After last week’s long post, let’s catch our breath for a moment! I want to remind ourselves of what we are doing and also, if you are ready to race out and buy books by Elsie J. Oxenham, to provide A Dramatic Warning. First, while hopefully the old lags remember, new readers should know that I am blogging about EJO’s Abbey Girls books in reading order, not in publication order. We’ve gotten over the tricksy group of the Retrospective Titles, so, after next week’s post on A12_Jen of the Abbey School, RO will pretty much equal PO. Now for the Warning—there is an Abomination in EJO’s publishing world: the Children’s’ Press abridgments. I am not knowledgeable enough to disentangle Elsie J. Oxenham’s complicated publishing history—see Monica Godfrey’s The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Her Books, or the forewords to reprints by Girls Gone By Publishers—but Collins was her principal publisher. In the early days, EJO sold the copyrights of her books to Collins and other publishers outright, so they were able to do as they pleased with them. The Children’s Press and the Seagull Press were Collins imprints of the second half of the last century. Godfrey notes that the Seagull editions are acceptable, but the Children’s Press editions of the late 1950s to the 1970s are not.
On the left above is the dust jacket for the original edition of A13_The New Abbey Girls published by Collins. Underneath the jackets of these editions and their reprints, the book’s boards are orange or blue, depending on the period, and are called “Fat Orange” or “Fat Navy” editions. They are indeed stout: my copy of The New Abbey Girls measures 7 ¾ inches tall, 5 ½ wide, and 2 inches deep, including the boards. The paper is very thick. The jacket above shows a generic girl playing tennis (Collins used this image on several of their books for girls). On the spine, though, is Jen Robins, dancing a morris jig with a daffodil in each hand instead of a handkerchief. That illustration is by Elsie Wood, one of Oxenham’s best illustrators, and the one that she took to dance classes in London so that Wood could see the dancing at first hand.
On the right is the Children’s Press edition, with its laminated cover. My copy says “This impression 1969,” leaving me unsure as to when it first appeared; 1969 was nine years after EJO’s death. The image–Jen with her daffodils and Joy–looks to be more circa 1960in color and attire. The book is, by contrast to the original, 7 ¼ inches tall, 4 ¾ wide, and not quite ¾ of an inch deep. The paper is thinner than that of the first edition, but is still quite sturdy. I had understood that this edition had some abridgments, but it was not until I read the two copies simultaneously that I realized how egregious they were: a good third if not more of the original is missing. The cuts and changes fall into the following categories.
- Updated terms and descriptions: ” a smart motor car” instead of “a smart carriage and pair”; changes in slang (the more modern “shirking” rather than “funking” doing something); and updates to phrases such as “using cosmetics” rather than “painting one’s face.” But isn’t it interesting to see that this particular update gives a subtle change to meaning? The situation is that 30-year old Mary finds 15-year old Biddy getting ready to go to a party that Mary disapproves of. That Biddy has been “using cosmetics” seems relatively normal in the Children’s Press edition, even though we understand that Mary has objections to it. But in the original edition, the fact that Biddy has been “painting her face” Is much more shocking—only hussies and actresses paint their faces. The value judgement is much stronger and clearer there.
- Removal of most of the references to World War I. For example, in A14_The Abbey Girls Again,the difference in age between Mary and Biddy is explained because there were three boys between them who were “lost” in the war. This age gap is glossed over with no explanation in the abridged version. (Note that some of these cuts in later editions of Oxenham’s books may have been done by her—she seemed to have learned that it was wise not to leave in markers that would identify time. On the other hand, she was powerless compared to her publishers. She often complained that errors appeared in the published book after she had submitted the corrected proofs.)
- Removal of most if not all references to Jen’s and Jacky-boy’s sentimental relationship as “husband and wife.” I am still musing over this relationship—they are not the only girl-couple in this series, but they are the longest-standing and most prominent one. Jack, the husband, is short, with bobbed black hair. She is deeply involved in cricket, which means she can’t dance with the Hamlet Club. Jen, the wife, is a foot-and-a-half taller, with long blonde plaits. EJO might have thought this short husband/tall wife pairing would be funny for girls to read about. As a Campfire Guardian as well as a Guide troop leader, she was aware that girls really do like to go around in pairs or small groups, and she articulates this observation many times. Jack and Jen are good friends and on an even emotional keel. In other books however, EJO gives us pairs of girls where one has a passionate attachment to another, usually older girl. Often the second girl lets the first one down; EJO is showing us that one shouldn’t give devotion to an unworthy object. We’ll explore this theme in more detail later—for now it is enough to say that in the abridged versions, Jack and Jen are just chums.
- Removal of some repetitive passages: someone tells one character something and then a few pages later someone tells the same thing to another EJO herself admitted that her early works were wordy. Well, people are repetitive in real life, too! I mean, they say the same things over and over!
While I am not terribly happy with these changes, I can understand them; Collins was updating the books for the girl reader of 1960 or 1969, for whom “the War” might mean Vietnam, or Korea, or possibly WWII but certainly not WI. Publishing house Edward Stratemeyer similarly updated its series books such as the Nancy Drew mysteries, changing the clothes and hair styles on the covers, removing racial slurs, and updating the language. Did Nancy drive a little blue roadster or a little yellow one? It depends on the era, but that detail doesn’t matter to me–the point is that Nancy is both independent and competent enough enough to drive around by herself. But the next three groups of changes in the Children’s Press versions of the Abbey Girls series are simply not acceptable.
- Removal of big chunks of characters’ internal thoughts or dialogue. These cuts make them much flatter and more cartoon-like. For example, Joy Shirley appears very different in the original version of A13_The New Abbey Girls (post coming up in two weeks!) than she does in the abridged one. First, she is much more contrite over the motorcycle accident that so severely injured Jen in the prior installment. This shock has made her think more deeply about her carelessness and selfishness. Several characters comment on how Joy now looks not only more serious, but more like her cousin Joan, who has always been characterized as the thoughtful and considerate girl. Second, in this book Joy is very aware of her great wealth and good fortune. She is working out how to use the money in the best way possible. As she explores this, she realizes that it is not enough for her to simply give money away, she needs to find a way to give of herself as well. For those to whom much is given, much is expected—this is a theme that EJO articulates many times in this series, and I think that whether one is fabulously wealthy or not, it is a good topic to think about, even if you are a young reader. Perhaps especially if you are a young reader. It was part of EJO’s mission in writing for girls to help girls them think and grow so that they would turn into good women.Her avatars the Writing Person and Mary-Dorothy Devine articulate this mission directly and frequently.
- Removal of big chunks of “pi-jaw”—discussions about God and His purpose for us and why bad things happen to good people. Granted, not everyone wants to read this kind of thing—well then, turn the page! But, again, in addition to their intrinsic merit, these discussions can illuminate character. Some characters are better at providing answers and comfort than others; some characters more actively seek understanding.
- REMOVAL OF BIG CHUNKS OF DESCRIPTIONS OF FOLK DANCING! Anathema Maranatha! How dared they! Charming and detailed descriptions of scenery, dancing, song, etc., were one of Oxenham’s great strengths! When she writes about the color and beauty and fun and meaning of dancing, she makes the reader want to participate. Stella Waring and Sheila Ray report a source that said that Douglas Kennedy, Director of the EFDS from 1924 to 1961, stated that “he ha[d] been struck by the number of people who ha[d] told him that they were attracted to the folk movement” by reading Oxenham’s novels. Sheila Ray added that she was one of those people, and that she used Madam’s teaching as a blueprint when she attended actual classes!
Frankly, if the first Abbey Girls books I read had been the abridged ones, I’m not sure I’d be here with you today! They are dull and colorless compared to the originals. I am fortunate that most of my collection of the Abbey Girls books are either original imprints, modern reprints of those, or facsimiles; it is only in a few cases that I have only the Children’s Press edition to rely on. As we go on, I will point out substantive differences as I encounter them in the several instances where I have pairs of editions. But if you are building your library, avoid those Children’s Press editions if you can! With them you get the story-line, but not the charm.
Where to buy the books
Obviously, eBay and Advanced Book Exchange are good places to start. Some EJO titles, especially of the rare stand-alones, are very pricey indeed, but most of the Abbey series are fairly inexpensive. Although they are no longer carrying EJO titles, Girls Gone By Publishers produced a number of the Abbey Series in modern paperback reprints and these are excellent, with wonderful forewords. The Elsie J. Oxenham Appreciation Society is in the process of reprinting many of the non-Collins titles: these are also excellent editions.
Nancy Holehouse says
Wonderful to rediscover these books from my childhood. So Interesting to learn more of EJO and to find Girls Gone By are publishing reprints.
Yes, and check out the EJO Society–they are reprinting about 2-3 a year!