Published in 1925, A15_The Abbey Girls in Town begins in December 1921, Abbey Time, and concludes in May of 1922. It is the third novel in the Mary-Dorothy and Biddy Devine story arc and one that mostly resolves Mary’s “problem”—that of both unhealthy dreaminess and an over-idealization of Joy Shirley. After this installment, Biddy largely disappears, though she will get her own novel in A21_Biddy’s Secret. There are two major dance episodes in it: one at the Chelsea Polytechnic Christmas dance school, where we meet again with Cecil Sharp (“the Prophet”) and his teachers, and one of a children’s dance performance.
In 1925, Elsie J. Oxenham was forty-four and was well-established as one of the leading writers of books for girls, having published 30 books by the end of 1924. In 1925 she would publish three more. She was well-versed in folk dancing, the Girl Guide movement, and the Campfire movement. She had developed an interest in folk-art, especially pottery. She would explore all these interests, and especially her love of color and beauty, in the books to come.
She was by now interested in writing about girls who had “problems,” and had developed a useful structure for her series books; a book will open with one girl, to whom the back-story of the series heroines has to be explained, providing key information to the reader especially if you are reading out of order. That initial girl may be the center of that particular book, or she may remain on the periphery, peeking in on the events and occasionally helping the action along.
In this episode, that initial girl, Ruth Devine, is one of EJO’s “watchful” girls; she is there at the beginning to be the useful outsider that the Abbey girls’ back story is explained to, but she also plays a major role as a counselor, especially to Mary, who is hyper-imaginative and who hero-worships Joy too much—another of EJO’s themes, which is not to adulate unworthy objects excessively. She will have another, and equally useful, appearance in a later episode.
(Above: Biddy with brown hair and in a red coat meeting Ruth at the train station.)
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
It is nearly Christmas, and Ruth Devine, from South Africa, is returning Home to England for the first time–and here we are reminded that EJO mentally still inhabits a pre-war colonial British Empire. She is to stay in London with her cousins, sixteen-year-old Biddy and thirty-one-year-old Mary Devine. She wonders in particular about Mary, who had for years written dull, “duty” letters to the aunts in South Africa, until the last letter, which breathed life and a new interest in folk-dancing. She is met at the boat train by Biddy and—surprise!—Frost, the chauffeur from Abinger Hall. He has brought Jen Robins up to London to meet with Mary for something very special, and Jen has asked him to assist Biddy in meeting with her cousin.
Biddy takes Ruth to their modest flat and shows her the beautiful blue pottery that Jen has given her; she gave Mary brown and gold pottery as well. This is one of EJO’s themes: the importance of being surrounded to the extent possible by beautiful things. Biddy explains that Jen has come up to see what progress the children in Mary’s country dance class have made. Biddy reveals that Mary is now a writer; she has sold several stories that bring in money and is at work on a book.
(Left: another scene of Biddy (brown hair, yellow coat) meeting Ruth, who is again blonde. Perhaps the first chapter, which is when this scene occurs, is as far as most artists read.)
Mary comes in—the class went well—and the girls tell Ruth that they are very excited to be attending the Chelsea folk dance school in a few days. Ruth attends the school as a spectator. Joy Shirley, Mary, Biddy, Jen, and Joy’s adopted “daughters” Maidlin and Rosamund attend—but not Joan Shirley Raymond, who Is Not Dancing Much Right Now. The girls’ favorite teacher, Madam (Helen Kennedy North), is also not in attendance as she is Arranging Her Own Affairs at present. (I’m sure that you don’t need to be reminded that at this time you didn’t celebrate your baby “bump,” but instead curtailed your presence in public.) The younger girls concoct a plan in which Biddy will spend the night with Rosamund and Maidlin in the dorms, just to see what it is like.
Jen tells the girls that she is leaving London to go back to Miss Macey’s School to have a last term or two taking cookery and home economics classes. Mary is devastated at not being able to see her often. Ruth watches her closely. She, the Writing Person, and the Pixie all determine to watch that, without Jen, Mary doesn’t slip back into her world of dreams again, but Mary says that she thinks she won’t; her book will save her.
The School over, Joy invites Ruth down to the Hall, where Ruth observes her interactions with Lady Marchwood of the Manor next door and her son Sir Anthony, the famous explorer. Ruth (who is rather “nebby” as we say in our Pittsburgh dialect) sees that Sir Anthony admires Joy very much, but that Joy doesn’t seem to know her own feelings. Ruth is dying to find out!
(Below: Biddy (yellow dress) and Maidlin by the dormitory fire. The spine of this dust-jacket adds Rosamund to the left of Biddy. All girls are shown with short hair though Rosamund and Maidlin actually have very long hair.)
At Lady Marchwood’s request, Joy asks Mary to prepare the children to put on a performance for Lady Marchwood’s friends. Mary and Biddy slave away at getting the kiddies ready; all three girls help to sew pinafores as costumes; Mary and Biddy give up their own dance classes to get things ready. On the big day, Lady Marchwood and her guests, Sir Anthony, and Joy all sit on the platform (presumably the children’s parents have seats around the walls), and Joy hogs the show. All attention is on her. Appalled, Ruth observes that Joy fails to introduce Mary to the great lady and dances far too many morris jigs in order to show off in front of Sir Anthony. She finds that all the guests are certain that Joy is responsible for the wonderful show. Joy cuts the children’s rest break short, asks for several dances over again, even though the kids are tiring and, at the end, fails to thank Mary. Biddy says very loudly that Mary did all the work and deserves thanks.
Joy is furious at Biddy’s words and tells Mary to keep her locked up at home until she can behave; Mary is devastated both by Joy’s anger and at her oversight of Mary herself; Sir Anthony comes to apologize on Joy’s behalf, thanks Mary, and tells Biddy that she was brave to speak up. At home, Mary falls apart—the girl she had worshiped has feet of clay. Ruth offers a lot of good advice about not taking it so much to heart. Mary writes to Joy and receives (within a few hours—excellent postal service!) a cold and snippy response. She is devastated again.
Next week, at a dance party, the girls meet again—and Joy acts just as usual; she has no idea what she did! Ruth again offers Mary good advice although this reader really wants to sit Joy down and make her see reason! In fact, Jen is the only character who can do this.
Joan has a baby! Janet, or Janetta, later to be called “Jansy.” In this book, Jen is Janetta’s godmother, but Janice Macdonald Fraser will quietly become her godmother after the publication in 1938 of the retrospective story A04_Schooldays at the Abbey (Remember? We already looked at this book because we are examining them in reading order which is not the same as publication order) in which Jandy Mac and Joan make a pinky-swear to name their first girls after each other. Madam has a baby! Out in Ceylon the Hamlet Club President Cicely Hobart Everett has a baby! This is just the beginning of what will turn into baby fever.
Taking Ruth’s advice, Mary slowly recovers from the shock of finding out Joy’s imperfections. The girls are all invited to the Hall (Ruth and Mary stay in the Abbey) to see Jen crowned as May Queen: the Brown Queen or Beech Queen, with a train of rich brown covered with gold-colored little dancing leaves and flowers. The girls are all aware that Joy is under a strain; she has found out from Lady Marchwood that Sir Anthony is preparing to leave the country—and without seeing Joy or proposing to her. She now realizes that she loves him and may have lost her chance to win him, although she apparently has no knowledge of how she might have done this.
Jen conveys this news to Ruth and Mary, and the latter realizes that she can help. She and Ruth go to the Manor to talk to Sir Anthony, and Mary shares her feelings about finding out that Joy, whom she and he had put on a pedestal, is a real girl with real failings, but still deserving of love and support. She urges him to try again. He does, successfully, and he and Joy come to the Abbey to thank Mary. Joy apologizes for her unthinking fault at the performance and thanks her for the gift of Sir Anthony. Mary sells a book to a publisher for 50 pounds. While she will continue to be diffident and unsure of herself, she has reached a new level of maturity.
For Folk Dancers
This book is dedicated “To Margaret Bayne Todd Campfire Girl and folk-dancer with love and happy thoughts of vacation school days.” Margaret (1906-2004), who later became Lady Simey, though she did not use the title, was a political and social campaigner in Liverpool. She appears in the book as the sixteen-year-old Campfire girl who accompanies her Camp Fire Guardian the Writing Person (EJO’s avatar) at the Christmas vacation school. Margaret’s Camp Fire name was “Thistle,” and she was apparently known to be a “prickly customer.”
The school is held at the Chelsea Polytechnic (seen above; now called the College of Arts) and is attended by—according to Oxenham—600 students, mostly women. Ruth watches Mary and Biddy in the level II morris class and is amazed at the energy it takes. She finds it amazing that Mary, whom she had previously though stodgy, is doing it. They then go on for the morning meeting.
Some one began to clap, and the hall rang with the welcome of six hundred folk-dancers to their chief. The white-haired Director appeared on the platform and smilingly acknowledge the greeting. He struck a chord on the piano, and silence fell; he announced, “Number One,” and began to play a rippling accompaniment. . . . The new experience had [Mary] in its grip; she was in a happy dream. For months the tunes of those songs brought back with a rush the whole feeing of that first morning; the tense atmosphere of excitement, enjoyment, expectation, enthusiasm, realization by the whole crowd of a moment looked forward to for weeks.
The half-hour’s singing was all too short. The Director gave out a few notices, and particularly cautioned newcomers against too hard work in the first few days—“I say this at every School, but nobody ever listens to me!”
“Old dear!” Joy murmured. “He does try to take care of us! Who minds being a little stiff to-morrow?”
“You don’t want not to be able to go downstairs at all, though,” Jen said cautiously. “You know nearly everybody, don’t you, Mary-Dorothy? All the Staff people? He’s our Prophet”—she leaned across to Ruth. “We all love him! Cicely calls him the Prophet; and there’s his Joshua—his assistant, you know! [Douglas Kennedy, future Director of the English Folk Dance & Song Society] We’re to have Mrs. Joshua [Helen Karpeles Kennedy] for country-dancing; I don’t know what she’ll be like. I’ve never had her before.”
(Left: Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) in 1900. In 1921 he was 62.)
There is a demonstration of morris dancing, with the men dancing Adderbury Constant Billy. Ruth says that she could watch this for ever as it is so thrilling.
“It’s so full of life and strength and meaning” Mary said soberly. “We saw a lot of it last summer, at the week’s festival. It’s very English; you wouldn’t expect us to have evolved a dreamy or a stately dance, as France or Spain might do.”
“I never thought of that. Yes, it is English!” Ruth conceded. “But it is for men, Mary! Why do you people try to do it?”
“Because we can’t help it,” Mary said feebly.
“Because it’s such topping fun to do!” Jen told Ruth promptly. “Do you suppose it would have been kept up all these centuries if it hadn’t been? I simply love doing morris; we all do!”
Ruth enjoys the country dance demonstrations: Newcastle, Parson’s Farewell, Boatman, and Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot. Then the Director “rose from the piano and made a sweeping gesture with his hands; and in a moment the big hall was in wild confusion again, —girls running to the doors, climbing over chairs, jumping down from window-sills, rushing after friends, seizing others by the arms with excited greetings. . . .” Doesn’t it sound like fun? Don’t we wish we could all be there now?
Ruth then follows Mary to a country dance class that was reviewing dances for the Elementary Certificate, and are thus supposed to know the dances. However, Newcastle and Picking Up Sticks both have to be re-taught, and The Old Mole and Hey, Boys, Up Go We came in for criticism. The teacher—and here EJO might be referring to May Gadd (left), the future Director of the Country Dance & Song Society, who is depicted in other books as the Little Robin—“was small, and very neat in her blue tunic, with dark hair and rosy cheeks which soon grew redder with the excitement of keeping the class up to the mark. Ruth watched her quick, bird-like movements with amused appreciation, but soon also formed a warm respect for her as a teacher, for she was very thorough and her knowledge of her work was absolute. Several of the students had continual questions to ask, about turns and hands and arms; no matter how suddenly they asked, or how abrupt the change from dance to dance, the answer came instantly, unhesitating, unerring; never once was there a moment’s pause or doubt. . .”
—Here I am reminded of dancing The Phoenix at Pinewoods Camp in a set with May Gadd who was then in her late eighties and still A TIGER. I was a little afraid of her. The Phoenix is a challenging, six-part dance for four couples, and it took us a week to learn it. Here’s a nice rendition by the group Chestnut. Gadd galloped around like nobody’s business. She was retired as Director of CDSS, but age had not impaired her dancing.—
Ruth observes that while Mary remembers the dances well and was seldom at fault, she is not as good a dancer as most of the others. “[H]er movements were not as easy or graceful, though she was light enough on her feet; but she was, as she had said herself, stiff and sometimes awkward, trying to obey directions and to copy what she saw in others, without fully understanding how to do it.” This is presumably Oxenham’s assessment of her own dancing. This level of dance skill is also attributed to the Writing Person.
On the last evening there is a big country-dance party, “the biggest ever held in London,” held in the great hall of the Imperial Institute (above; the building was demolished in the 1950s and 60s to make way for Imperial College).
. . . it was a wonderful sight, with its medley of brilliant colours, its constant change and movement. Ruth sat on the platform, until in her excitement she found herself standing on her chair, and watched seven hundred dancers make lines for “Haste to the Wedding” and “Childgrove,” rings for “Mage [on a Cree]” and Gathering Peascods,” and squares for “Hey, Boys” and “Oranges and Lemons”; for a moment, as the music struck up ‘Newcastle,” the crowded room seemed to clear, as the rings bunched in their centers, and floor-space appeared between the sets; then the circles opened out again and the floor was seen no more. “Sellenger’s Round,” in three huge rings, each four or five circles deep, was a thrilling sight. Then with a sigh of regret that it was all over, the hundreds went wearily home to bed. . . .
700? Really? Well, it is an oddly specific number: not “nearly” seven hundred or “more than” six hundred. I looked in vain for an early-twentieth century interior shot of the great hall of the Imperial Institute. But Elsie is very reliable in other descriptions—people still make pilgrimages to locations that she described and find the very same features that she mentioned. I am inclined to believe her.
I am not going to detail the children’s dance performance—it is similar to others described. But the fact that it is Lady Marchwood who has asked for it to entertain her friends, shows the interest that many middle- and upper-class people of the time had in English folk-dancing—that is, not just folk or traditional dance in general but in the Englishness of it. This reverence for the romanticized version of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural heritage was seen in America as well, as, for example, in the interest in May Day celebrations that I explored in my book May Day Festivals in America; 1830 to the Present.