This installment runs from May through August 1918, “Abbey Time” (which is calculated based on the characters’ ages and which May Queen is ruling), but it contains physical elements, such as transatlantic commercial air travel and ballet, more suitable to 1951, which is when the book was published. I didn’t notice this uneasy interpolation when I read Strangers at the Abbey out of order, but when we return to the installments published in the 1920s, we will return to a world where motor cars were open, where phones in houses were known but rare, and where women automatically gave up their jobs upon marriage. Strangers is also an installment in which the Abbey Girls and their seventy-one-year old creator wax eloquent on the “awfulness” of perms, nail polish, and other modern, American-influenced fashions. Oxenham was more open to new influences in the 1920s, when she gave Jackie-boy her “shingled” hair (a short, bobbed cut), which was not approved of by everyone at that time.
Above, Rykie, with her lint-white hair, and Jen, with her yellow plait, are cycling off to school, with the Abbey in the background. Collins published this cover to appeal to girls of 1951. Note the school jacket over a frock, rather than the gym tunics or the middy blouse and skirt that were seen in the books illustrated in earlier years. Joy and Joan are waving good-bye in the background.
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Joan suddenly discovers that she has two orphaned Scottish cousins whom she has never heard of: Isabella “Belle” and Fredericka “Rykie” Reekie. (As in “Auld Reekie” (Old Smokie), a Scots term for the city of Edinburg. Rykie Reekie. Come on, Elsie!) Eighteen-year old Belle, who wants to be an actress, has received an offer to fly to Hollywood and wants Joan to take in fourteen-year old Rykie. Joan agrees, not without saying repeatedly how rude Belle is for not coming to visit first before asking for the favor. Joy in particular does not want the girl, but Joan reminds her that to whom much is given, much more is required; this phrase is repeated several times, once even to Rykie herself, who doesn’t seem to understand it. This principle, from Luke 12:48, is one of Oxenham’s favorite themes, and Joan and Joy generally live by it—but occasionally Joy’s impetuous and somewhat selfish nature gets the better of her.
Joan and Joy invite Jen Robins to stay at the Hall with them to be company for Rykie. When they meet Rykie at the train station they are appalled to see that she has permed, “lint-white” hair, heavy makeup, and painted nails. She is clearly NOKD (not our kind, dear), and Jen, Joy, and Joan discuss this fact at length and repeatedly, although sensible and thoughtful Joan occasionally thinks that it will be good for all parties to see other points of view. Rykie wants to be an actress, singer, and dancer, and refuses to go to Miss Macey’s school until Joan threatens her with no access to ballet lessons. Joan shows Rykie over the Abbey and—with the exception of Lady Jehane’s jewels which she gloats over—she is blind to its beauties and its history—she is more interested in Joy, the heiress, and her Hall. This attitude is, it goes without saying, short-hand for saying that she is unworthy. After getting Rykie to remove the makeup and nail polish, Jen comforts Rykie about school, saying that the Dramatic Society is putting on As You Like It, and that she thinks the role of Jacques has not been cast. Rykie is certain she will be perfect for it. Jen then discovers that Aileen Carter, Joy’s former nemesis Carry Carter’s cousin, has in fact been cast as Jacques. Rykie is unconcerned—she says that when the girls see how good she is they’ll have to give her the part anyway.
Rykie goes to school, visits the Dramatic Society, and starts right in on one of Jacques’ speeches. She is indeed very good, but everyone thinks she swanks and that she’s a pig for trying to grab Aileen’s part. After much heart-searching, Aileen gives up the part “for the good of the play.” Jen, Joan, and Joy dislike Rykie for her swank and side. Aileen has shown that she is a good sport, unlike her cousin.
Rykie starts getting air mail letters from Belle and then some mysterious letters that she won’t talk about. Belle says she wishes Rykie could come to Hollywood, and this causes Rykie to beg for a loan for a ticket from Joy and from Joan, who both refuse her. One night, Jen comes to wake Joan—there’s a light in the Abbey, in the room that houses the jewels! They go to investigate and find a strange man saying that he’ll take all the jewels—Rykie, terrified, sees Joan and begs her to make him stop. Jen tackles him and the three girls sit on him until he explains.
The man is Angus Reekie, Belle and Rykie’s older step-brother. Desperate to get to Hollywood, Rykie has written to him about the jewels—she intended him to take only one, but he was weak and wanted them all. We will later learn more about him: although he is talented, he is weak and a little “unbalanced,” meaning given to extremes, an Oxenham no-no. Compassionate Joan sends him away.
The incident marks the conversion of Rykie, she is quite shaken by the episode and the fact that both she and Angus could have been arrested and put into prison. She wanted the money to go to Belle; he wanted it because he wants to be a professional violinist, something his late father kicked him out of the house for aspiring to be. This theme, that a sudden bad shock can be good for a girl, that it can brace her up and make her reevaluate her actions and decisions, is another one that Oxenham employs frequently. There is a mention, for example, that Joy is now driving the large car. Jen asks her to be careful and not to smash her (Jen) up, as, unfortunately, she will do in a later installment of the series.
The next day, Jen is unexpectedly called in to bowl for a cricket match—she plays brilliantly and wins the day but makes no fuss about it, which attention-loving Rykie finds astonishing. During the game, both Joy and Joan have come to the conclusion that they should sell a jewel to pay for Angus’s music lessons. Joy picks the second biggest ruby, which they give to Rykie’s lawyer guardian to sell for 100 pounds. Rykie is overwhelmed by their generosity.
Angus, very ashamed, brings his violin to the Hall to apologize and to play for his sponsors. All is mended. A few days later, Belle and her new American husband, Terry Van Toll, whose father owns a string of movie houses across the country, swoop down to visit Rykie, who confesses her mistake to her sister. (Ask not for whom the Belle Van Tolls! EJO is quite aware that this is a goofy name: Isabelle will go by her full first name.) They invite her to come with them to tour Europe, but it would mean missing the play. Rykie is very tempted, but she has learned her lesson about playing the game; she stays at school “for the good of the play.” Terry offers to find the ruby and buy it back, but Joan says no; the girls want to help Angus and it is good for Rykie to know about their sacrifice.
One of the school girl’s parents is hosting the Hospital Fête on her estate, and Miss Macey wants to have As You Like It on the program along with some of the singing games that Jen has been teaching the “babies.” The big day comes and starts with a procession of those May Queens present. The play goes very well and Rykie is brilliant indeed, but the hit of the show is the babies and their dance-song games. These games are something that Rykie had called “footling,” (i.e., stupid), but Jen gets more praise from the crowd than Rykie does. Belle and Terry have made it back for the event, and Terry films it. With a little more wrapping up of loose lends—Angus is doing very well with the teacher of his choice in Glasgow—Rykie heads off to America with Belle and Terry. Jen wonders if Rykie will ever think of them again and Joan thinks that she will; that she’ll always feel “squirmy” when she sees a ruby, for instance. The Abbey has made an impression again.
For Folk Dancers
This is the first of the installments to introduce ballet. Ballet, which had fallen out of favor in Western Europe, was revitalized in 1909 when the impresario Serge Diaghilev introduced the Ballet Russe, made up of members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, to Paris. Whether Oxenham ever saw any of the Russian-influenced ballet is unknown. However, her commitment to Sharp’s principals of “naturalness” and “Englishness” would have kept her from embracing it. EJO added ballet to several of the installments starting with this one published in 1951, probably as an enticement to post-war, ballet-mad girls, but the theme was never very successful or believable. EJO had no real conception of the training and work required of classical ballet and the dance scenes are flat and unconvincing compared to her ecstatic descriptions of country dance.
Rykie wants to learn ballet—there is some discussion as to whether at fourteen she is too old to begin, but she insists—but when she takes on the role of Jacques, ballet drops out of the picture; the lessons were to have been on Saturdays but that conflicts with rehearsals. So much for that! There is no attempt to introduce Rykie to English country dancing, which does not appear in the story for some time until Jen takes up teaching singing games—Roman Soldiers, Sally go round the Moon, Old Roger, Mulberry Bush, When I was a Schoolgirl, and Looby Light (132)—to the little ones as prep for when they are older and want to join the Hamlet Club dances. Jen has been thinking about learning to teach dances because she wants to introduce them to her home village. Her desire to do this will be explored in several of the installments set later in Abbey Time and published earlier.
In Abbey Time this is the first mention of singing games for the “babies”—children of ages perhaps four or five to nine. But singing games are something that Jen specializes in in other books, so it is good to see her first and successful experiment in leading a group here!
—Beginning in the 1880s and accelerating thereafter, there was a sea change in theories of how children, especially young children should learn. Luther Halsey Gulick, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and others as well as organizations such as the Playground Association of America, the Guild of Play and the Guild of the Poor Little Brave Things all promulgated in similar ways the theory that children should not sit at desks and learn by rote. Instead they should learn by doing, by experimenting, and particularly through play. Rhythmic movement and exercise—especially folk dances of different types suitable for different ages of children—were an integral part of this movement. Singing games were thought to be particularly suited for little children. Here is a summary of Roman Soldiers, as published by Elizabeth Burchenal in Folk-Dances from Old Homelands, New York, 1922, with words slightly different from that Folk-Songs, Chanteys and Singing Games, edited by Charles Farnsworth and Cecil Sharp and published in 1909 and again in a post-1912 edition.
Formation: two lines of children (one Roman, one English), hands joined.
Romans (advance in lines forward and back twice while singing; the English stand still):
Have you any bread and wine?
For we are the Romans.
Have you any bread and wine?
For we are the Roman soldiers.
While the Romans stand still, the English march forward and back responding that they do have bread and wine and that they are the English soldiers, and the story continues for 12 more verses: We will have one cupful, No you won’t have one cupful, We will have two cupfuls, We will tell the King on you, We don’t care for the King or you, We will tell the Pope of you, We will send our dogs to bite, We don’t care for your dogs or you, Are you ready for a fight? Yes, we’re ready for a fight.
After which they all shout: “Aim! Fire! Bang!” and fall down. Then they all sing more slowly while miming as they limp around ad libitum: Now we have only one leg, Now we have only one arm, Now we have only one eye. The description and the piano accompaniments indicate that great fun could be had.
There were variations; the Farnsworth & Sharp version left out the reference to the Pope, but added sending in cats to scratch, and they also added a pacifist ending: instead of the fight, the children could join hands in a ring and dance around together singing, “Then we’ll join in a merry ring, etc.” —
Back to the story: when Angus comes to play at the Hall, he starts out with Scottish reels. “The music had a lilt which made it hard to keep still; Joan, trained in English country-dance tunes, recognized its quality at once” (209). He plays some classical pieces to Joy and some sweet Scottish songs to Mrs. Shirley, who is pretty frail in this book. Then he plays tunes for what Rykie identifies as an Eightsome Reel: The Deil amang the Tailors, Kate Dalrymple, The Fairy Dance, Soldier’s Joy, the Flowers of Edinburgh, and then the first tune again. Jen wonders why he doesn’t stop in between each one, and Rykie explains that he mustn’t miss a beat (214). Even back in the late eighteenth-century, with the famous violinists and band leaders Neil and Nathanial Gow, the Scots were more oriented to the concept of a medley of tunes, something that Cecil Sharp, who working with older materials which are presented emphatically as one tune = one dance, did not embrace.
The Hamlet Club have come to have a dance party on the lawn at the Hall, and they “whirl through” The Old Mole, then show off the set dances Goddesses, Hunsdon House, Hey Boys, Newcastle, and some longways dances. “’Goddesses’ was followed by ‘Hunsdon House,’ and the visitor’s eyes opened widely at the contrast in style. ‘That’s like a minuet,’ he said. ‘But a lovely tune. I like your music and your fiddler [Margia Lane]” (215). Perhaps Angus thought Hunsdon House, which is in jig (6/8) or a duple-meter time was “like a minuet” which is a triple meter dance, because it was danced very, very slowly.
The reference to “whirling through” The Old Mole reminds us that in the first half at least of the last century, slow dances like Hunsdon House were much slower than we dance them in America today, and fast dances like Goddesses or The Old Mole were danced much more rapidly; this can be seen by the angles of the dancers captured in motion in photographs. The girls are frequently described as panting after having danced Goddesses several times in a row (as well they might, since it is almost non-stop skipping!).
Rykie, now a changed person, teaches the Abbey Girls the Eightsome Reel, showing “that she had a very pretty step.” This is an exhausting dance with few resting points and an opportunity for each dancer to show off. Here are a group of teenagers dancing it. The girls enjoy the reel, but Joan says firmly: “’We won’t do much of it. That step for setting would ruin our set-and-turn-single; the girls are inclined to be on their toes as it is. We’ll need to be careful (218).’” Sharp emphasized natural footwork, without any balletic influences.
—In 1923 Jean Milligan and Ysobel Stewart founded the Scottish Country Dance Society to preserve the dance form which had fallen into disuse after the influx of ballroom dances such as the waltz and quadrille or the American dances such as the one-step, the foxtrot and other “jazz” dances. They collected dances from living memory and also worked with late eighteenth-century sources: English country dances set to Scottish tunes such as those found in my book Dances from Jane Austen’s Assembly Rooms. Like Sharp, they standardized style, but went for a balletic interpretation, with pointed toes. In 1951 the SCDS became the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. Oxenham may have seen country dancing in Scotland in the 1890 to 1910 period as her family had many holidays there, but it doesn’t seem to have made an impression on her. She may not have encountered the SCDS style of dance until much later, perhaps even as late as the 1940s. There are only a handful of references to Scottish dances in the Abbey Girl series and they are all of this nature: the dancing is pretty but it will ruin our English country dancing.—
At the fête the children perform the singing game The Three Dukes and the country dances Haste to the Wedding and Jenny Pluck Pears (245-6). Later, Terry returns to show the Hamlet Club the film, and to make another one of them dancing to show his American friends. Jen, frequently described as the best dancer, will dance the morris jigs Jockie to the Fair with Joy and Princess Royal with Joan (255).
In Strangers at the Abbey, English country dance does not as directly as it often does present itself as the touchstone for favorable moral and social qualities—the singing games that Rykie considers footling take on that role. Overall, however, it is the Abbey and its monks, a general love of old things, cats, and the strong sense of “playing the game” and “being straight” that provide the principal contrast with the popular—and not particularly approved of—culture of films, makeup, and airplanes. The dancing is just there in the background, as an activity that some girls—OK, the right sort of girls!—enjoy doing.