A16_Queen of the Abbey Girls takes place in May to November of 1922 and was published by Collins in 1926. It is a strong story with a lot of dancing in it. This installment features Jen Robins—her crowning as the Brown or Beech Queen, her romance, and her presentation to the reader as one of the real spirits of the Abbey. Throughout the rest of the series Jen will retain her bright and merry spirit and she will increasingly become a wise counselor. Queen of the Abbey Girls also features some of the dark side of Joy Shirley: her selfishness and her inability to recognize other people’s emotions. This is another of the series that addresses Faith and God.
Oxenham is now well-set in her series. She is writing for the age group that she preferred: the older teenager or young woman, typically one who must resolve a problem. It is a privileged world for most of them. While one minor character Jacky Wilmot, goes on to become a doctor, none of her principal heroines goes to a college or university nor has a paying job. This partly represents EJO’s own past, as she did not attend college either, and she rarely wrote about something that she hadn’t experienced. It also reflects a Victorian view that young women who had financial resources and didn’t need to work shouldn’t work, as this would take jobs away from women who needed them more. In addition, to maintain her story she had to keep her heroines at or near Abinger Hall and the Abbey, leaving marriage and babies as the principal occupation open to them. From this installment on, most of the books will involve a romance and one or more babies.
EJO dedicated Queen of the Abbey Girls to the memory of “the best of mothers and to my father John Oxenham with heartfelt thanks for the very real help of a great example in hope and faith.”
Above: Jen batting with, presumably, Ken behind her. On the spine are two girls–both wearing the caps of the type that Mary Neal’s Esperance Society girls wore–dancing a very stylized minuet.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The story opens with Dick and Della Jessop (the outsiders of A03_The Girls of the Abbey School) and their 13-year old sister, Sheila, who have motored down near the Abbey to show Sheila, who will attend Miss Macey’s School in a few weeks, around. Sheila is eager to see the place where Della and Dick had their adventures a few years earlier. The car breaks down. While Dick works on the car, the girls go on to the Abbey by train and encounter a pleasant young man who turns out to be Kenneth Marchwood, Sir Andrew’s younger brother. He is home on a visit from his coffee plantation in Africa. Sir Andrew, two weeks earlier, had proposed to Joy Shirley and had been accepted. We can easily tell that Della is still not quite the right sort as she is very inquisitive about the Shirleys.
Della and Sheila are given a tour of the Abbey when they suddenly hear the clear sound of a pipe: it is Jen (Della’s former “adopted mother”) and she is playing Rufty Tufty for Mary-Dorothy Devine, Rosamund Kane, Maidlin di Ravarati, and Biddy Devine to dance to on the garth. Della and Sheila are enchanted. EJO, in the paragraph below, connects the Englishness of the dance to that of the Abbey, also stressing Cecil Sharp’s preference for lack of affection in the dance.
The movements of the dance, the running steps, the leading out and back in couples, were a simple and natural as the little tune, and all seemed strangely in keeping with the severe simplicity of the buildings around the garth, the strong pure lines of the Early English windows, the arches of the chapter-house, the wide, dignified refectory. Nowhere was there any ornament, any unnecessary decoration; that had been forbidden by the sever Cistercian rule under which the Abbey had been built. The music had no note that could have been spared, the dance no unnecessary movement; no fancy or decorative attitude was even hinted at (26).
Sheila is thrilled to meet the two younger girls who will attend school with her. Rosamund is the retiring Queen and Jen—despite being 20—is back at school doing a course in Domestic Science (cookery, hygiene and housewifery) plus French and music. She will soon be crowned May Queen. Jen invites the girls back to the Hall for lunch. Della suggests, semi-facetiously, that Jen marry Kenneth Marchwood—then she would be Joy’s sister. Jen is coldly furious at this suggestion—“’I’m not in the habit of looking at every man I meet as a possible husband’” (38) and Della realizes that she is no longer welcome at the Hall or the Abbey. When Jen takes the party back to the Abbey again, Jen sees a strange man who appears about to carve something on one of the stones. She rushes at him and shakes him—it is Dick, who heard them coming and wanted to tease her. Jen is furious and freezes out the two elder Jessops—then returns to the Hall as a maid has brought word that there is a visitor, and that Mrs. Shirley needs help talking to him. Poor Mrs. Shirley! She is probably still under 50, but has been frail for many books. She is really just there as a nominal chaperone until Joy is old enough to take over.
It is, of course, Kenneth Marchwood. Despite Della’s insinuation, Jen is pleased to meet him and explains that Mrs. Shirley is rather frail and unable to do much and that they all wonder what will happen when Joy marries and wants to travel with her husband. Jen’s own family are in Yorkshire, and Joan is with her husband, Jack Raymond, and her baby, Janice. The girls return to the Hall and tea is served,
Just then Joy Shirley motors up and takes Maidlin in the car to go up to the house but not Rosamund, even though there is room. Rosamund is quite hurt, and Jen notices and says that she’ll never quite share Maidlin’s place with Joy. Rosamund understands that Maidlin is Joy’s ward, but says that she’s also “desperately fond” of Joy. Jen tells her that Joy and Maidlin feel that they belong to one another, and that Maidlin has no one else. She urges Rosamund to be a sport. Jen tells her that she is doing a big thing by keeping back and letting Joy have Maidlin to herself “’and yet you don’t hate Maidie for it . . . You find it difficult to do; and that shows it’s real and worth while.’ (63)”
Joy has brought news: the husband of former May Queen Marguerite is a silk manufacturer in Lyons, France, and they want a “good junior English clerk. (67)” Joy thinks that Biddy would be perfect for the job. All agree. Joy offers Mary Devine a job as a sort of companion to Mrs. Shirley, to oversee the care of the Hall and the Abbey, and to take on Joy’s duties of driving the crippled London children into the country one day a week. Mary will live at the Hall and have a room where she can devote part of every day to her writing. Mary, who a year earlier would have been too weak and unconfident for the position, accepts.
Joy and Mary have a private conversation in which Joy expresses anxiety over Mary’s ability to manage Rosamund and Maidlin, who is heart-broken over the engagement. Joy says that Rosamund “likes her a bit,” but dismisses Mary’s comment that Ros cares for Joy more than the latter realizes. Rosamund, Biddy, and Maidlin have a conversation in which they observe that Kenneth Marchwood is an inch taller than the very tall Jen, and that Dicky, who also seemed to admire Jen, was two inches shorter than her, and skinny to boot. Hard lines, Dicky!
Joy reveals to Jen and Ken, who are in the Abbey, that she is to be married in three weeks, as Andrew wants to go to East Africa for a conference. After some protests, Jen says that she’ll organize the wedding. She offers to go break the news to the others. Kenneth tells Joy that he finds the “little May Queen” absolutely charming and Joy responds: “’ She’s an absolute darling, and better than I am in every way, braver, and kinder, and more understanding and thoughtful—as much bigger than I am in her nature as she is in height. There! I say, Kenneth Marchwood! You couldn’t marry her and keep her in the family, could you? My sister! Oh, Ken, do!’ (85)” Ken responds that, although he’s only known her for two hours, there is nothing that he would like better. Abbey Men tend to fall in love at first sight. It is only Joy Shirley and one other heroine who have difficulty with their men.
Jen breaks the wedding news and urges the girls—especially Maidlin—to not be sad and spoil Joy’s wedding. Mary helps by suggesting that Maidlin make a “cabin-tidy” (a cloth with pockets to store things like hairbrushes and combs on the ship). The girls rally. Jen announces that she will ask for leave from school for three weeks, and Joy arranges the same for Maidlin, but not for Rosamund, who is again hurt by this preference. She struggles with her feelings and conquers them, and acts patiently with Maidlin. Jen notices her struggle and the way she deals with the problem and tells Ros that she is a good sport. We are at the very beginning of Rosamund’s story arc as she matures into one of the most interesting characters in the series.
Kenneth attends the formal crowning of Jen as the Brown or Beech Queen. Joy spends the last night before her wedding with Maidlin, sharing a bed, and Rosamund gets up early and wanders sadly out to find Jen gathering white flowers to strew in front of Joy’s door. Jen consoles her and reminds her that Maidie has a fearfully difficult temperament. The newlyweds drive off and Jen shows Mary and the girls the two rooms—the bedroom and sitting-room that Joy has prepared for Mary—everyone but Mary and the left-out Rosamund have seen it. EJO lovingly describes their beautiful colors.
Mary notices that one of the city girls staying at Joy’s holiday home for city girls in the village is dreamy and disassociated—as she herself was before she discovered her writing and folk dancing. She decides to take charge of Nell Bell. The girls receive a letter from Joy announcing that she is not returning to say goodbye—they are leaving for Africa right away. Maidlin is heart-broken. Jen goes back to school to find Sheila Jessop in tears—the other boarding girls have developed measles while she was away for the weekend. Measles again! Jen invites her to stay at the Hall—this gives Dick Jessop, who is interested in Jen, an excuse to visit Sheila often. Mary buys a dancing frock at the Pixie’s shop and hears about her caravan—she seeks advice about Nelly from the Pixie. Jen and Ken play a lot of cricket to improve Jen’s bowling (it has curiously declined since the Retrospective books, which of course EJO hadn’t written yet). Mary talks to Jen about Ken and his love for her and Jen is quite startled to know this—Abbey Girls are rarely aware of their feelings until the man proposes. Nelly confides to Mary that she does dream—about her dead fiancé and the house they would have lived in and the three children they would have had. Mary asks her to help the housekeeper more and then decides to find her a position as an “under” nurse in the children’s home. Jen thinks that this is a good idea. Dicky Jessop come to visit again and Jen makes him play cricket with Ken and herself.
Mary receives a letter from a London girl, Amy Prittle, who has a crush on her; she would like Mary to ask Joy to give her a job so that they could be together. Jen asks if it made Mary uncomfortable to know that this girl has a “craze” for her.
“’Of course it’s a sign there’s something wrong with the girl. Not that she shouldn’t like you; I admire her good sense, and quite agree with her. But that she should let her liking run away with her, as if she were a schoolgirl. That’s wrong. It’s uncontrolled; want of balance.’ (187)” A somewhat inconsistent remark given how stuck on Joy Maidlin is! But EJO is setting up Maidlin’s “problem” of obsessive hero-worship—it will take quite a few installments for Maidlin to mature enough to have a still loving but more normal relationship with her adopted “mother.”
At school, the girls and Miss Macey are nagging Rosamund to enter the music competition that Joy has started; Ros reveals to Jen that she can’t because she needs to spend her spare time keeping Maidlin up to the mark in her schoolwork, due in part to the three weeks that she missed for the wedding that she missed and in part to her early upbringing on the farm that has left her unprepared for her future position as heiress. Jen feels that Rosamund, who had always seemed like a happy-go-lucky tomboy, is growing and maturing,
The Hamlet Club girls have a dance on the Abbey lawn, and Amy Prittle and Nell Bell attend, watching at the side. Amy tells Nell that she had been hanging out with some girls and boys that went to places she didn’t care for, and when she became friends with Mary, she couldn’t go around with them any more. Kenneth Marchwood and Dick Jessop both show up and Rosamund, while dancing Hey Boys, tells Jen she needs to make up her mind and warn off one or both of them.
Jen leaves in the middle of the night to consult the Pixie in her caravan in the country. After hearing her story, the Pixie urges her to tell Dick to go away and to keep on playing cricket with Ken until she knows what her feelings are. Jen enjoys her stay in the Van—and it is so clearly described that EJO must also have seen it—but then the Marchwood car appears. It is Ken, with a letter in his hand marked urgent. It is from Jen’s mother: they are returning to England immediately and there is something that she must tell Jen in person. Jen asks Ken to drive her to the Hall to get her things. Rosamund urges Mary and Jen to have Ken drive them to Yorkshire rather than wait for the train.
Jen’s father is dying and there is a moving discussion of death and what he is certain he is going to. Mary returns to the Hall. The school discusses the fact that it needs a new Queen—Maidlin’s name is mentioned but is not warmly endorsed. Ros agrees to carry on as Queen in Jen’s absence.
Ken asks Mary’s advice about visiting Jen, and she encourages him to go in a few weeks: Jen’s parents will want to meet him and Jen herself may be missing him more than she expects to. Months pass and Ken visits often and then Mary visits to find that Jen is engaged. Her father dies in November and Jen comes back to the Hall for a visit. Jen describes a moving dream about her father and her certainty that someday she will join him. Mary reveals that Nell Bell is doing well and that Amy is in France with Biddy—the company is expanding.
The next day Jen tells Mary that Maidlin is living in a dream obsessing about Joy’s return—that she isn’t dancing or getting exercise or doing her schoolwork. She has regressed, not expanded. They decide that they must bring Maidlin out of her dreams by getting her to focus on her singing, to surprise Joy. They take the girls to London to buy frocks from the Pixie and tell her their plans. The Pixie approves.
For Folk Dancers
At Jen’s coronation he girls of the Hamlet Club dance country dances in their gaily-colored frocks: simple and natural, “there was no attempt at dressing up” (106). Some girls where white caps or bonnets—they do this when dancing as men, as Mary explains to Ken, but then often forget to change them. They dance the longways dance Haste to the Wedding, the two-couple dance Hey, Boys, Up Go We, the circle dance Gathering Peascods, and then the longways dance Galopede. The Queens process; Barbara Honor as the Queen preceding Rosamund removes the latter’s faded original wreath and crowns her with a thick crown of forget-me-nots (the thicker the crown, the more popular the Queen), and Rosamund processes back to fetch the new Queen Jen. Her train “was of bright beech brown, decorated, as she had explained, with ‘yellow things that dance’—daffodils and cowslips, buttercups, and a chain of laburnum winding among the rest” as well as leaves of brown oak leaves and golden triangles from the silver birch.
The girls then dance the maypole dance and Sellenger’s Round and the official party is over. Everyone but the dancers, Kenneth, Andrew, and Mrs. Shirley leave, and the Queens (who were left out of the dancing earlier) return in dancing frocks and start dancing for an hour “almost without a pause.” They start with Newcastle in “laughing rings of eight.”
With only those very few and very intimate friends looking on, the girls danced for an hour almost without a pause. In “The Old Mole” their high spirits and forgetfulness of everything nearly took them off their feet; then came “Oranges and Lemons,” more courtly and polite; “Mage on a Cree,” to work off their energy; “The Fine Companion” and “Grimstock,” for contrast; and “Hunsdon House,”—for manners” as Rosamund told Kenneth Marchwood; “Childgrove” and “Jack’s Maggot” and “The Queen’s Jig” in long lines, came between the set dances, and then “We Won’t Go Home ‘Till Morning” brought Jen’s party to a close (112).
It is very clear that none of the dances are taught or called; you are expected to know them.
When the Pixie drives Jen to her caravan named The Fine Companion, she tells her that she calls the road the Flamborough hey. “’When my friends ask me how they can find the Van, I tell them to cast to the right and then three changes of the Flamborough hey; you see?” as they swerved round sudden bends. ‘Left! Right! Left!’ (227)”
–Cecil Sharp “collected” (notated) the Flamborough dance in Yorkshire. It is traditionally danced on Boxing Day (December 26). The men wear white trousers and blue sweaters and caps, traditional fishing attire. Midway through the dance the dancers form a line, one behind the other. The captain casts or turns 180 degrees over his right shoulder and begins a progressive weaving hey or reel passing the next man by the left shoulder then the next by the right and so on. You can see the dance here; the hey occurs at about minute 2:00. In other videos you can see the boys’ team—they dress as the men do but wear red caps.–
The Pixie tells Jen that she is expecting some of the Kibbo Kift the next day—she has been teaching them country dancing.
—The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was an organization dedicated to camping, hiking, handicrafts, and world peace. It was founded in 1920 by the charismatic artist and writer John Harwood, who had formerly active in Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout organization but who left the Scouts after WWI as he felt that they were getting too militaristic. Hargrave later founded the Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit. Kibbo Kift members/supporters included Mary Neal, who had founded the girls’ Esperance Society, suffragist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and Sharp’s sister Evelyn, who was a journalist and suffragist. (Cecil Sharp was decidedly not a supporter of women’s suffrage!) Kibbo Kift is an archaic Cheshire dialect phrase meaning “proof of great strength.” Members took Kibbo Kift names, made and decorated their own tents, and wore garb. One can see the romantic attraction of the Kindred for Elsie Oxenham! She probably never joined, however, as she does not incorporate their activities into any fiction. In 1926 EJO was 46 and, though a good walker, perhaps felt that camping was not for her.—
Jen tells Mary-Dorothy that Amy’s obsession with Mary is bad for her. She tells Mary that if Amy is going to come to see her, she should make her take the country dance class that Mary is teaching in the village. “‘It can’t hurt her, and it might help. If there’s one thing that teaches balance and control, it’s country-dancing. Get it into her feet and body, and you may get it into her mind too. Make her come to classes, and bully her into common sense!’ (187)” Despite this urging, neither Amy nor Nellie are good enough dancers to participate in the other dance events. One of the challenges of folk dancing at the time was that the set dances that the Hamlet Club particularly like are difficult—you can’t just drop into them. Often the girls that one of the heroines is trying to assist are effectively left out of the very thing that is supposed to help them. We are also seeing some of the class snobbery that Oxenham will increasingly indulge in. Nelly and Amy are not in the same class as, for example, Mary and Biddy Devine, who are gentlewomen.
Rosamund, Maidlin, Mary and Jen make up a set for Hey Boys, Up Go We and discuss Dick’s intrusion as they dance. EJO very believably fits the movements of the dance to the parts of their conversation. Hey Boys appeared in the first edition of Playford’s The English Dancing Master, and Sharp published it in 1911 in the Country Dance Book, Part II, taking, as Hugh Stewart of the Cambridge Round observes, the opportunity to change its name from the original Cuckolds All A-Row, which he must have felt would offend Victorian sensibilities. You can see the instructions here.
Jen dancing as man has Rosamund as her partner, standing to her right. Jen faces Maidlin, dancing as a woman to Mary’s man.
“Wish I’d never asked Shee [Sheila Jessop] here!” Jen called to Rosamund, as she “gipsied” with Maidlin. [Following morris tradition, Sharp called this a “half-gip”—danced with opposite and then partner it is the first chorus figure.]
“You and your young men, Brownie!” Ros teased, as they ran round one another. [Second half of the first chorus.]
“You can have Dick. I don’t want him.” Jen told her during “siding.” [Second figure.]
“Thanks awfully! ‘Fraid he doesn’t want me!” Rosamund “balanced,” crossed, and ran round in the ring. [Second chorus figure: men change places, women change places, circle once around, then all that again to end in original places. Sharp styling stressed that no one ever stops moving, even if they are not actively crossing.]
“He’s an utter nuisance! Ken thinks so, too. I shall tell him not to come any more.”
“Don’t see how you can, if you have Shee [Sheila Jessop] here,” said Rosamund, as they armed together. “And you’d have to stop Ken coming, too. That would be only decent.” [Arm right with partner and left with opposite is the third figure.]
“I shan’t do anything of the kind!” Jen cried indignantly, as she caught Maidie’s hands and pushed her backwards. [Third chorus—it starts with a half-poussette with the opposite person….]
“Then get engaged to him. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Then it would be silly for Dick to come any more. He wouldn’t want to, anyway, if he once knew you were engaged to Ken,” Rosamund said wickedly, as she ran round after her tall “man.” [….followed by the man casting followed by his partner. Note the use of the word “ran”—this was danced at a pretty fair clip.]
“What rot to talk!” Jen “pushed and pulled” Maidie into place, “cast” to her left, and bowed to her partner (201-11). [Second half of the third chorus: half-poussette with opposite and the cast-and-follow.]
Nicely done, Elsie! Even if you don’t know the figures of the dance you can see the character’s easy performance of it and their enjoyment of the movement.