We’ve finished the Retrospective Titles and are about to plunge into the mother lode of Elsie J. Oxenham’s depiction of folk dance with next week’s title, A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, but before we attend Cecil Sharp’s Vacation School in Cheltenham, we’re going to make a detour to the Swiss Alps for a “Connector” tale: The Two Form Captains. Both of these books were published in 1921. Oxenham attended the four-week school in 1920 and may well have been planning or writing both books then.
The Two Form Captains was EJO’s 21st book, and it is the introduction to the five books known as the “Swiss Set.” It is not in the Abbey series but it introduces two characters whom the Abbey Girls meet in A11. They are also referred to in other books and one shows up later, as an adult dance teacher, in A31_An Abbey Champion. The Swiss Set also intersects with the “Sussex Set” and the “Woody Dean Set.” This wandering of characters in and out of each other’s books is one of the charms of EJO’s world, just as real people connect, fade away, and reconnect. It is also one of the fun aspects for the reader—can you figure out these relationships?
While little actual dancing occurs, Two Form Captains is of interest to folk dancers because it explores the musical side of the craft.
The jacket illustration shows Tazy and two boys from St. John’s school: possibly Rennie Brown (standing) and “Pickles” Twistleton. Illustration by Percy Tarrant. This reprinted title that has historically been difficult to find is now available from the EJO Society.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
This is a fun read in which EJO explores one of her favorite themes: what it is to be a good leader and to do the right thing, not the easy thing: to “play up and play the game” rather than to be “slack.” It also has some lovely descriptions of the Alps.
Fifteen-year-old Anastasia Kingston is a new student at St. Mary’s School for girls, opposite the river from St. John’s College for boys, high in the Swiss Alps. Both schools take international students but are run along English lines, and they particularly take in the children of patients at the tuberculosis Sanitarium at the Platz, higher above. Because St. Mary’s dormitory is full, Anastasia, known as Tazy (she says it rhymes with lazy, crazy, and particularly with the French phrase, “taisez-vous” which means to Shut-up, so some of her friends call her Shut-up, as she is quite the talker) arrives at a boarding-house where four boys from St. John’s are living. Being boyish and jolly herself, she fits in well with the boys.
Tazy makes friends with the shy, quiet, motherless Karen Wilson, who is a violinist with very bad eyesight (EJO herself struggled with sight issues). At St. Mary’s, each form (sort of like a “grade” in U.S. schools, although you might stay in a form for more than a year before moving up) has two form captains, one chosen by the girls themselves and one by the teachers. Form captains are responsible for monitoring the girls’ behavior when the mistresses are not present. Tazy can’t figure out why quiet Karen is the teachers’ selection, although she can easily see why the girls have made their choice: Swedish Svea, who is nice, pretty and popular. Tazy suspects however that Svea is also easy-going and “soft.”
Some of the other girls, the non-English ones, are “boy-crazy.” They are envious of Tazy’s relationship with the boys from the boarding-house, but she is just their jolly pal in the English manner and contemptuous of mushy stuff. Oxenham presents English boys and girls as generally “straight” and “sporting,” whereas the girls of other nationalities often mature early and develop an “unhealthy” romantic interest in boys. There is a lot of discussion as to what a good relationship between boys and girls is, and the English model of cheerful co-existence is explicitly preferred. Indeed, the headmistress has felt confident sending Tazy and later Karen to the boys’ boarding-house precisely because they won’t go in for anything silly and romantic. One Swedish girl, Gerda, Svea’s cousin, is boy-crazy. Karen demonstrates her suitability as form captain by standing up to Gerda and forcing her to stop secretly accepting chocolates from one of the English boys: “Dumpy,” already known as a slacker. Gerda fails to learn her lesson, however. When the two schools go on a picnic together, Gerda goes out of bounds with Dumpy and is unable to be located to be taken to the Platz in time to reach her dying mother’s bedside. The headmistress who accompanies her tells her that she will always regret being too late to comfort her “at the last.” Tough love!
Karen enters the school’s music competition with an original composition—a fantasy on English country dance themes—and wins. The happy ending gives her a surrogate family and the young man whom she will eventually marry.
For Folk Dancers
We don’t see much actual dancing in this book, although Tazy dances some of the figures of The Old Mole for Karen and describes what she saw when in quarantine. The focus here is on Karen’s suite of music. Karen tells Tazy about her bad eyesight and how the girls at her former school used to laugh at her and call her an Old Mole, and Tazy immediately begins to whistle the tune to that dance. Karen wonders why the tune is called that and Tazy describes the many arches in the dance, and how she could see a mole popping in and out of them. While in quarantine for scarlet fever at her previous school, Tazy used to watch girls dancing the “wonderful old English dances,” and she whistles more of the tunes to Karen, who ends up putting four of them into her suite of music.
She works with four tunes: in order, The Old Mole, If All the World were Paper, Lady in the Dark, and Greenwood. All four are eight-bar tunes: that is, just eight bars repeated many, many times, rather than the much more common tunes with two, eight-bar phrases played AABB for a total of 32 bars, which are then repeated for another round(s) or section of the dance. Mole requires its tune to be played 22 times, Paper 12 times, Lady 12 times, and Greenwood 30 times. Karen’s tunes belong to dances that are not danced much if at all in the U.S., partly because no one wants to play The Old Mole 22 times through and partly because the dances are rather complicated and the trend is away from complicated pattern dances. I danced Old Mole and If All the World Were Paper long ago, but have never danced the other two.
Karen says that she loves If All the World Were Paper for its simplicity and its swing (149). Tazy tells her that there is one tune that she mustn’t use—Greenwood—not because Tazy doesn’t like it but because she is bored with it.
“Of course, they all get monotonous when you hear them over and over without seeing the movements; that little “Old Mole” has to be played twenty-two times through for the whole dance! It never gets on my nerves, somehow; I suppose because it’s so pretty, and I know what you’re supposed to be doing to it; but this other one does. When they were learning it at school [when she was in quarantine] I got so frantic at last that I went to the fence and yelled to them to stop, and asked how long it was going on without a change. They said there wasn’t any change, and it had to be played thirty times. So I went back to my room and shut all the windows tight. I really thought I’d have to put my head inside my bed and howl. It’s called “Greenwood,” and it goes like this,” she said, whistling the tune. “You bet I’ll never forget it!” (150)
Karen likes the tune, finding “something triumphant and exulting in it.” She hears that Lady is “sort of minor,” and later reports back that her violin teacher was quite excited about it and that they spent the afternoon going over “weird old scales” (she means modes). She finds Greenwood “triumphant,” which is why it concludes her fantasy.
The Old Mole, If All the World Were Paper, and Lady in the Dark are found in The Country Dance Book Part III, published in 1912 by Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth, while Greenwood comes from Book IV published in 1916.
The Old Mole comes from the first edition of publisher John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1650/1651. EJO’s description is quite correct: the dance requires 22 repeats of the tune and involves many arches with different pairs of dancers as well as heys for three on the sides of the dance. View the Sharp interpretation as originally published; view the facsimile.
If All the World were Paper was also originally published in Playford’s first edition. It is a round for eight dancers with the typical USA figures (Up a double and back, Siding, and Arming) followed by choruses that are different in each part. It was danced with a skipping step. There are words to the tune, and I am surprised that EJO didn’t use them: If all the world were paper, and all the sea were ink, if all the trees were bread and cheese, how should we do for drink? Note that in the Barnes book of English dance tunes, there is a B-section of the music: this was added in modern times to make the tune a little more interesting. View the Sharp interpretation as originally published; view the facsimile.
Greenwood likewise comes from the first edition of Playford. It is for three couples, with the middle couple improper (yes, they had impropriety, even back in Playford’s day!). View the Sharp interpretation as originally published (another reconstructor disagrees with his approach); view thefacsimile. Karen plays this tune to her boy-pal, Rennie Brown, under the trees of the Alps and tells him how Tazy has described the dancing:
“Tazy . . says the girls were in two lines, six of them, in threes, you know; and they kept running up to meet one another, and running away from one another holding hands, and making little rings of three, sometimes with one in the middle, and twisting in and out in lines of three, and swinging round in couples. But in between everything else the two lines of three ran up to meet, or ran away, back to back, and then set to their partners. I can just imagine it in an open space in a big wood. It sounds almost fairy-like, don’t you think so?” (203)
This is indeed the general shape of the dance. We don’t know what at what tempo Karen played any of these tunes, but EJO’s reference to “running” reminds us that the tempi of many of the dances as done in Sharp’s time were faster than those of today, and that the step really was a “running” step.
So what EJO is giving us is a taste of four very complicated set dances, all but one of them from the first edition of The English Dancing Master, and each one with a tune of only eight bars. She is following Sharp’s lead in considering them old, and quintessentially “folk,” although in 1651 they actually were the dances of the court and aristocracy. And she is definitely presenting them as “English”—the other girls in the musical competition likewise present tunes of their countries.
Karen’s fantasy on English folk dances starts with one 8 bar phrase in D major, followed by another in the same key, followed by the third in G-Dorian (this mode is basically G-minor with a flattened 7th) and concludes with Greenwood in F. It’s actually a rather nice little set of tunes, though I would not have put two tunes in the same key back to back. It works here because they are in a different register.
When Oxenham provides details, it is because she has seen or experienced something directly. For example, many of her readers have enjoyed going to locations that she described and readily identifying them. For her to focus on these four tunes therefore means something. Had she heard someone play these tunes in this particular order? We know that she played the three-hole “morris” pipe: in a later book a character accurately describes the notes and overtones and even the limitations of the pipe. Did Elsie J. Oxenham herself play these particular tunes?