The Abbey Girls Win Through was published by Collins in 1928 and is tenth in the First Generation set. It takes place “Abbey Time” between April and May of 1923,slightly overlapping its predecessor installment. For those of you who are new to this blog, we are reading these books in reading order (meaning how the stories make sense with time and the ages of the characters) which is not the same as publication order.
Some readers feel or have felt that there is too much pi-jaw [“pi” = “pious”; “jaw” = “talk”) in EJO’s novels and The Abbey Girls Win Through is one of the books that strongly exhibit this trait—for bad, if you find it didactic, or for good if you find her words comforting. Generally, in these books God is not explicitly invoked—a girl simply looks for “help” and then feels that she has found it—but here there are quite a few religious discussions. The off-stage deaths have to be understood as either part of God’s plan or the reverse, although the reverse takes us into Manichaean heresy of believing that there is an active agent of evil.
The cover above shows a rather cross Rosamund, in her blue gym tunic, letting Pat and Vi into the secret tunnel with their picnic breakfast.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Three city girls are in a train carriage when they are joined at Wycombe by a fourth girl. Two of the London girls are “a recognized couple”—one of EJO’s curious girl-girl “marriages.” Con sells gloves in a big store in the West End; she is the wife and homemaker. Norah is a typist and she is the husband “who planned little pleasure trips and kept the accounts and took Con to the pictures. (9-10)” The third, somewhat older girl, is Ann Rowney, who is slightly only acquainted with Norah. All three girls are heading into the country for a two-week holiday sponsored by Joy, Lady Marchwood, through Mary-Dorothy Devine, who used to be a typist in London. The girls talk about Lady Marchwood and say they hope to see her if she returns from Africa. The fourth girl introduces herself as Nelly Bell, who helps to take care of the babies in “Miss Joy’s” children’s home. Nelly gives the characters and the reader the needed background information of who is who. Jen Robins greets the girls at the station and then is whisked away by her fiancé, Ken Marchwood.
Ann Rowney leaves the pleasant lodging house and goes to the Hall where she asks to meet Miss Devine so that she may thank her for the holiday. She tells Mary that her (Ann’s) little sister loved Mary’s first book and is anxious for another. Jen is thrilled that Mary’s first fan has shown up. As Ann walks back we understand that she has some sort of guilty secret, which is not revealed to us yet.
Mary goes to the lodgings the next day to find Ann peeling potatoes (she loves to cook, she explains) and invites her to a country-dance party on the village green in the afternoon. Ann promptly reveals that she is a dancer (she had been singing the tune to The Boatman). On the village green everyone dances Butterfly, Gathering Peascods, Rufty Tufty, Newcastle, Bonnets So Blue, If All the World were Paper, Brighton Camp and end with Sellenger’s Round. Ann is invited to tea, though the other girls are not. She feels that she is part of the family and it is clear that it is because she is a dancer and higher-class than her companions
At tea, Jen gets a letter that says that her mother had suddenly died. While everyone else—especially Mary-Dorothy Devine—dithers, Ann takes charge. She reminds Jen that she will see her mother again (i.e., in heaven), and that she should be glad that her mother is now with her father, having had only a few months to be without him. Ann reminds her that “No one is ever lonely, who goes ahead. There’s always somebody to meet every one who goes. We’re lonely, who are left behind: but we usually have friends.” (51) Jen says that Ann is her newest friend and that she has helped her enormously, and Mary, who adores Jen, is crushed that she has not been the one that Jen turned to. Ann reminds Jen that God will look out for her parents. Jen leaves for the train.
Rosamund, Maidlin and Mary have a midnight talk in their kimonos and come to the conclusion that none of them had helped Jen; Rosamund had escaped thinking by rushing around, and the other two by withdrawing into dreams. They vow to do better.
The next day Rosamund wakes up early and goes to the Abbey, where she has promised three school friends that she will tease Jen by letting them into the Abbey via the secret passage. She now tells Pat and Vi and Gertrude that, because of Jen’s trouble, the deal is off. It starts to rain, so she reluctantly agrees to open the door for shelter after extracting a promise from Pat that they won’t go any farther in. The girls rush in and Pat starts charging through the tunnels rather than just sitting by the door. Rosamund feels that Pat in particular has cheated and hasn’t “played the game,” and turns the girls out of doors. She then runs into the Abbey and sobs her heart out. Mary turns to Ann for advice on how to deal with Rosamund’s heartbreak, and Ann counsels her to turn to God. They also discuss Joy, Lady Marchwood, and Mary confesses that the latter is not always kind or helpful: she has not grown to have the sympathy towards others that Ann has been talking about (117).
A kitchen crisis removes both the cook and the maid, so Ann steps in as cook. Jen arrives, wearing black for her mother (her sister-in-law is a stickler for the conventions). Jen finds out about the Ros-Pat quarrel, and also that Maidlin is desperately fearful that, upon her return from her extended honeymoon in Africa, Joy won’t love her as much as she did before. Jen, Ann and Mary have a midnight talk and Ann reminds Jen again that God loves her and has provided her with a second home (the Abbey) as well as Ken Marchwood. “’What could be gentler or more loving? You haven’t been left alone for a single day. (152)” They discuss chance versus purpose and conclude that God has a plan.
Joy arrives home, alone and tired and wearing a loose travel cloak. Ann’s eyes widen and she rushes off to make lunch. Joy is disappointed that there is not a letter from Sir Andrew, who is leading a safari for Lord Saville to shoot lions in Nairobi. Jen, now wearing green (she will rejoice for her mother, not grieve), tells Joy about her mother’s death. Ann reveals that, while she had worked briefly in the typist office with Norah, she is a really a journalist doing a series of articles on how girls live. She wants to write about the village and the Abbey and the various charitable enterprises that Lady Marchwood has set into motion.
Rosamund tells Maidie that she could get her out of a hole if she were to agree to be May Queen, as Pat Mercer would be the next to be chosen and Pat is not straight and doesn’t play the game. For Ros’s sake, Maidlin agrees and chooses her flower: Primrose. Joy shows Ann and Mary some “delicate garments” and comments that she won’t show them to Maidlin just yet. In fact, Maidlin is very surprised when the babies appear—she had had no idea that Joy was pregnant.
A rumor has come to Ken that there is trouble with the safari party. He suggests that he and Jen have a quiet wedding before he leaves for Africa to find out what is wrong. Maidlin’s coronation goes well—she has come out of her shell. When they return to the Hall they find that Joy has had a telegram asking if she can confirm that her husband’s expedition has met with disaster. Joy faints and starts in labor. The younger girls are sent to the Abbey for the night. Ken leaves to tell his frail mother the news. Ann reminds Rosamund that God doesn’t interfere with our wills—that He won’t make Rosamund forgive Pat, but that Ros knows what the right thing to do is. Mary and Jen also talk about God and Love. Ann feels that Sir Andrew’s death would not be part of God’s plan, and that no man with a wife who is expecting (although she doesn’t say that word) should risk his life for another man’s pleasure.
Joy give birth to twin girls. The significance of this, which may be lost on young girls or Americans unfamiliar with the rules of entail, is that Sir Andrew’s younger brother Ken is now Sir Kenneth Marchwood, and the Manor House (conveniently next door to Abinger Hall) is now his. Had one of the babies been a boy, that child would have had the title and the inheritance. When they marry, Jen will also be Lady Marchwood (as is Ken’s mother, so we have three Ladies Marchwood at one time). The babies are to be called Elizabeth (for the elder Lady Marchwood) Joy and Margaret (for Mrs. Shirley) Joan. Both were very popular names at the time, and Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926, two years before publication of this installment. Princess Margaret would not be born until 1930—a lucky coincidence for Oxenham! Joy reveals that while one baby would have been natural, the second seems like a special gift of comfort.
Jen tells Mary that she wishes to turn her home in Yorkshire into a haven for tired mothers from the Sheffield slums and typists and working girls. She suggests that Ann Rowney might be matron, with Mary’s help. Joy tells Ros about her long-ago troubles with her school-mate Carrie, and urges Ros to seize any opening to make things up with Pat. Jen walks to the church expecting a quiet wedding only to find that Joy has let the Hamlet Club and the village know and everyone is there. Jacky-boy, who is studying medicine in London, tells Jen that perhaps she won’t let Ken have her after all and Jen reminds her that it has been seven years since they were “married” and that is equivalent to a divorce. (Hunh?) Jen, who thinks that she is Mrs. Marchwood (the title doesn’t actually transfer until proof of death is given), finds out that the news about the hunting party is confirmed: they were attacked by “a handful of very wild natives, and all were killed. (300)”
Ros and Maidlin go to school where they hear that Pat is in a bad way: her father was holidaying in Belgium and is now very ill with pneumonia. Pat is at school waiting for more news. Rosamund fights with herself for a moment, then goes to Pat, says she’s sorry to hear the news and invites her to tea. Pat is very grateful, and tells her other two pals to tell the whole story (including the bit about Pat not playing the game). After a good visit at the Hall, Pat receives word that her father is better.
Jen says that she’ll live both at the Manor—the dowager Lady Marchwood wants her badly—and the Hall. She kisses her “sister,” Joy, goodnight. The Abbey Girls have “won through:” Ros has forgiven Pat, Jen has coped with her mother’s death, Joy will struggle to carry on alone, and Mary and Maidlin are working more actively to overcome their problems of shyness and hero-worship.
For Folk Dancers
Other than the dances named above, as well as Hey Boys, Up Go We, there is little description of dancing in The Abbey Girls Win Through. Ann remarks that Sellenger’s Round is a tiring dance (46) but she always dances it. When they dance on the village green, the participants include the girls from the Hall, village children and girls, “many” of the older women, and “a few” boys and men (42-3). Mary, Ros, and Maidie prove “energetic stewards, and arrange the couples in lines of couples radiating outwards from the maypole. Jen dances with a village lad and Mary with Ann.
Rosamund and Maidlin take on Jen’s evening dance class at the Women’s Institute. Rosamund shows herself to be a good teacher, and she comments that Maidlin’s dancing is so good: “. . . you’re so light, and so full of music; and they all try to play up to you. You bucked up that whole set.” (67) Ros tells Maidlin to buck up and agree to be the twelfth May Queen—but shy Maidlin doesn’t want to. Rosamund tells herself that she doesn’t really understand either Mary or Maidlin, who, as artists, are both prone to extravagancies of feelings. She tells herself that she is just plain and ordinary—but useful.
It is the dancing that brings Ann into the Abbey “family”—as non-dancers, the lower-class Norah and Con are left out at this point. Ann fully realizes that their shared interest is the key to being welcomed by the Abbey Girls (44). Ann dances every dance with villagers and Abbey Girls alike. Though stated less explicitly than in some other novels, EJO is showing dance as a healthy, happy and hearty activity that can bring people of different stations together—although, rather contradictorily, not Norah and Con. However, one should keep in mind that dances were not taught nor, apparently, prompted at this kind of dance party—at least at this time. You were expected to know the dances to attend a party, and Norah and Con don’t know them. In much later books, girls acting as M.C. do stand on chairs to run a walk-through or call the dance, but this comes in books that, while they are still set pre-WWII, were written significantly after, when the dance scene had changed and loosened up.
EJO dedicated The Abbey Girls Win Through to Margaret Bayne Todd: “Camp-fire girl and Folk-dancer with love and happy thoughts of vacation school-days.” Todd (1906-2004) was a political and social campaigner born in Glasgow but more associated with Liverpool where she settled in the 1920s. She married Tom Simey, who was later awarded a life peerage, but she did not use the title “Lady Simey.” Todd was involved with EJO both in both Camp Fire and dancing, and EJO wrote her into A15_The Abbey Girls in Town as a sixteen-year old dancer at the Vacation School. Simey’s Camp Fire name was “Thistle,” and she was apparently known to herself and to others as a “prickly” customer.