Appearing in 1957 and the third-to-the-last book to be published prior to Elsie J. Oxenham’s death, A10_Tomboys at the Abbey is, mercifully, the last of the Retrospective Titles. With one important exception, it is a weak installment: repetitive and unconvincing. There is nothing in it for folk dancers, so if that is your principal interest in this blog, you can stop reading right now!
The exception, however, is an extremely interesting one that is not addressed in any of EJO’s other works, as far as I know; in Tomboys, characters successfully advocate for a girl to be able to pursue her career even after marriage. In every other of EJO’s novels it is made explicitly clear that (1) a middle- or upper-class girl shouldn’t work if she doesn’t need to, as this takes jobs away from women who do need them, and (2) it is expected that a girl give up her job immediately upon marrying. There are several facets to point (2)—one is that a man shouldn’t marry unless he has the means to support a wife and family; therefore, if his wife “has” to work it is a shameful thing showing that he can’t live up to financial expectations. There is no thought given to the fact that a woman might enjoy her career and wish to continue in it. Many of EJO’s girls articulate that, no matter how much they love their jobs, they will be ready to give them up for The Right Man: and, in fact, they’ll know that they’ve found Mr. Right by their willingness to do so. In fact, in Tomboys Joan Shirley—who is the character who gives the feminist advice!—says that she herself would leave her mother and her beloved Abbey in a heartbeat for the right man. Confusing.
A second reason for forcing a married woman give up a job/career—one not discussed, but easily inferred—is that women in EJO’s world get pregnant pretty much the instant they walk out of the church, and in her day and age, pregnant women stayed relatively confined: there was no rockin’ that baby bump! There are rare exceptions to this rule: Madam (Helen Kennedy North) and Mrs. Twistleton continue to teach folk dancing after marriage and babies, and Maidlin di Ravarotti, a key character whom we have not met yet and who is a singer with a beautiful voice, continues to sing after marriage but not after about the third month of pregnancy. But these are special cases driven by artistic talent, not financial need. Perhaps another exception is that Jen, who becomes Lady Marchwood and the local great lady, continues her duties (not a paid job though!) of opening hospitals and bazaars etc., after marriage—but she revels in being pregnant or nursing as it keeps her from having to do these things. In Tomboys, however, the characters openly articulate a feminist position and convince Karl, the Swedish sea captain, that his fiancée should continue to pursue her career on stage while he is away at sea. Most extraordinary.
“Tomboy” is not a word one hears anymore, but it was an attribute that was regarded positively in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. It referred to girls taking on boyish characteristics including wearing breeches and engaging in wholesome sports and exercise. Both the Campfire and the Girl Guide movements encouraged girls to wear clothing—such as skirts with pockets in them!—that allowed them to tramp through the woods and scramble over rocks, to play cricket, to garden, and to ride horses—perhaps even astride! EJO’s girls use boyish slang—Rotten! Hard lines!. They learn to play up and play the game, and the proper kind of girl has no interest in frills and clothes and boys. Being physically active and boyish and strong was a desirable means of strengthening the Future Mothers of the Empire! But the social expectation was also that at the time the girl put her hair up (code for saying she was now a young lady), she would return to heteronormative behaviors.
(Above is an 1873 painting by John George Brown called “The Tomboy.” You can tell she is a tomboy–she wears stout boots and a sensible hat (no feathers, etc.), she looks confident and self-assured, and she and is engaged in a pre-Internet past-time: she is swinging on a gate (also the name of a great reel!). Yes, Dear Readers: a fun past-time for boys and tomboys of this era was to stand on a gate and swing back and forth—must have played merry hell on the hinges. Aren’t you glad for Zoom and YouTube?)
Tomboyism began to be regarded more negatively in the 1930s and beyond, when it began to be feared that tomboyism either led to or was evidence of being a lesbian. (More on this another time.) In A10_Tomboys at the Abbey, however, the tomboyish-ness is exhibited in reporting on far too many pillow-fights, crumbs in the bed, Joy wearing hearth rugs and growling and wrestling like a bear, etc. In fact, Joy goes a bit off her rocker in terms of engaging in if not initiating these youthful activities—but then she has always been a more unbalanced character than her cousin Joan.
It is with a sigh of relief that we come to the end of the Retrospective Titles! Next week, a discussion of Oxenham’s approach to quarantine, measles, and the novel coronavirus. After that, a brief journey to the Swiss Alps for The Two Form Captains, an Abbey Connector with an interesting treat for folk musicians, and then, finally, we return to the Abbey Girls’ principal story arc and the much stronger installments of the series published in the Twenties and Thirties.
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
Queen Beatrice (Bee—the Striped Queen with multi-color tulips) has just been crowned. Jen comes to Joan with an unhappy tale. Jen’s best friend and “husband,” Jacky-boy, has just informed her that her family is moving to London and the summer term will be the last that they will have together. Jen wants to join the cricket team for the summer to be with Jack and therefore, given the rules of the School, must give up being Queen Joan’s maid of honor. Joan reassures her that this will be all right, and Jack is thrilled to have more time with Jen.
In a somewhat uncharacteristic point of generosity, Joy offers to have the two girls live at Abinger Hall so that they will have even more time together. When they arrive, they find that Joy has put cookie crumbs in their beds and this inspires the first of several pillow fights that Joy initiates—Jen and Jacky-boy are not the only tomboys at the Abbey! Joy also tells the girls that Abinger Hall used to be called Holyoake—or possibly Holly Oak or Hollow Oak. She tasks the girls with finding the oak tree that must have given the hall its name.
Cycling to school on Monday, the girls are stopped by a pretty, tall girl with blond braids who accosts Jen by name. She says that her name is Gudrun Palmgren and she asks for assistance in meeting Miss Shirley (Joan). The girls cannot help her then but encounter her later.
Gudrun is Swedish and is a cousin of Selma Andersson from A09_Selma at the Abbey—that is how she has heard of the Abbey Girls. Her uncle brought her to London to give her a new interest in life but then went away on business and she ran away to talk to Joan. Her goal is to go on the stage, especially in Shakesperian roles, but her autocratic grandmother, while permitting her to go to a good acting school, forbids her to actually act. Gudrun has heard that Joan assisted another girl to pursue acting and hopes that she will help her.
Joan is sympathetic, offers to have Gudrun stay for a few days and promises to telegraph the uncle. She urges Gudrun to write a letter explaining what she wants—but Gudrun decides she must go back to London and talk to her uncle in person. The girls all think that this is very brave and the right thing to do.
Joy and Joan drive Gudrun to London where the uncle, very distressed, has just returned to find Gudrun gone. By letter they invite both to come stay at the Hall, or, in the case of the uncle, the local inn. The Palmgrens arrive and everyone is much taken with each other. The uncle agrees to let Gudrun stay at the Hall and improve her English. He suggests that the grandmother might not be around much longer (something that both Joy and Joan, the latter very uncharacteristically, have thought of as being a good solution to the problem). He also mentions that his son, Karl, three years older than Gudrun, has long wanted to marry her. Karl is also a sailor.
A lawyer from town arrives suddenly—he has brought back the Abbey ruby that Joy and Joan had him sell in A08_Strangers at the Abbey to get music lessons for Angus, Selma’s future husband. The lawyer had sold it to an elderly lady who, intrigued by the story, altered her will so that the ruby would go back to the Abbey when she died. As the girls discuss the story, Jen blurts out asking if the ruby will be buried with the other gems—and remember, this was the secret that she, Joy and Joan were to keep. Jack teases and nags Jen to tell her more this secret and Jen refuses—they become estranged. Joy rows Jack about her tactlessness and the girls sort of make-up.
The girls find a huge old oak tree and Jen climbs up it and drops into it, crashing through a wooden floor. Jack follows. They discover an entrance to a tunnel and follow it. They turn around after a bit to find that the tree has fallen over, and they can’t get out the easy way—they must follow the tunnel to the end, which, when they arrive, they find blocked. Fortunately, Jack has brought a trowel with her and they dig through to find themselves emerging on the garth (the green enclosure in the Abbey). The girls are now reconciled completely.
After some discussion, the Abbey Girls decide that the platform in the tree was probably used by Miles the Highwayman in the late eighteenth century and that he might have dug the tunnel. Could Ambrose the lay-brother possibly be associated with the tree? How could you doubt it? Jen remembers Katherine Marchwood’s book of pictures and fetches it—and there is a picture of Ambrose planting a new tree ca. 1600 with the overturned old tree beside him. Did I really understand all this part? I think my eyes kinda skimmed over it. Joy promises to have special brooches made for the girls with wood from the fallen oak tree.
Gudrun confesses that she likes Karl, but she must have her acting career. She and Joan have a long conversation in which the rights of women to do what they want to are quite thoroughly explored. Joan observes that Karl wouldn’t want to give up the sea, so why should Gudrun give up the stage?
Word comes that the grandmother is ill. Karl comes to escort Gudrun to her. Joan tells Gudrun that she must not allow the grandmother to force her into a deathbed promise of any sort. A week later a telegram arrives to announce good news. Karl (who is one of the more charming of the men in the series) and Gudrun return to announce that the grandmother had indeed tried to force Gudrun to say that she wouldn’t act, that Karl told her (the grandmother) that he was going to marry Gudrun and when they did, he would permit her to act—yes, in EJO’s world it is still the husband’s prerogative to give or withhold permission—and that the grandmother gave in, bestowed her blessing and then died. The young lovers are now sort-of engaged.
A friend has written to the director of a Shakespearian troupe—the Nonesuch company (Nonesuch is an English country dance for four couples published in 1651)—to tell him of Gudrun’s acting excellence. With some misgivings later alleviated by the middle-aged stoutness of the director and the fact that he has a nice wife, Karl escorts her to her audition. The lovers become really engaged, Karl leaves with a volume of Shakespeare in his pocket so that he can better understand Gudrun’s future dramatic roles, and, not too long after this, Joan receives a newspaper clipping from Gudrun—the troupe’s leading lady has had an emergency surgery, and Gudrun stepped in to act the role of Viola to great acclaim.
For Folk Dancers
Nada, except for a romantic idea of ye olde merry villagers dancing Gathering Peascods around the old oak tree and touching it and feeling a part of some holy union. This sort of pantheism very common in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth (think The Golden Bough and The Wind in the Willows), seems at odds with the teachings of the Protestant Congregationalist church to which EJO belonged.