Joy Shirley, currently the dowager Lady Marchwood and soon to be Lady Quellyn, is a challenging character for me to like, along the lines of Emma Woodhouse. Even though I am a Life Member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, for decades I had to force myself to reread Emma every few years, principally because I could not stand what I perceived as Emma’s smugness, her manipulativeness, her self-satisfaction, and her general air of complacency. Then I started teaching not-for-credit classes on Austen. I worked through all five of the other books and realized that I had to tackle Emma. I obtained the excellent Cambridge edition of the work and made myself really pay attention to the character. While I still would not go so far as to call her “faultless despite her faults,” I have grown to admire and understand her character better. She would still not be my first or second choice (or even third!) of a companion on a deserted island (that would be Mr. Knightley (he would have a pocketknife and be able to do useful things like gut fish) or Miss Morland (she would cheerfully gather coconuts to make an SOS sign on the beach, even if she didn’t know what an SOS is)), but I can like Emma in a cautious way.
I can’t quite get to this point with Joy, and it is not altogether because of her character but because of how Oxenham writes about her. Austen is, after all, an A+++ (can’t get enough pluses!) writer and Oxenham is a solid B with frequent B+ and occasional A- scenes, typically those of description of scenery or dancing. With nearly 100 books over a 60-year career, Oxenham was more prolific but less lapidary than Austen. But comparisons are odious—let’s dig more into Joy’s character and background.
Joy’s mother died at her birth or shortly thereafter and her father died a few years before the series begins. Joy is rather sickly, and Joy’s aunt Mrs. Shirley and cousin Joan coddle her and, frankly, spoil her. After all, they tell each other, they have each other and she has no one. They allow her to wander around the countryside rather than pitching in to help at the Abbey (they are very poor at this point), and they note that she is dreamy and can’t stick to her work. As a musical artiste, Joy is—although I don’t think EJO uses this word in regard to her although she certainly does with other, minor characters—unbalanced. Balance is a key attribute for Oxenham: both the physical balance that country dancing gives as well as mental balance. Both Joy and her adopted daughter Maidlin are musical and unbalanced and must learn to find their centers. Joy never quite reaches this goal.
In the early episodes, Joy is a fun and engaging character though she is already presented as impulsive and quick to anger. These latter two traits become stronger and stronger as the series continues, and Joy’s frequent misunderstanding of people and situations forms part of the dramas of the story. After all, without real, mustache-twirling villains, Oxenham needed Joy’s flaws in order to create plot crises that others could resolve. When Joy is made aware of her errors, she is quick to feel penitent and to correct them, particularly by throwing money at a situation. She is very generous in that way! And in a couple of installments at least, we hear her chastise herself for her lack of understanding, and hear her vow that she will try harder.
After Joy’s husband is killed and the twins are born, the other girls treat Joy as if her every wish must be obeyed and even anticipated. Oxenham the narrator observes in at least one of these situations that it might be better for Joy if this weren’t to happen, but her characters don’t pay attention to the author! So while tragedy has stricken Joy harshly, she continues to be spoiled by the others.
So far this is believable character development, but what doesn’t work for me is why the other girls—Maidlin, Rosamund, and Jen—want to be with Joy so much. After the first few installments—and granted that she is in mourning—we no longer see any aspect of her sparkle and fun, her charisma. They talk about her as if she is wonderful, but Oxenham doesn’t really show us that side of her any longer. Yes, she does good deeds—she sends flowers to the crippled children in London and takes them for rides in the car, she sets up her music school, she becomes a Ranger Captain—but we hear about these things, we don’t see them in action as we see Jen being a good mother and Rosamund a capable dance teacher, big sister, and excellent future Countess. Joy has become fairly one-dimensional.
But, I want Joy! That’s what all the characters say, and I don’t recall that they use that phrase when talking of each other. I want Joy! they exclaim as they burst through a door, not “Is Joy at home?” or “May I please speak to Joy?” or even “Where is Joy?” One of the installments even has I want Joy as its concluding sentence.
“Want” is a curious word. It can mean “lack,” as in “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost.” Or, used in a phrase like “I want (for) nothing,” it means the reverse of want, that I have all I need or desire at the moment. In the phrase “I want Joy!” I think “want” means, overtly, at least, “need.” The characters need Joy for something and, although her track record for understanding emotional situations is poor, she is presented as remarkably competent about dealing with things like travel arrangements in times of crisis. So the need is often a practical, story-driven one. But I think there may be a bit more than this going on.
I want Joy!
Well, we all want joy—Psalm 30:5 says that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. God promises that the weeping will end—although one commentator that I read wryly points out that He doesn’t specify on which morning the joy will cometh. I do not think that Oxenham chose Joy’s name at random.
Joy was named for her mother, Joyce. My good friend Wikipedia says that, as a family (last) name, Joyce had a Latinized Breton root meaning “lord,” but that this name became rare in England after the 14th century. Some centuries later, Joyce was reintroduced as a female first name along the lines of the names Faith, Hope, Charity, Felicity and the like. (I do love the name Felicity, and was considering it for my daughter, but she ended up as Emma instead. Go figure!) Faith, Hope, and Charity were very popular names in Puritan North America. I do not believe, however, that I have seen a real person or a character named Joy prior to Oxenham’s use of the name.
As I understand it, the principal thing that a Christian rejoices in is the Lord. And, as we have seen, from time to time Oxenham used her books to provide some gently-drawn religious counseling to characters under trial, and for the reader to consider for herself. I in no way suggest that EJO thought of Joy Shirley Marchwood as being in any way a Christ-like figure—for she most certainly is not! But I think the repeated phrase of I want Joy! is not really a statement that “I lack joy,” but a subtle reminder that if you are a believer, you will have joy, because you will rejoice in the Lord. I want JOY!, with the emphasis on the word joy, not the word want, becomes an affirmation of I choose God, or I believe. But, of course this is just a possible sub-text; most of the time the characters really do want Joy for plot reasons.
I am perhaps being harsh to Joy. After all, one could argue that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, both from losing her father when she was in her early teens (my mother lost her father when she was nine and it clearly negatively affected her for the rest of her life), and from losing her first husband so soon and so tragically. To her credit, she is able to grow beyond these losses, however. In Maidlin Bears the Torch, Joy is challenged with leaving her beloved Abinger Hall to go with her new husband to the States for three years, and she rises to that occasion, saying that people matter more than places or things. Jen—so often the voice of wisdom—sapiently observes that until this point Joy has never really had to step up to the challenges of the give-and-take of a real marriage—she and Sir Andrew Marchwood had just been on an extended honeymoon. Now Joy does rally and make the right choice for her marriage.
But, poor Joy! Even when happily married to Sir Ivor (who is both autocratic and insensitive himself), she will go on making insensitive blunders. EJO sends the couple to New York City to keep Joy off the stage for several installments. It is noticeable that when her return at various points is anticipated, better-balanced characters like Jen and Rosamund still worry that Joy will say something impulsive or cruel to another character. For example, when we get to Robins in the Abbey you will see that she is quite unpleasant to Robertina Brent until she discovers that Robin is in a crisis, at which time Joy rallies and treats her very nicely indeed. If someone—even occasionally herself!—can point out her faults to her, she can correct them! And I think she finally redeems herself, at least somewhat. Towards the end of the series, Joy wishes to return to England to have her baby at Abinger Hall, but her nursemaid Queen Beatrice, the Striped Queen, comes down with a bad case of typhoid fever and, unprompted, Joy refuses to leave her, sick and alone in the U.S., so she stays to take care of her and gives birth there. That is the Abbey Girl way, following the motto of the Hamlet Club!
So I see that I have talked myself into admiring Joy more, even if I still don’t like her as much as some other characters. I certainly would not invite her to my deserted island—that choice would be between the competent and cheerful Rosamund or Jen. But I may revisit my stance towards Joy as we travel along!
P.S. I just had a flash of imagining Joy and Emma Woodhouse together on a deserted island—I think they might actually do pretty well, at least socially, as neither one is terribly sensitive. I don’t know that either has many practical skills, but both are determined young women and could probably acquire them at a pinch.
P.P.S. Something to meditate upon for the next couple of weeks: the Torch Bearer’s Desire. “That light which has been given to me, I desire to pass undimmed to others.”