) Miles, sobbing bitterly as she has heard about the fate of the tree that she loves because Joan taught the village children drill (rhythmic marching, usually with implements such as sticks (“wands”) or balls) there. Vinny is a descendant of John Miles of Kingsbottom Farms, who gave Jandy Mac’s Uncle Tony (Anthony Abinger) maps of various tunnels, which enabled the girls to find more of Ambrose’s treasures. Vinny’s mother is dead; her father and brothers have emigrated to Canada; and, since the death of her aunt, she has been living with Mrs. Jaikes at the farm, thinking that her father doesn’t want her, as he has remarried. Vinny doesn’t know if Mrs. Jaikes has written to the father, and Jen says that she will help, knowing that her grammar is awful and that her spelling will be worse (23).
—When Vinny does produce her letter it is both charming and well-spelt. What point is EJO making here? Perhaps the danger in making assumptions? Perhaps something more? Jen will make this error again in this installment.—
Jen and Joan have a midnight picnic in the Abbey and Jen thinks she sees the ghost of Ambrose: it is an elderly man with a long white beard and a cloak but no hat. It is old Boniface Browning, who used to be the caretaker, but who Sir Anthony turned off when he reached 70. There is no talk of a pension; apparently he has been living with a son in Birmingham. Boniface wanted to see the Abbey that he loves again. Jen suggests to Joan that Boniface be allowed to stay in Joan’s little room at the Abbey, with the current caretaker, Ann Watson, to care for him. Joan is heart-broken at giving up her privacy in the Abbey but decides that it is the right thing to do.
Joan and Jen interview Mrs. Jaikes, who thinks that Vinny should go to her father, but that it is too expensive, that the child can’t travel on her own, and that she (Mrs. Jaikes) deserves some recompense for caring for Vinny who doesn’t always help as she should.
The girls return to the Abbey, where the tree is in the process of being felled. Jen sees Vinny near it and rushes to save her, throwing herself over the younger girl as the tree falls. She is concussed, but recovers consciousness just as Jandy Mac returns from Scotland. Jen tells the older girls that she heard Vinny call out “Uncle Bonny!” to old Boniface as he came out of the Abbey. He is, in fact, her great-uncle. Boniface is “dazed with happiness” at the thought of living at the Abbey, when Joan makes the offer, although there is a hint that there is someplace else that he’d even rather be.
Jandy Mac and Joan look at the stump of the tree and Jandy suggests that it could be a seat, even though there is only a rough meadow to look at—this will be rectified in A34_Guardians of the Abbey. Vinny, who has been deeply distressed about the accident, says that she has a present for Miss Jen—a book. What book could she own that would be of any possible interest? Jen thinks it will be something “ghastly” like a book of hymns and that she won’t know what to say. She’s seen these books in cottages in the village at home, and thinks that they are exactly the kind of books Lavinia and her family would treasure.
—This is a repeat of the letter mistake and, indeed, Jen will exhibit this kind of snobbery in other installments in the series. It is jarring because Jen is otherwise one of the most lovable and estimable characters and, as an adult, gives good advice. We are used to bad behavior from Joy; it is harder to see Jen with her fault.—
Sir Keith Marchwood telephones and wants to talk to Jen—he has something to give to her. He has been going through his treasures as his explorer brother, Andrew, would not know how to appreciate them. He has found a book of drawings by Katherine Marchwood, who married Peregrine Abinger when she was 15 in 1600. It is a sketchbook dedicated to her “baby Kat.” There is a picture of the gatehouse and an old man with a beard and the dedication “Brother Ambrose and His Small Ones.” At the end of the book are sketches in the hand of the artist who did the drawings of the Abbey church that Jen and Jacky-boy found in A05_Stowaways at the Abbey. There is also an image of Ambrose’s “new” rosary (Joan explains what a rosary is to these good Protestant girls). The girls speculate that perhaps Ambrose’s squirrel mistook the old rosary for nuts and buried them.
Joan reminds Jandy Mac that their first daughters are each to be named Janice. Jen says that she wants to have ten children, three of them girls—in books published earlier she is trying for a morris side of boys. With seven boys she would have six dancers and a fool. Jen receives a letter from her mother that her father has been ill again, and begs Joan to keep her at the Hall longer. Vinny comes to visit, is given grammar lessons by Joan, and says humbly that her book isn’t good enough for Jen—it was written by Jane Miles whose father had to run away or be hanged. The girls deduce that her father was John Miles the highwayman who robbed Katherine Marchwood in the late eighteenth century and whose purse was found by the girls in the Abbey. Jane’s diary mentions her secret place, which turns out to have been in the Abbey. Jane writes that her father hid there for a day before he left for France. She died soon after writing this entry at age 14. Vinny shows them a map tucked into the back of the book—it is by John Miles. The girls deduce that it is buried treasure and hope that it is not on mean Mr. Edward’s farm—called Bell Farm, a mystery that they have yet to solve (but they will!).
Lavinia comes to visit—more grammar lessons!—and reveals that Uncle Bonny would love to go to Canada to see his daughter and her grandchildren. Joan is thrilled that she’ll get her Abbey back. By post, Joy—whose nickname as a younger girl tramping about the countryside is Traveler’s Joy—makes a suggestion about where the treasure may be and the girls find the spot but realize that it is on Mr. Jaikes’ property and that he will be the owner of whatever is found there: indeed, he is quite curious and not very nice about it.
That night, Jen wakes up the other two girls and reveals that she thinks the treasure is buried in their very own meadow and revels that mean Mr. Jaikes will be wasting his time digging up his property. Joan shows Jen how she will wear her red hair in a crown when she formally “puts it up” at Christmas, indicating that she will then be a young lady, not a schoolgirl. Accompanied by Bob, the gardener, the girls dig find a box. Inside are brown beads on a silver chain—Ambrose’s old rosary. Miles had found it while escaping from the abbey and, being superstitious, had buried it for Jane, “for good luck.”
(Jandy Mac (short, dark hair), Joan (red plaits) and Jen (blonde plaits) and Bob find the buried treasure.)
The girls decide to buy Vinnie clothes for the journey and the house-maid Susie Spindle is jealous of her relationship with Jen, whom Susie adores. Joan tells her that Vinnie is going away for good and that Susie will be still be at the Hall—if she is good. Jen’s father is better and she goes to Sheffield for four weeks with her family. Boniface is getting cold feet about the journey. Susie acts more sensible about the clothes. Joy—showing her unfeeling side—urges Joan to kick Boniface out. Joan demurs.
Jandy Mac changes her travel plans and offers to accompany the pair to Montreal, where she will visit Canadian cousins, then continue her journey to Australia by going overland across Canada—a much more arduous trip than the other way, via the Suez Canal. She will travel on boat second class, to accompany Vinny and Boniface—they neither have the money for first class nor would they feel comfortable there. Jandy Mac will give Lavinia grammar lessons all the way. Joy wishes that she could come along. Jen is sad that Joan won’t be going back to Miss Macey’s and she tells Joan that the next Queen will be Nesta: her flower will be Honesty (silver seed pods on a purple border) and her maid will be “Old Beetle” (Beatrice, the future Striped Queen). There is a farewell feast and the travelers depart. Jen tells Joan that now they will have their beloved Abbey back to themselves.
Joan looks at Jen and smiles. “The Abbey has done its proper work, and the aged and infirm, and the very young, have been helped to make a fresh start.”
For Folk Dancers