For those who have recently joined in, we are reading Oxenham’s Abbey Girl series in reading order, which is not the same as publication order. Today, though I’ll digress to explore some themes that are found in all of EJO’s books, but especially the Abbey Girls series: these include Hair, Gymmies and Tunics, Names, the meaning of the word “girl,” and more. Let’s start with . . . .
Parental Morbidity & Mortality
It’s tough being an Abbey Girl parent, especially for mothers! As with other novels that deal with young people (think of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Heidi, Pollyanna, Anne Shirley of Green Gables, Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, etc.), a child has to be detached from home and the parental units in order to go have adventures. The easiest way to do this is to make her an orphan or partial orphan. Along these lines EJO is pretty brutal to her heroines’ parents. Many mothers like Joy Shirley’s and Maidlin di Ravarati’s die when the girls are babies; others become ill and have to go away on long sea voyages or to a sanatorium to regain their health, which they rarely do.
Fathers don’t generally have such a high rate of mortality; they are just off-stage. EJO’s story-world was one in which the far-flung British empire was still a reality, so some fathers, like Cicely Hobart’s and Rosamund Kane’s, are in Ceylon or some other far-away place, doing some mysterious business (running a tea plantation, in Cicely’s case). Rosamund’s father out in Ceylon doesn’t appear to care for her very much and after her mother’s death in the same Swiss sanatorium featured in The Two Form Captains, marries a girl Rosamund’s age, fathers an heir, and then dies, setting off some interesting plot points. EJO had an obsession with sea captains and many fathers (especially in the non-Abbey books), are off on the high seas. Two fathers are killed by “savages,” and one’s ship is torpedoed. Jen Robins’ father has a lingering illness and dies, followed a few months later by her mother.
Oxenham’s world is fundamentally girl-powered. As Waring and Ray point out in their study of Oxenham’s works, Island to Abbey, the Abbey Girls make decisions that in the real world their husbands would have done: for example, Jen sends her sons to her brothers’ old prep school, not her husband’s. While unrealistic for the period, it provides a sense of female empowerment that overrides some of the romanticism of the flowers and the babies.
Use of the Word “Girl”
In the late Victorian period of EJO’s youth and most of the period in which she was writing, the word “girl” had a meaning that was different from that of a “young lady” or a “woman.” In America in the late 19th and early 20th century the phrase “the girl” referred to the hired help, often immigrant, who did the rough work in the kitchen or laundry. “Babies” were little girls (and boys) up to about eight or nine years old. “Young ladies” were debutantes sitting at home, husband-hunting (NEVER an activity that Abbey Girls actively engage in!) “Women” could be older gentlewomen, like Mary Devine. They could also be the village women of the Women’s Institute—both older and lower-class. But Girls from age nine to the early twenties were liminal creatures, neither babies nor young ladies nor women. They are just right for having adventures.
Was Elsie Oxenham Same-sex Oriented?
Possibly, but why would it matter? There is a lot of sentimentality in the relationships of some girls in the series: they kiss and cuddle and share beds—although some of the bed-sharing could have been a by-product of the lack of central heating! Jen Robins and her best chum Jacqueline Wilson refer to each other as husband and wife, and we’ll meet another “husband and wife” duo shortly. Girls frequently comment on how pretty another girl is: “Ripping!” While there are a couple of men who have speaking roles (and sometimes very sympathetically-drawn dialogue), generally husbands are wallpaper who simply provide a well-heeled background—and babies. Abbey men tend to fall in love the moment they spot their girl, whereas Abbey Girls take a lot longer—and often don’t realize that they are in love until the man proposes. Only two Abbey heroines have trouble with their men—Joy Shirley is one of them, and the only heroine to marry twice.
Remember that Elsie Oxenham was born in 1880 and brought up in an era of great female sensibility and sentimentality. Girls were outwardly more affectionate than they were in my youth, although I have noticed that girls—oops! Now we call them young women—at the university where I work are more “cuddly” than in the past.
Names and Babies
Sometimes reading the AG series can feel like reading a late-nineteenth century Russian novel in which characters have those ghastly triple-barreled names but then they are called by some nick-name. Key Abbey Girls in particular have their given name, any number of nicknames based on the given name, and their May Queen name, color, and/or flower. Thus, Janet Robins is called Jen (her preferred name), Jenny-Wren, Mrs. Robins, and, for her beech-colored train, Brown Queen, Brownie, or the Beech Queen. Rosamund Kane is also Ros, Rosie, Rose-of-the-world (which of course is what Rosamund means) and the Rose Queen. May Queen Beatrice, who has a gaudy red and yellow striped train, is called, variously, Bee, Beetle, and Stripes. Joy Shirley, who as a girl loved to tramp around the countryside, is called Traveler’s Joy (wild clematis), the Cat Who Walked by Herself, and the Green Queen.
Oxenham had a rather unfortunate predilection for alliteration. We have cousins Joan and Joy Shirley, their friend Jen Robins, and their almost-cousin Janice Macdonald (Jandy Mac). Joan and Jandy Mac make a pinky swear to name their first girls after each other, so in a few years we have Janetta (in her first iteration), later known as Joan-Two or Jansy Raymond (the Lobelia Queen) and Littlejan Macdonald Fraser (the Marigold Queen). Joan Shirley Raymond goes on to have John, Jennifer, and, I believe, Jill. Finally, when Rosamund becomes the Countess of Kentisbury, not only does she have two boys and two sets of twin girls born within ten months of each other— Rosabel and Rosalin and Rosanna and Rosilda—but she becomes godmother to an enormous number of girls who then have “Rose” in their names. In addition, her husband’s young Kane cousins come on-stage: the Ladies Virginia Rose, Rosalind Atalanta (she generally goes by “Nanta Rose” or the Lavender Queen), and twins Araminta Rose and Amanda Rose. We also have, generally off-stage, Lady Rhoda Kane (the dead young Earl’s sister) and her cousin Rosalie. We have Cicely Hobart (the original President of the Hamlet Club) and Cecily Perowne (mystery girl), plus, from Cecily’s Swiss-based story, her Girl Guide guardians Maribel and Rosalind. Are you confused yet?
Wearing A Loose Frock/Coat and Declining to Dance
Prior to marriage, Abbey Girls are oblivious to the Facts of Life. Once married, an Abbey Girl tends to get pregnant pretty much as soon as she walks out of the church, and soon appears in A Loose Frock, Declining to Dance Much or run upstairs. The baby will appear towards the end of the book, much to many people’s surprise.
All Abbey Girls have fabulous hair: full and thick (as in having a “fat” plait) and of a beautiful color and, generally, long. Jen Robins is the only principal character to have short hair—it was cropped during her days of recovery after the motorbike accident and she refused to grow it out again. May Queens always appear with their hair long and loose and flowing under their floral coronets.
Hair was a marker of maturity in EJO’s day. Schoolgirls wore their hair “down” in one or two plaits or braids. As they grew closer to the time they would leave school and signify that they were grown-up, they would practice for friends the style they planned to adopt: A coronet around the head? “Muffs” over the ears like Princess Leia? A bun at the nape of the neck or on the top of the head?
“Gymmies” and Legs
Much is made in the three books describing Cecil Sharp’s Vacation Schools of the fact that the women wear, at least for the morning work, gym tunics or gymmies. Modern readers are probably not sufficiently surprised that 30-year old Mary Devine “grimly” sews a gym tunic for herself—she is pushing herself out of her grown-up comfort zone.
There is only an occasional off-hand mention of gym tunics in the first book, Girls of the Hamlet Club (1914)—one of the morris sides in the big May Day presentation wear their tunics. At this point there is no school uniform: Cecily wears a red silk Liberty blouse and skirt with a red scarf tied around the crown of her hat (Liberty of London’s was an expensive store that sold very artsy clothes and fabrics). Some girls think it would be nice if everyone had blue coats to look alike, and Cecily orders one until one of the Hamlet girls says she can’t afford it and needs stout boots instead; Cecily countermands the order. School uniforms—often a blazer, pleated skirt, and a straw hat with a band of the school colors (think of the Pevensies)—will come into fashion as a democratizing agent after World War I.
After the first few books and especially in the Retrospective titles, the younger girls seem to have worn gym tunics all day every day. The tunic was a simple loose, sleeveless dress—some are shown without waists; others have a fitted waist and pleats that start at the breast—often of dark blue or green serge (a heavy material that lasts forever) worn over a white shirt, usually long-sleeved, with or without a tie. You wore a belt or “girdle” with the tunic and in some of EJO’s schools the color of the girdle might designate what form (grade) you were in or whether you had a special status such as prefect or head girl. The tunic was always quite short and was worn over long black stockings, held up by a garter belt and covered—I would expect, though I do not know for sure—by knickers in the same blue or green serge (in her younger days, Jen constantly did somersaults and she wouldn’t have done this if someone could see her actual underwear).
Above: a tunic from 1920s New Zealand.
Because of the short skirt and the legs, gymmies were considered unsuitable for older girls as daily wear—think of Joy’s discomfort at being discovered by Sir Andrew and his mother when she has been writing letters in the Abbey wearing her comfortable gymmie. EJO doesn’t particularly describe what older girls wore, but it was probably a blouse and skirt, with the skirt dropping lower as the girl grew older. There is a scene in one of the later books when the new headmistress of Miss Macey’s School forbids the girls to wear their tunics outside of P.E. classes and a mini-rebellion breaks out. Uniforms of blazers and skirts in the school colors are depicted on some covers of later books, but EJO was very good about leaving out details that could date her stories so there is little mention of a uniform in the books themselves.
So, back to Sharp and the tunics and legs: the morning work at the schools was morris and sword and, while the men wore white flannels, the women wore their gymmies. Older women must have experienced a frisson of naughtiness at wearing such short skirt and exposing their legs, especially when they were walking in the street to and from classes. Oxenham was 40 years old when she attended the Cheltenham Vacation School and we can be certain that she wore a gymmie because she depicted herself as the Writing Person, who is definitely wearing the same. We know that Sharp asked women to change to dancing frocks for the afternoon country dance classes, and that Joan and Joy cooperate, but many of the younger girls stay in their tunics.
When the entity that would become the Country Dance Society of America held its first dance camp in 1915 in Eliott, Maine, men were told to wear white flannels and women encouraged to wear a gym tunic. Want to know more about that first dance camp? Explore here. Want to know more about Cecil Sharp and his visits to America? Explore here.