Published in 1952, A09_Selma at the Abbey takes place from September 1918 through May 1919 in Abbey Time. It starts two months after the activities of Strangers at the Abbey, and is a much better story, with a nice romance and a happy ending. It is also one that first introduces to the Abbey world a Swedish sea captain. Elsie J. Oxenham had a weird fascination with both Sweden and with sea captains—Stella Waring and Sheila Ray note that she had an elevated and inaccurate view of the social standing of the latter! Selma’s father was a Swedish sea captain—a double benefit! In a future post I’ll talk about parental morbidity and mortality; mothers die at an almost pandemic rate, while fathers tend to be spared but perpetually off-stage as so many of them are sea captains of one sort or another.
In the dust-jacket above, Selma wears a yellow frock and has dark curls. Jen, in blue, is holding one of the Abbey cats, and it is probably the instructive Joan, in green with a book under her arm–perhaps it is Emma?–who is walking towards Selma.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Nineteen-year-old cousins Joan and Joy Shirley look out of a window at Abinger Hall to see a familiar figure approach the door hesitantly—it is Angus Reekie, who had tried to steal Lady Jehane’s jewels, at that time kept in the Abbey, in Strangers. The girls had forgiven him and had sold one ruby to purchase good violin lessons for the young man. Now they wonder what he wants.
Angus asks them to take in “his lassie,” Selma Andersson, whom he loves and wishes to marry though she is at present only sixteen. He intends to be a world-famous violinist and wants his girl to have some polish, to learn to speak well, and to be like Joan and Joy and Mrs. Shirley. (He doesn’t seem to feel that he might need this as well!) The girls agree to take Selma in. Angus returns to Glasgow where he tells Selma about the invitation, but not that he asked the Shirleys to extend it. Selma has left school and is working in a shop and loves the idea of an adventure. Her mother is dead and she dislikes her step-father. She is fond of Angus, but is not yet aware that she loves him. Angus tells her about the failed attempt to steal the jewels, egged on by his young half-sister Rykie. He is determined that there be no secrets between them.
Selma arrives at the Hall, and the girls are surprised to discover that she is not fair, as they expected her to be with a Swedish last name, but is “a Dark Daughter of the Vikings.” Jen Robbins has been invited to the Hall as well, to keep Selma company and to introduce her to the girls at school, where they determine to send her for some final polishing of her French—EJO remained true to her late Victorian creed that proper young ladies know some French. We know that Selma is the Right Sort (unlike Rykie, who thought only of Hollywood), because she loves the outdoors and the beauty of nature. There is much talk of her Scottish accent and diction and her desire to eat oatmeal (which she calls “them”) with salt rather than with sugar—a typical example of EJO’s good eye for details and accents. The girls, especially Jen, are impressed that Angus has confessed his almost-crime to Selma, and they invite her to stay indefinitely with them. She is worried about the cost of her clothes, and they tell her that Angus has arranged for all of that—he has received some money from his wealthy American brother-in-law. Joan discovers Selma in the library rather despairingly trying to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thinking that it is a classic, and takes it firmly out of her hands and recommends Jane Austen—specifically Emma—and Charles Dickens. While the girls find Selma’s Scottish accent charming (though she comes from Glasgow, she does not have a Glaswegian accent), they do their best to drill it out of her and get her to speak “proper” English. As they showed abundantly in A08_Strangers at the Abbey, the Abbey Girls can be awful snobs at times.
Angus’ birthday is on St. Andrew’s Day (St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland), and Joan and Jen invite him to the Hall for a long weekend. Jen blurts out that it was Angus who asked the girls to invite Selma and she is very upset about this until Joan can calm her down. Angus arrives and is impressed at how polished Selma has become. Jen is much annoyed with herself to realize that her impulsive blurting has hurt Selma, and Waring and Ray comment that, for regular readers of EJO’s books, it is satisfying to see that Jen’s kindness, wisdom, and insight, so apparent to readers and characters alike when she is older, has to be earned.
That night Joy hears a noise—someone is in the drawing room where Jehane’s jewels have been moved after the adventures of two months ago. With her usual poor judgement and impetuosity, she thinks that perhaps Angus is trying to steal the jewels again. She and Joan and Jen creep down and hear that there are two burglars. Angus, who came down before the girls, shouts at the men to get away from the jewels and jumps them, and the larger burglar tells him to let him go or he’ll break Angus’ arm. The girls burst in with sticks and turn on the lights and the burglars flee, giving Angus a final kick. They have cut the phone wires, so Joy runs to the Abbey to use its phone to call the doctor and the police. The caretaker, Ann Watson, is told the story and begins to weep.
Angus has a concussion, a broken rib and a badly fractured right arm. They all fear at various times for his musical career. Joy apologizes for not having trusted him. The girls discover that foolish Ann has been broadcasting her relief that the jewels are stored at the Hall and are no longer in the Abbey. Angus wakes up and urges the Abbey girls not to prosecute the thief—after all, he was nearly in the thief’s position in the prior novel, and going to jail would have been terrible for him. Joan and Joy and Jen go to talk to Ann Watson and discover that the larger thief is there, sobbing and terrified; though he is large, he is a young man no older than Angus. He has been hiding in the hills and is worried about the “young guy” he knocked down. He is Alf Watson, a relative of the hapless Ann Watson. He had been living in America with his father. Frankie, the younger thief and also a Watson, told him about the jewels and later told him to go to the Abbey if he is in trouble. The girls realize that he has sought Sanctuary. They tell the police that they will not prosecute, and Alf goes back to America.
Joan and Joy resolve to take some of the smaller jewels to make a ring for Selma: a ruby, a sapphire and an emerald. Jen persuades Joy to hide the jewels again and, in the dead of night, the three go to the crypt, pull out the stone near the lay brother Ambrose’s grave is and where he originally had hidden Jehane’s jewels, and hide them there again. They swear a vow of secrecy, and a few days later, Joy gives Jen a silver bar brooch with three small stones, an emerald and a sapphire with a ruby between them. All three girls have these brooches and will use them to pin their school ties. They are to be a badge of their shared secret.
Selma is invited to visit her Swedish relatives and the doctor permits her to take Angus with her—but he is not to skate or ski but to get Swedish massages for his broken arm. They decide to get engaged before the trip and Angus gives Selma a ring that he had had made for her with money that he earned himself. The ring is set with pebbles from Selma’s beloved seashore: cornelian, amethyst, and topaz. The Abbey girls realize that their ring is redundant and have it remade into a circular brooch for Selma upon her return shortly after Christmas. Angus reveals to Joan that he had heard the burglar’s threat to break his arm but had bravely gone ahead anyway. Angus has proven himself to be a worthy son of the Abbey.
The girls get a letter from Janice MacDonald Fraser (Jandy Mac); she has had a baby girl whose official name is Joan, but whom everyone immediately starts calling Littlejan. Joan is the baby’s godmother and Jen wonders if she herself will ever be a godmother. (The answer is yes.)
Selma and Angus return to the Hall and share some special news: Angus has been invited to go be a student of the world-famous violinist Jan Josef, in Hollywood. Terry Van Toll, the American husband of Angus’ sister Belle, was driving behind the Josefs when their car ran into a wall and burst into flames. Terry was able to drag both of the Josefs out, and the violinist offered to give anyone Terry liked lessons, as a reward for saving their lives. The Abbey girls are thrilled and urge Angus to change his last name as “Reekie” doesn’t seem serious enough. He changes it to Anderson, so that Selma will go eventually from being Miss Andersson to being Mrs. Anderson.
Some months later, Joy and Joan go to school for the crowning of Queen Beatrice, also known as Bee or Beetle. Beatrice is short and somewhat stout, and has chosen a train with gaudy stripes of scarlet and yellow and green. She carries a bouquet of red and yellow tulips and will be known as the Striped Queen. She picked her bright colors to stand out in the procession, and the Abbey girls are not sure that they like it, but they are now stuck with it. In the procession Queen Stripes follows Nesta, with her more demure silver and purple train. Bee’s maid of honor (by the 1950s, EJO had moved away from titling this function a “bride-maid”) is young Barbara Honor, the first Queen’s little sister. Joan and Joy tell Jen that Selma has written that all is going well and that Josef says that Angus will be a great musician someday. Jen rushes off to find a partner for Haste to the Wedding.
For Folk Dancers
(No, those are not my fingers! The image represents Selma’s adventurous, Viking approach to life.)
As with most of the rest of the Retrospective titles, there is not a strong emphasis on folk dancing—Oxenham was 72 years old when she published Selma and probably had not been dancing for some time, although this book does prove that she enjoyed watching and possibly dancing Scottish dances. Our first glimpse of Selma is at a dance at a Youth Club in Glasgow, where the young people are dancing Scottish country dances: Petronella, Strip the Willow, Haymakers, and a “boisterous” Eightsome Reel. Selma wishes that Angus could play his violin or the reels, as the piano is just not right for them.
She learns some of the Hamlet Club dances at Miss Macey’s school, although the girls criticize her for pointing her toes—just not done in English country dancing!. The Hamlet Club has a party for her in Darley’s Barn and Selma wears the pale yellow dancing frock that she made for herself. She is a little worried about making mistakes and Jen advises her to not look flustered if she does as this will show everyone that she was wrong. “’Keep calm and pretend that’s the way you like to do the dance.’” Joan laughs at this and Jen adds: “’If I get left out of a ring, I look quite happy, as if I’d never meant to go into it and would much rather stand out all alone, on my own.’” This is a charming little detail that nicely illustrates Jen’s approach to life!
At the party, the girls dance Flowers of Edinburgh, so that Angus can see the English version of the dance to the Scottish tune. He sees that tall Jen is taking good care of Selma in the dance, putting her firmly into place after each swing and change. Jen tells Angus that Selma is a jolly good dancer as she is so light on her feet, and that Selma knows some other English country dances: Galopede, which she says is just like Petronella. Jen races off to dance Newcastle for four couples, a challenging dance that Selma is not ready for, and the evening concludes with Haste to the Wedding.
Haste to the Wedding is one of EJO’s favorite dances: characters often dance it to honor a newly engaged or married couple. It is also a dance which the about-to-retire Queen choose to dance with the unsuspecting Queen-elect. In 1767 a song called “Rural Felicity” was set to the tune. The first verse of this runs:
Come haste to the wedding ye friends and ye neighbors,
The lovers their bliss can no longer delay.
Forget all your sorrows your cares and your labors,
And let every heart beat with rapture today.
Come, come one and all, attend to my call,
And revel in pleasures that never can cloy.
Come see rural felicity,
Which love and innocence ever enjoy.
I have danced variants of Haste to the Wedding many times: current versions commonly have clapping in the B music (on the “come see” phrase). I was dumbfounded therefore to go to Cecil Sharp’s versions (he had two) in his 1909 book of country dances, which Hugh Stewart of the Cambridge Round (the Cambridge University English Country Dance Club) transcribed here: In the first version the woman dances down the center of the set, then back up to her place, then raises both hands above her head and casts down the outside and back while her partner does the cast then move. Raises both hands! An odd movement. But Sharp collected these from living village dancers, so it must have been so. Both of Sharp’s versions include the “swing-and-change” figure in which two couples dance once-and-a-half times around each other to end in progressed places. This figure has generally fallen out of favor in the U.S. as it involves footwork, which has also generally fallen into disuse–we don’t rant and polka as we used to! Mr. Sharp would be displeased with us.