Published in 1927, A12_Jen of the Abbey School takes place immediately before and after A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School. Ideally you should read the first half of A11, then the first half of A12, then the second half of A11, wrapping it up with the second half of A12. Jen of the Abbey School takes place from June to December 1920, in Abbey Time. It is an important book for folk dancers as it paints a clear picture of the “folk spirit” as well as incorporating a thrilling folk dance competition. It is also an important book in the Abbey Girl world as it introduces a number of girls who we will encounter again in later installments. Some of these girls have complicated backstories that I will touch on as lightly as possible at the present time; you can learn more by reading the introduction to the excellent paper-back edition of A12_Jen of the Abbey School produced by Girls Gone By Publishers.
Jen of the Abbey School is a fun read, but a slightly disjointed one. We see Jen teaching local children (not very correctly!) before she attends the Vacation School, then we see her teaching (much improved!) after the School and her accident, then we have an odd little sub-story that could be called The Adventure of the Basque Pipe, wrapping up with the folk-dance competition. The simplest way to explain this is that the story had a complicated publishing history, with some installments published in annual collections before Elsie J. Oxenham wove them all together. However, if I hadn’t pointed this out, you might not have noticed because you were having so much fun reading along!
A note: while the Abbey Girls books are often called school stories for girls, most of them are not actually set in a school nor do they feature classic elements of that kind of story, such as a new girl who doesn’t fit in, a competition or important game in which someone does or does not let down the school, a prefect or head girl who struggles to uphold her position (as in The Two Form Captains), etc. Moreover, despite the title of this book, there is no Abbey School! Miss Macey’s school near the Abbey has no name. EJO (or her publisher) was perhaps finding that the word “Abbey” in the title helped to sell books. In any case, in this installment Jen interacts with the girls of the Rocklands School in Yorkshire, and the story does contain some of the classic school-story elements.
(Above, Jen, wearing her blue dancing frock, and possibly her mother are watching the children dance.)
Plot Highlights (Contains Spoilers)
There is a fair bit of backstory to fill in first.
Seventeen-year-old Jen Robin’s parents have taken her from Miss Macey’s school to live with them at The Grange (the big house) in a village in Yorkshire. Lonely and bored, Jen begins to teach folk dancing to the children of the village and of Tin Town—a small group of houses built for the workers who are building a dam and a reservoir. The two groups are hostile to each other. In the foreword to the reprint of this book by Girls Gone By Publishing, Ann Mackie-Hunter explains that the tension was created by the fact that that the living conditions were much better in Tin Town, with running water, sewage pipes, and medical care, than they were in the village, and that the Tin Town folk have their own shops and don’t spend their money in the village.
A few miles from The Grange is the Thorburn estate, owned by a young widow who lost her husband in the War. For the past few years she has invited Rocklands School, owned by her elder sister, to spend the summer term at Thornhill on the moors, which the girls love. Mrs. Thorburn’s husband’s niece Teesa Courtney, who is the Bad Girl of the story, was head girl at the school in the spring term. Teesa’s crippled younger brother, Wriggles, who has tuberculosis of the spine and cannot move anything but his arms and eyes, also lives with his nurse at Thornhill. (His character is based on an actual child with whom EJO corresponded.) There are two older boys in the family but they do not come into this story. Working for Mrs. Thorburn are two teenaged “lady gardener apprentices,” Rena Mackay and Lisabel Durrant. Long stories for them, but Mrs. Thorburn is ensuring that they will get an education as gardeners. Rena and Lisabel will appear in several other books, notably in Rosamund Kane’s story arc. Scottish Betty McLean is the current head girl, and she is doing a better job than Teesa had done to unite the juniors and the seniors. All of these girls have appeared or will appear in other books, and so we have the pleasure of hearing from old friends and seeing them connect with Jen. A new character, Rhoda, appears early on.
The book opens with the girls tramping across the countryside. It begins to rain and they take shelter in a shed where they encounter two boys morris dancing. The boys tell them that a Miss Jen taught them. The girls are wild to learn to dance and to learn more about Miss Jen. Their teacher takes them towards the village and Tin Town, and they stop at a little house at the latter to ask about Miss Jen. While they are there, Jen cycles up to tell the woman that young Archie has sprained his ankle—not while dancing, but while fooling around. Everyone is introduced and Jen invites the school-girls to a dance performance the next week.
The performance is a great success, but newcomer Rhoda, who learned folk dancing from her Campfire Guardian, confidently tells the other girls that the dancing itself was really not that good—there were tons of mistakes. During the course of the performance, four of the junior girls go down to Tin Town to buy chocolates to give to Archie, who could not see the show. There they find his younger sister, Rose, who is an invalid, weeping because she cannot see it either. They tell Jen, who goes down to Tin Town to dance a couple of jigs for the children. Then Betty tells her about crippled Wriggles, and she goes and dances “like a blue fairy” for him as well.
Teesa revels in telling Jen about Rhoda’s criticisms, but Jen takes them well and eagerly, for she is A Good Sport and only wants to make her dancing better. She is about to go away to the four-week Cheltenham summer school and laughs to think how Madam President (Cecily Hobart, who has taught the others all wrong) will react to being told about her mistakes.
We hear about Jen’s accident. Mrs. Robins brings Jen back to the Grange, along with Joan Shirley. One of the younger girls, Tickles, discovers that little Rose has knitted Jen a jumper (sweater). Although it is beautifully made, it is—in their opinion—horrible to look at: gaudy stripes of purple and yellow (!). Everyone is certain that this is awful. Everyone gallantly compliments Rose on her lovely thought and hard work.
To celebrate her return, everyone gives Jen presents, and Archie gives her his grandfather’s old three-hole morris pipe. One day, Jen leaves the pipe, a beautiful piece of crochet work that she has been making for Madam (Helen Kennedy North), bundled up inside the hideous sweater. The junior girls find the bundle and hide it in an old cave so that Jen won’t have to see the sweater. Jen is very upset over the loss of the pipe. That evening, there is a tap on her bedroom window—it is Archie, returning the pipe. His bad older brother, hearing that it had value, had stolen it from the cave. Jen assures him that she will give the pipe to the Director (Cecil Sharp) and give the family the value of the pipe—five pounds. Mr. Robins will make sure that it does not go to Charlie!
(Left: Jen, still frail after the accident, lies in bed, while Joan Shirley goes to see Archie tapping at the window.)
Rocklands School stays on at Thorburn Hall for the beginning of the winter term as their school building has to be renovated. Late one afternoon, Teesa, Betty and Rhoda, tramp from Tin Town back to Thorburn. It is snowing and they get a bit lost, ending up at another big house, Lowmoor, owned by sad, old Mr. and Mrs. Carr. They are sad because their only son, who was terminally ill, his young wife, and their one-and-a-half year old baby have been lost at sea somewhere off the coast of Europe. The door opens and there is Jen—Mrs. Robins had requested her to make sure that all was ready for the couple’s return. She and Frost—the first mention of one of our two favorite chauffeurs! Frost, who found it hard at first to give up the horses, has now found that he likes driving the car—start to drive the girls back to Thorburn, when they encounter Rena and Lisabel, who have found a poor old man half-frozen in a ditch. They commandeer the car to take him to the hospital and the girls recover the man’s possessions, which include a mysterious, three-hole wooden pipe and a wallet with the words “Carr, Lowmoor, Sheffield, England” written on it. They conclude that he has information about the Carrs’ son. Jen is convinced that the pipe will hold a clue as to where the man came from.
The man is feverish and unintelligible and might die without revealing his secret. Jen invites the Pixie (Daisy Daking) to come look at the pipe and she immediately identifies it as Basque. The old man recovers from his illness to relate that one day when out fishing he and his son came across a raft with the body of Mr. Carr, as well as the living Mrs. Carr and her baby on it. They cared for the lady, who gave birth to a daughter a few weeks later. He then set out for England (as opposed to writing or telephoning.) The girls think that it was because he did not want to have to share any reward. They are alive to the relative absurdity of setting off on such an expedition when a wire would have done the trick, but they acknowledge that villagers are peculiar that way. It is easy to comment that EJO was a bit of a snob, and I have done so in the past and am likely to do so again, but on the other hand, she was also a careful observer. Perhaps uneducated or even illiterate village folk at that time did do or think things that better-educated people wouldn’t have. Wait! What am I saying? There is ample evidence right now that some uneducated and illiterate people today also say and do bizarre and thoughtless things—a nice glass of bleach, anyone? It’ll make that virus that is no worse than a cold just faaaade away.
(Right: Jen, with her blonde curls, pours out tea for what looks to be a junior girl, perhaps Tickles.)
The Pixie critiques the Rocklands girls’ dancing. Rhoda says that there is to be a competition—should they try for it? She encourages them to have a go. The school will field a junior and a senior team. Jen’s villages will also have two teams. Now we come to a more standard school-story predicament. The former head girl Teesa is a stiff and affected dancer who has not really been working at dancing. She really wants to compete, but everyone thinks that she is not good enough. Only eight girls can be on the team, with two more as reserves. Shy Betty, who is a good and dependable dancer and Teesa’s good friend, suggests to Rhoda and the headmistress that she also be put on the reserves—it might make Teesa feel better. The headmistress points out that sometimes feeling bad can be a good thing for a girl.
Confident that she will be chosen, Teesa snobbishly says that the Rocklands girls ought to beat the Tin Town and village dancers easily as they can’t expect to dance as well as Rocklands will. Rhoda disagrees: “‘I don’t see that at all. Of course, by ‘girls like us’ you mean educated and musical, and all that. But I’ve seen East End club children dance in London, and they were topping; well, I mean, simply beautiful; perfect dancers! I don’t think here’s much in that idea, Teesa.’ (220)”
Teesa has begged for special dancing shoes claiming that they will make her dance better—they don’t. On the day that the team is to be picked, Teesa discovers that her shoes are missing and dances worse than ever. She is very unhappy at being made only a reserve.
The competition is thrilling. (More below.) While watching the Rocklands senior girls perform, Teesa suddenly tells Betty that they are very good, and that she is glad that she wasn’t chosen, as she would have spoiled it. She also learns about Betty’s sacrifice for her. Teesa has learned to put the Good of the School ahead of her own interests. When the senior girls are to present their own choice dance, Boatman (for three couples), two of the dancers are missing. Reserves Teesa and Betty are hauled in and perform brilliantly as first couple.
Upon the girls’ late-night return to school, they have a late supper and the headmistress has them dance Sellenger’s Round before heading off to bed.
For Folk Dancers
This is one of the more “dance-y” of the series, addressing again that the original Hamlet Club girls had learned the dances (and taught them to each other) wrongly and from books rather than good teachers. There are three big set pieces regarding dance: the Yorkshire boys dancing morris, the Tin Town/Village performance, and the dance competition. There is a lot of discussion about the fine points of dancing some of the dances: I’ll choose a couple to focus on. Oxenham’s comments and criticisms are spot-on.
Girls from the Rocklands School are tramping about the moor in Yorkshire with their teacher when it begins to rain and they seek shelter in an old shed. They see two boys approaching and the girls hide. One boy urges the other to practice: “‘Coom on, man! Ah’ll bash ye, an’ ye can bash me. Gie’s the tune, now!’” They produce handkerchiefs and bunch them up (this is the style used by the Headington Quarry side) and refer to them as a “boonch o’ floo’ers.” They then start morris dancing. Bill tells Tom that his stepping is out of time: “‘Tis fower on each fut; tha’s doin’ but three.’” Tom is having trouble coordinating his footwork with both hands circling over his head. The girls burst out laughing and reveal themselves, and Tom tells them that it is Miss Jen who has taught them, and girls as well. The boys tell them that Miss Jen also teaches country dances and, when she does, she refers to “men” and “women,” not “ladies,” and Miss Deane recognizes that Jen knows a bit about dancing. The boys leave and the girls are wild to learn folk dancing.
The performance of the children from Tin Town and the village is a great success socially as well as dance-wise. Jen tells the girls that “‘This dancing is doing a big thing!’” She relates that the Town inhabitants and those of the village were not getting along. But the dancing has brought the groups together: “‘Little village kids dancing with little Tin Town! Bit village fellows in a morris side with Tin Town chaps! Big girls from Tin Town partners with big boys from the village! And all the parents of both sets looking on, all as happy as they can be.’” (35) This message—that folk dancing can bring people together in a happy shared interest—is one that EJO will make again and again.
As there were not enough from each group to put on a separate show, Jen has made them mingle. They dance Sweet Kate, If All the World Were Paper, Rufty Tufty, Hey, Boys Up Go We, Gathering Peascods, The Old Mole, Galopede, Mage on a Cree and some others, and the morris dances Rigs O’Marlow, Shepherd’s Hey with sticks, Blue-Eyed Stranger, Trunkles. and some other morris dances. They wear simple frocks and flannels—even though they had wanted to dress up, Jen didn’t let them—this is a key tenet of the Sharp faith: no costumes! Jen dances the solo jig Jockie to the Fair.
It was Betty’s first experience of a real morris dance. While she watched with fascinating movements, the “foot-up,” with straight falling and raising arms, the “side-step,” with exultant circles overhead, the high springing “capers,” which called forth the enthusiasm of the audience, she was conscious that what Jen had said was true. Here was no thought of “showing off”; Jen was not thinking of herself at all. She loved the dance; the children had asked for it; she was only anxious to know how they would like it, only trying to please them and add to the enjoyment of the afternoon (38).
The Rocklands girls ask a new girl, Rhoda, what she thought of the dancing and she says that it was energetic and fun and that the girl who taught them everything was “‘simply splendid. She’s a brick, and tremendously clever, and she must have worked really hard.’” (60) Rhoda is happy that the children were dressed sensibly and not in “Kate Greenaway frocks, or little muslin caps and aprons and fichus, or be all rigged up as stage peasants, boys and all. You see that kind of thing so often, and it just ruins the feeling of the whole thing. It simply isn’t done, by those who know (61).’” She then observes that much of the dancing was wrong. “‘They’d missed all the most beautiful points! I simply shuddered in ‘Newcastle,’ when they all turned their backs on one another in the lines! I know somebody who says, ‘Unfold the lines!’ Those lines didn’t unfold; they simply happened. . . . And in ‘Hey, Boys” and ‘Paper,” the men all stood still after crossing, and the women waited on the spot, and didn’t balance! It ruined the whole figure and the whole dance! Instead of the beautiful unbroken movement, the corners stood still, like posts. It was simply spoiled!’ (62-3)” Rhoda notes that there were wrong steps and wrong hands given and that Jen’s morris step is not very good. She then demonstrates the side-step: “‘Knees close together, almost touching. Her knees get wide apart, and her one foot is miles behind the other.’ (64).” Rhoda then says that she’s learned dancing from real folk dancers and from the Guardian of her Camp Fire.
Rhoda mentions the names (but EJO doesn’t) of her Guardian’s teachers and Miss Deane is impressed: “‘If you’ve seen those people dance and teach, I’ve no more to say! You’ve seen the best folk-dancers in England . . . their names are known to every one who is keen on the dances (67).’”
Rhoda says that Jen can’t have seen them, or she wouldn’t have had her children stand still in some of the movements. “Even in ‘Peascods,’ they clapped and fell back and stood still. We were never allowed even to pause before running in for the second clap. She simply hasn’t understood; she’d love it, as everybody does, if she knew.’ (68)”
Jen asks Rhoda for more feedback and then says that she had never been taught any of the details—she notes that all her fellow Hamlet Club friends will be mad with themselves for doing it wrong—“‘they take new dances out of the books.’ (72)” Rhoda says how can they do this?—they’ll “‘miss the points that make the dances beautiful. You were doing them rightly, by the book! For ‘Hey, Boys,’ I suppose the book just says ‘Men cross, women cross, hands four once round.’ It doesn’t tell you how to do it so that everybody keeps dancing every minute. But if one stops, it ruins the feeling, and the movement, and the rhythm, as well as the look of it’ (72.” This is exactly how May Gadd and Genevieve Shimer taught these dances, with a constant movement that would indeed be hard to deduce from reading a book. Jen says that there are some shocks ahead for the President of the Hamlet Club when they all attend the folk-dancing school!
When the Pixie sees the pipe, she tells the searchers to look at villages on the coast closest to the Pyrenees, where the old man came from. She says that she has heard that these men dance with their pipes and even clash them together as the English morris men do. She adds: “‘You know all our English pipes are always tuned to one note—D. The Basque pipe is D, too. Isn’t that queer? Away in the Pyrenees, and here in England from the Middle Ages, the pipes are tuned to the same note. Oh, I can’t tell you why. There must be something mystic and folky about it; something to do with that particular sound-wave!’ (201)” A statement like this reminds us that there was a very heavy “mystic folky-ness” aspect to the folk revival—and even outside the revival. A topic for a future post, perhaps.
The Pixie leads a dance for the Rocklands girls, but finds many of them stiff and affected. While she is not as personally critical as Madam, here is her harangue:
“Yes, but look here! You aren’t enjoying yourselves a bit! What’s the good of dancing, unless you enjoy it! What do you do it for, unless it’s because you want to? I’ll tell you what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking you’ll dance very beautifully, to please the lady from London [meaning herself]. You were now, weren’t you? Yes, I knew you were. And your dancing showed it. You aren’t letting yourselves go a scrap. Now let’s start again, and put some life into it Enjoy it! Forget all about your feet; you’re thinking of them all the tie! You should never think about your feet al all; not in country-dancing! They’re only to hold you up; and they’ll do it all right; you needn’t be frightened! Dance on your feet, not with them! Now, have another shot at it, and let yourselves go, We’re dancing because we’re so glad all’s well at Lowmoor, aren’t we? I am! Very well, then! Dance as if you were glad, not as if you were trying to look pretty! You’ll do that without trying. You can’t help it, because you’re all so young and well and happy, and you’ve got such pretty frocks on. Yes, that’s better!” (206)
Knowing that she now surpasses Rhoda in dance skills, Jen offers to cast an eye on the Rocklands girls’ dancing—it would not be the folk feeling if she didn’t share her knowledge. Rhoda observes that Jen has a grown-up way of looking at things; she sees all around and through things and feels that her team would have won unfairly if she hadn’t shared what she knows. This is the first acknowledgement that Jen has developed into a mature character who will be able to offer good advice and sound judgment when needed.
The final set piece of A12_Jen of the Abbey School is the competition, which is divided into the junior and senior divisions, although the ages of each are not specified: junior might be from 9 or 10 to 13, while senior might be from 14 to18 or 20. There are two compulsory dances in each division and then each team can pick its own dance to show. The junior compulsories are The Ribbon Dance (a “village” dance with ribbons interweaving) and Goddesses (a four-couple set dance from 1651 with a lot of skipping and intricate patterns). The senior compulsories are Newcastle (intricate four-couple dance) and Hey Boys, Up Go We (two couples).
An important point for readers today as well as the reader of yesteryear is that the examiner is giving scores or marks based on a Sharp-derived standard: that is, not just awarding first, second, or third place of those presenting at this event, but marks that could be compared to any competition or team in the country. This means that the rules for any given dance as interpreted by The Prophet are clear: giving a right hand instead of a left or slipping rather than skipping will cost you points. On the positive side, the system of assigning marks also means you can have more than one “winner.” Sporting Jen and Rhoda are pleased with this approach—it means that they will really know how they stack up to the standard enforced throughout the country. Elsie J. Oxenham herself was a judge at competitions such as these, and her comments must be taken seriously.
Some of the teams appear in costume—this is much discussed and derided, which is amusing in light of the costumes showcased in A01_ Girls of the Hamlet Club (1914), published before EJO came under Cecil Sharp’s spell. Girl Guides appear in their uniforms, some teams have the “men” in frocks of one color and the “women” in another, and there is an unfortunate group of shepherds in smocks and shepherdesses with big hats decked with roses that predictably are their downfall when they have to swing down the set under the ribbons. The Rocklands juniors are all in white; Jen’s junior team—the only one with boys—has the boys in white flannels and the girls in different colored frocks with ribbons to match. Here we note that white flannels were the middle- and upper-class attire for summer sports for men, and her dancers are village or Tin Town boys, for whom white clothes (a nuisance to keep clean) might be an anomaly. There is also a team of blind girls in blue uniforms who dance beautifully but who feel for their partners or opposites in a peculiar way. Rhoda and Jen criticize some of the dancing for us: one team uses the wrong hands to put their partners in or out of the circle in Jenny Pluck Pears while another dances heavily and another forms its rings badly. Marks time! 85 and up is first class, 80 to 84 is second class, anything below 70 you can forget about. Jen’s junior team and the Rocklands juniors both place 86—the highest score awarded in their category. The blind team scores 80 and the examiner assures them that she has not taken their disability into account.
Competition is tougher for the seniors. Jen’s senior team’s own choice is Picking Up Sticks, which has as the chorus of the third figure the unusual sheepskin hey—unfortunately her girls mess it up. The Rocklands senior team perform the compulsories pretty well, although the examiner comments that they have no “concept” of the dance. Rhoda exclaims that she has no concept of any dance! The examiner says that Jen’s team does have a concept—props to Jen! But our girls are floored by the Stonecliffe Country Dance team; they dance Newcastle exquisitely and when they perform their own choice—Nonesuch for four couples—Jen and Rhoda are deeply moved by its beauty. They also have an excellent accompanist, whom the examiner praises. Marks! Jen’s team: 85, another first! Rhoda’s team: 83, a respectable second. The brilliant team? 90. What would you have to do to score 100?