Published in 1923 and set, Abbey Time, in March through April of 1921, A13_The New Abbey Girls introduces two younger key characters: Rosamund Kane and Madalena (Maidlin) di Ravarati. These girls will support important plot arcs now that Joan Shirley has moved off-stage after her marriage. The New Abbey Girls is a strong episode and one that shows the often-difficult Joy Shirley at her best. In a very mild style, apparent only upon re-reading and thus knowledge of the future, it also starts off her romance. This installment again showcases Cecil Sharp’s folk-dance teachers, particularly “Madam/Duchess” (Helen Kennedy North) and the Pixie (Daisy Caroline Daking). There are many treats for folk-dancers below!
Two weeks ago I fulminated over the ghastly abridgments that Oxenham’s principal publisher, Collins, did to the Children’s Press imprints of her works. I will highlight here some of the folk-dance bits that CP left out. The first is her dedication, for Elsie J. Oxenham always dedicated in her books, often to her parents. That of the original version of A13_The New Abbey Girls, reads “To Cecil J. Sharp and his folk-dancers who have brought so much colour into our everyday life.” As one might expect, the dedication is missing from the 1969 CP edition! Here I will add that color—actual color—was very important to EJO: she continually stresses the importance of living surrounded by beautiful things and color. Warm browns and golds were clearly her favorite colors, as she gives them to several of her writing avatars. Colors can represent girls in different ways—for example, the rather bouncy Rosamund unexpectedly chooses a soft lavender color for her bedroom, showing, as Jen sapiently observes, the softer side of her personality that she keeps private. For EJO, folk dance was a visible expression of color and beauty.
I am happy to say that this post is rich in images as well as links to great dance videos, so be sure to scroll down and enjoy these!
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
It is the day after Joan Shirley’s wedding to Jack Raymond. Unceremoniously wearing her very short gym tunic, twenty-one-year-old Joy Shirley is reading her mail, seated in the cloister of the Abbey. Low-class caretaker Ann Watson has staying with her young niece, Maidlin, a black-haired, temperamental, fourteen-year-old girl. Ann doesn’t know what to do about the girl, whose Italian father has written that he is now in China and that Maidlin is suddenly likely to be heiress to vast estates in Italy. Maidlin (real name Madalena) is the daughter of a north country girl who had been a housemaid. Both families objected to her marriage to the Italian gentleman, and the latter’s wealthy father cast him off. Mary died shortly after her daughter’s birth, and the girl has been brought up on the family farm in Cumberland.
Eighteen-year-old Jen Robins comes to talk to Joy and finds that Miss Macey has asked Joy to take in as a boarder fifteen-year-old Rosamund Kane, whose nearest relations are “up north” and who needs fresh country air and the daily cycle to school, rather than boarding at school in town.
Madam, the folk-dance teacher, drops in for a visit and, to escape from a group of tourists that Ann is leading around, the trio go into the crypt where their torch (flashlight) goes out and they are trapped in the dark. To keep warm Joy dances morris jigs to Madam’s singing. They are finally rescued by Ann and A Man—who turns out to be the famous explorer Sir Andrew Marchwood, the next-door neighbor to Abinger Hall owned by Joy. (If you were reading these books in publication order, this would be the first mention of such a neighbor; however, in reading order we have already engaged with Marchwood Manor and Sir Andrew’s elder half-brother, now deceased.) Joy is vexed at being seen in her gym tunic: something a proper young lady doesn’t wear. (Above, Jen in the red jacket, Joy in her gymmie, and Madam in the hat, are carefully crossing a bridge over a great hole in the underground part of the Abbey.)
Ann asks Joy to take Maidlin in and educate her properly. Unfortunately, Maidlin is aware that her aunt is going to ask Joy the great favor of bringing the girl up, and she is very angry. Joy goes to town to consult the Pixie, who is presented throughout the episodes as a wise advisor with a great deal of psychological insight. (The real Daisy Daking published two books on psychology.) Joy feels that, after nearly killing Jen in the motorbike accident, she must live less selfishly and do good things—not just give away her money, which is easy to do. She has begun to give working girls country vacations—she had seen young school teachers at the folk-dance school in Cheltenham “‘…working too hard; dancing all through their holidays because they could get a better position if they had their certificates.’ (36)” The emphasis on “getting certificated” was an important part of Cecil Sharp’s philosophy: he wanted the dances and songs to be standardized so that they could be taught the same way all around the country. This put him in opposition to Mary Neal, founder of the Esperance Society for girls, who had been the first to teach morris and song to young women, and who felt that these things were always evolving and changing.
The Pixie feels that Joy is beginning to look more like Joan, meaning that the somewhat spoiled, formerly thoughtless Joy is beginning to grow up. She urges Joy to give more of herself. Joy and Jen go to find Jacky-boy Wilmot and they all go to a dance class. Upon their return to the Hall, Joy tells Ann and Maidlin that she’d like Maidlin to live with her. She also agrees to take in Rosamund. It is a shame that many of the Children’s Press abridgments remove Joy’s exploration of how to use her wealth wisely, and of how this exploration gives her maturity.
Maidlin is shy, dreamy, temperamental, and musical (it’s that Italian side) and Rosamund is tall, blonde, and jolly. The two younger girls both adore Joy, who, unfortunately, treats them differently: she is motherly to Maidlin and only just kind to Rosamund, thereby setting up a plot line that will last for several books. Maidlin is frightfully jealous of Rosamund, who fits in at the Hall very easily, whereas Maidlin does not understand Joy and Jen’s jolly joshing. She is sullen and withdrawn.
(I can’t explain the image to the left. The girls do not hike anywhere in this installment! Normally, the short black bob signifies Jacky-boy, yellow curls, Jen, and copper hair Joy.)
Joy takes Jen and Maidlin to town to see the latter’s lawyer, buy clothes, and go folk dancing. They visit the Pixie in the slums of the East End and Joy feels increasingly that she needs to do more for those who are not as fortunate as she is. Maidlin is troubled: she doesn’t understand the girls’ silly joking that her dour north country aunt and uncle never indulged in, and she is beset by temper inherited from her Italian father. Joy and Maidlin have a pillow fight with Jen and Jacky-boy and then they eat buns, and this foolery breaks the ice. They go to a dance and Maidlin talks to the Writing Person. The Writing Person tells Jen and Joy some of the stories of the young women at the dance; one is a young widow—her husband, an air pilot, was killed—this is one of the rare intrusions of World War I into the Abbey Girls’ story. She says that most of the dancers have “girls” in the background: “‘Sometimes it’s the children in their day-school classes; most of they are teachers, of course. But very often it’s big girls, Guides, or a club, or Guildry, girls to whom they’re teaching folk-dancing in the evenings, mostly just for the love of it.” (95)” She herself leads a Camp Fire and has been a Guardian for six years: the Writing Person is clearly EJO herself, in one of her several manifestations in her own books. The Writing Person is described as mousy, slight, and heavily-spectacled, and this is in fact Oxenham’s appearance. She is said to be not a terribly good dancer, but she is tremendously keen, and can usually get to the right place at the right time.
Maidlin watches the dancing –and also the camaraderie of the dancers—in amazement. Her north country aunt had brought her up to think that dancing was wicked, but these people don’t appear to be engaging in anything wicked! The girls go to Madam’s and her husband’s flat for tea and the room is described in great detail: it is beautiful and colorful and artistic. EJO was very sensitive both to color and to the importance of living in beauty, and the flat is described in such detail that it is clear that Elsie actually was a visitor. We learn that Madam is still teaching folk-dancing even after her marriage; in real life at the time as well as in EJO’s works married women were expected to quit their jobs and simply keep house, so this folk-dance “career” is unorthodox. Madam’s husband, who is not given a nickname, is an artist specializing in medieval art. He was, in fact, the artist Stanley Kennedy (he added that name after this marriage) North. There is more on him here by his grandson. In November of 1921, shortly after his marriage to Helen Kennedy, he produced a charming book, Mr. North’s Maggot. (A “maggot” in this context means a whim or a fancy or something that one perseverates upon, not a bug. A number of dances from the early 18th century have maggot in the title: Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot, Mr. Isaac’s Maggot, etc.) The book contains images of dances as well as poems and songs associated with them. In this cover illustration, North has his feet propped on a longsword lock and you can see the morris bells, pipe and tabor and handkerchiefs. He is looking admiringly at a sketch of Helen. In the illustrations below, note that the men only wear the baldrics for dancing morris, and that the women wear loose dancing frocks. The book is dedicated to Helen and contains a foreword by Sharp in which he says that he knows nothing about the technique of drawing, but that North has captured “the charm of the folk-dance [which] lies in its seeming spontaneity, in simplicity of the movements, the lack of acrobatic tricks, the absorption of the dancers in their pastime, heedless of effect, and the serenity of their demeanour.” Oxenham echoes Sharp’s preferences in her descriptions of dance.
Maidlin asks Joy why she brought her to town and Joy answers that she wanted the girl to begin to meet a certain kind of people—those who are “‘…big, happy, hearty people, loving music and art and beauty for their own sakes, and giving up their lives to teaching and spreading them.’ (103)” Note again EJO’s stress on the moral and social qualities that folk dancing gives.
On the ride down to the Hall, Joy says that all the older Queens have married and left and she is the only Queen around to give new dances to the Hamlet Club girls: this reflection is part of her increased desire to give of herself. Maidlin, who has been changed by seeing the warmth and generosity not only of Joy and Jen but of all the folk dancers, apologizes to Rosamund for not having been very friendly when they met. Joy offers Maidlin (but not Rosamund) a dancing frock. Maidie and Ros are now best friends, and we see that Maidlin idolizes Joy—an unrealistic relationship that will cause much heartache in the future.
The President of the Hamlet Club, Cecily Hobart Everett, returns to England from a three-month honeymoon and wants to hold a dance on a Thursday. Joy refuses–Thursdays are when she takes some of the crippled children from Plaistow out for a day in the country. This firmness of principle is another sign of her increased maturity.
The Hamlet Club come to the Abbey for tea and a dance and Queen Babs dances Haste to the Wedding with Rosamund. This is a significant dance in the EJO iconography: couples who are about to be or have just become engaged or married dance it, and often the reigning Queen dances it with the unsuspecting Queen-elect. Guests arrive, and Joy goes to support frail Mrs. Shirley in the arduous task of hostess. The guests turn out to be Lady Marchwood and her son the famous explorer Sir Andrew, both of whom are charmed with the girls’ dancing. Joy is vexed with him, however, apparently because he keeps staring admiringly at her in her apple-green dancing frock. (Generally speaking, Abbey Girls do not recognize that they have feelings for a man until he proposes.) Sir Andrew says that he has been out of England for some years, and that the sight of the dancing girls in their brightly-colored frocks, against the background of the Abbey, the flowers and the trees seems to crystallize all that he has dreamed of—i.e., England—when he has been far away (296). (Below: Parson’s Farewell, for two couples. Note the angle of the bodies–they are dancing faster than we do today.)
The Hamlet Club elects Rosamund as the next Queen: the Rose Queen. Simultaneously, Joy receives a letter by the afternoon post—it is from the lawyer. Maidlin’s father is dead: there has been an “uprising” in China and her father could have escaped by disguising himself as Chinese but he wouldn’t leave women and children behind. Only one man who hid (a Frenchman; a bit of EJO’s xenophobia creeping in) saw what the “natives” did to all the rest. Maidlin is sad, but it has been so long since she had seen her father that she is not deeply hurt. All Maidlin wants is Joy.
For Folk Dancers
This book has a heavy emphasis on the dancing both at the London classes and in the slums of London. Once again in this installment we get a picture of the style of teaching of the early days: one of intense focus on details and of endurance of a great degree of personal criticism. At a London folk dance class, the unnamed teacher leads a girl out into the middle of the floor and gives her a demonstration of the hop-back step. . . “showed how she had been doing it and just where she had been wrong, and how she could correct the fault. The girl, laughing a little because she knew all eyes were on her, pluckily tried to understand and copy the movement. . .” Joy tells Jen that she wouldn’t like to be “hauled out and put through it before the crowd like that!” and Jen responds: “You would, if you were keen enough, . . .She knows who are the keen ones, I bet! (227)”
Another feature of this novel, and one not always seen in EJO’s writing, is a great deal of sympathy for working people and their need for beauty, music, and dance in their lives. She expresses this both for middle-class typists or clerks as well as the very poor of the slums.
For example, Jen, Joy and Maidlin go down to observe the Pixie’s class of men at Plaistow, a poor part of town. The girls are shocked to see the unemployed men standing at the corner and the general air of poverty. The Y.M.C.A. that they dance in, however, is new and spacious; it had been donated in memory of the men of the area who had fallen in WWI. EJO describes the men’s dancing in typical fashion: not elucidating any of the fascinating terms and assuming that the reader has seen or danced enough to have some understanding:
The lads were only beginners. They forgot their Foot-up, and with shouts of embarrassed laughter had to begin again. They got lost completely in their hey, went too far in Cross-over, muddles the tapping and forgot to repeat it, bumped into one another in Back-to-back, and roared with laughter at each new mistake. The jingle of the bells and the clatter of the sticks could not drown the thunder of their boots, for several had forgotten their shoes. But their enjoyment was overwhelming; they fairly radiated delight and good humour. Every keen criticism from the little autocrat on the table was received with laughter; every boy who failed or forgot was admonished by the other five as smartly as by [the Pixie]. (196-7)
Of course, the Collins Children’s Press imprint leaves out all of the above detail! The men dance Rodney and the Blue-Eyed Stranger. Jen comments: “How they love it! . . . Isn’t it topping to see them? This is the real thing, Maildin; real men’s morris, even if they are just beginners! It’s got life in it; it’s tremendously real. (197)”
The girls comment to the Pixie that the boys look scarcely a day over sixteen and she corrects them sharply—they are not boys, they are men over 18 although they are undersized and “a queer pale colour, no matter how much they laughed or how jolly they looked.” The Pixie says that the girls are the same: “active and full of life, but small and stunted cheated of something” (200). Joy is deeply distressed at this information. The Pixie tells her that these young people “‘can take as much and as deep delight in a purely artistic thing like folk-dancing as any of your West Enders. . . . [The West End of London was the fashionable part of town.] It’s because it’s folk, of course; folk-dancing. It appeals to everybody; that’s folk. It’s sincere and natural, and they all respond to it, just as the Tommies [the lowest level of soldiers] did in France. My lot here simply love it. They have modern dancing [here the author means couple dancing, such as the one-step which she specifically mentions a little later], but they like our parties best; they’ve told me so. And they love it in the best way; their dancing is as artistic, and as musical, and as full of rhythm and beautiful movement, and of delight in it all, as any you’d find anywhere, even at your Vacation Schools or big town classes.’(200)”
As they leave, Jen and Joy talk about the Pixie and what she is doing for these working people: “…‘that dancing once a week must be alike a trip into a gorgeous sunny country, it seems to me. They’ll be fresher, and have new ideas, and—and be bigger in every way, because they’ve danced with the Pixie for an evening. She’s doing a big thing….’ (202)”
While in later installments EJO continues to hold to the importance of folk dance in bringing people together and giving them pleasure, she is not always as convinced as here that the lower classes can dance as well as their betters. In later novels we will encounter the idea that villagers and working people are slower to catch on and that their steps are not as light and graceful as those of the middle- or upper-class girls.
The Writing Person (EJO herself) comes in and meets Maidlin who is impressed to meet the author of a book that she just read. Joy says the Writing Person has dancing in her books, and the author responds: “‘Oh, yes! But I’ve never consciously come to classes or schools to look for material. What does happen, of course, is that when I’ve enjoyed a thing enough, it has to come out later; generally, after some months.’ (232)” The Writing Person is interested in the personal stories of the folk-dance girls—some are war widows, one is getting a B.Sc. in geology and botany. She notes that the dancers very frequently are people involved in training girls either as teachers or as leaders of clubs, Guides or Guilds. The Writing Person herself has been a Guardian of a Camp Fire for six years and has taught the girls country dance and sword but not morris as her own morris is not good enough. She describes teaching the Earsdon rapper sword dance and being unable to untie the Nut—the inter-woven lock or star. The girls are so confused that they put the Nut on the floor and stare at it until they figure it out (234-6).
The Writing Person tells Jen that she is frightfully keen on the dances. “‘When I get introduced to a new tradition, and find out all its weird points, and just where it’s peculiar, I feel as if I’d unearthed a hidden treasure, or come into a fortune.’ (110)” These are obviously Elsie Oxenham’s own reactions.
As an aside, one of the characteristics of Oxenham’s writing that I find charming is that she refers to dances or dance figures or steps without explaining them, something that to me gives them more solidity and reality than if she had actually described them. In this she is rather like J.R.R. Tolkein, who throws phrases into The Hobbit that make his imaginary world feel more real: phrases like “of course, this is the proper way to talk to dragons,” or “as everyone knows, trolls really do act like that.” This feeling that the author and the reader share a privileged knowledge of a topic increases its enchantment, even if you know you will never have to actually address a dragon, properly or improperly.
Along this line, as Jen watches the morris class–they are learning the solo jig Lumps of Plum Pudding “from Bledington,” and what or where Bledington is not revealed–she tells the Writing Person that the less said about her kick-jumps, the better. The Writing Person responds: “‘Oh, they’re brutes! But you can’t have ‘Bledington’ without them, and ‘Bledington’ as a whole is too good to live without, so the kick-jumps have to be thrown in somehow.’ (51)” Doesn’t that make you want to rush out and learn Bledington and its brutish kick-jumps so that you can be part of the in-crowd? Here Oxenham is assuming that you, the young reader, have done or at least seen a little folk dancing, so she doesn’t even explain what morris dancing is. Without saying anything so pedestrian as “there are different morris styles or traditions coming from different villages in the Cotswold region,” EJO’s avatar the Writing Person talks about being scared of doing the Longborough dances, which were formerly new to her, but which she now loves. A character gets scolded for doing Headington circles in a Bampton dance. Characters complain that they cannot coordinate their hands and feet. Circles, hop-backs, and shuffles–what are they? Kick-jumps are brutish. What does this mean? How can you kick and jump simultaneously? Oxenham makes us long to unlock these mysteries!
The class then switches to country dancing and Jen dances two that are new to her: Chelsea Reach (a round for eight with quite a complicated pattern) and Spring Garden. Watch these very nicely danced performances of Chelsea Reach and Spring Garden. Both exhibit beautiful lilt in the movement. Note that while Spring Garden is a stage performance by the French ensemble Chestnut, Chelsea Reach is danced at a ball and is “for those who know”–there is no calling.
Jack has been taking some folk-dance classes and is now ahead of her “wife” Jen in that she has done some rapper sword dancing—specifically the Earsdon dance. Rapper swords are short, flexible swords with two handles: one fixed and one that rotates. The rapper dances are typically for five dancers, although it can incorporate more—a shout-out here to the Greenwich Guard (in Connecticut in the 1980s) who brought in two more dancers as part of its finale that included a triple back-flip! It is danced to jigs (6/8 time) and has rapid tapping footwork in between the intricate figures. Periodically the dancers without letting go weave the swords into something that is variously called the Nut, the Rose, or the lock, and one dancer raises it above his head in triumph. Jack says:
“…when we started, I was simply scared stiff! I thought my head would be cut off every minute. And [Madam] kept yelling at me because I was wrong; of course I was wrong, all the time! Then she’d say, ‘Don’t look so worried, Miss Wilmot!’ Worried! I was nearly dead, panting and gasping a thousand miles behind her! I nearly threw my sword at her! Then she’d get frantic; you know her way . . . and she’d shout, ‘Clockwise, Miss Wilmot!’ As if I could think which was clockwise, without those things buzzing round my head! So I’d turn counter-clock, and we’d be all tied up in a knot, and she’d come flying down the room at me, and say, ‘It’s you, Jacky-boy! You’re wrong every time!’ And the other four wondered if I was a lunatic, and they’ve never called me anything but Jacky-boy since. (45-6)”
Above, the EFDS team demonstrating the Earsdon rapper sword dance. Here’s a link to the Royal Earsdon rapper sword dancers in 1937. There’s no sound, but you can see from the feet that they are dancing quite rapidly. And here’s a link to a modern women’s team, Rhythm in Shoes: lots of stepping variations! Notice their nicely-toned upper arms–rapper is good for developing guns! These dances are not traditionally danced with a supporting drum kit, but I like it.
At the Hamlet Club dance that concludes the book, Jen stands on a chair and teaches Spring Garden—a slow, but challenging dance for eight. Her directions are clear, but some girls “would not, or could not” take the trouble to focus, and Jen jumps off her chair to scold them:
“I said turn right, everybody! Everybody means all of you; don’t you understand English? Edna, which is your right hand? Go back to the beginning of the figure—the back-to-back square. Not the rest of you; you were all right. It’s only this set; they’re hopeless, I think No, no, Nesta! That way; right round, the longest turn!” And she took her friend by the shoulders and swung her round. “Now do you all see? Very well then! Do it once more, with the music, everybody, and do be careful, or I really shall begin to say things! (117)”
Hearing this, Joy falls on the grass laughing and tells Jen that she has Madam’s style “to a T!”
In London, when Maidlin is watching a dance evening we encounter an oddity. Jen rushes over to Avice Everett, who we’ve met in several other installments, and asks if Avvy can shove her through the next dance. Avvy says that it is “‘as easy as easy. . . . It’s only ‘corners back-to-back, skipping ring of four once and a half round, and change with your partner back to places,’ and this, cryptic as it sounded to Maidlin, seemed to reassure Jen. (243)” We later hear that the dance is the 29th of May. The figure that Avvy describes, is, however, just the second part of this three-part dance! It is very unlike EJO to be so unclear, although a correspondent has suggested that perhaps Avice thought this was the only part that Jen would need to be coached on or as far as she got before the music started. It is also at this evening at which they are dancing The Whim, a longways dance, when the dancers refuse to stop when the music does, and continue dancing until “the Prophet at the piano, with a kindly laugh of pleasure in their enjoyment, struck up the air again and gave them a little more. (246)”
The Prophet is, of course, Cecil Sharp. Oxenham was not alone in calling Sharp “The Prophet”—writer Edward Verrall Lucas, brother of Perceval Lucas who was one of the original dancers on Sharp’s morris side, four of whom, including Perceval, died in the War, also referred to him thus in his book London Lavender (1912). Lucas spent some time traveling with Sharp as he collected songs from country folk, with Lucas notating the words as Sharp captured the tunes. This designation as The Prophet is an homage to one of Sharp’s great strengths—he was clearly a mesmerizing and captivating speaker and influencer.
Overall, A13_The New Abbey Girls is a very strong installment. We see Joy in a stronger, less selfish and impulsive light; we meet Rosamund and Maidlin, who will play such important roles in the rest of the series; and we enjoy many lovingly-described and evocative dance scenes. Below: Gathering Peascods. Note particularly that everyone is moving: the men have gone in to the center to clap and in another beat they will fall back while the women go in; the latter have NOT fallen back to stand still, but are continuously moving like a wave of the sea. This is a particular style point that Sharp, Madam, and Elsie J. Oxenham insisted on.