There is a lot to unpack in this installment! As I discussed early on, the current group of postings in this blog relate to Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey Girl series and in particular to the folk-dancing scenes found therein. While many of EJO’s readers apparently find/found folk-dancing after reading the books, I came to her works from the world of folk dance and want to share her vision and her depictions—especially of Cecil Sharp and his teachers —with my folk-dance friends. After the last five or six installments that bore the subtitles “a romance of the Abbey Girls” and contained little or no dancing, we are now, at least briefly, back in the dance world. Rosamund will show us how a “certificated” teacher instructs.
As I also mentioned early on, I initially read these books completely out of order—not even realizing that there was an order—as they were shipped to me by the amazing Monica Godfrey, who wrote the article in the EFDSS magazine that inspired me to reach out to her to find out more about these mysterious Abbey Girls. And this installment, A25_Rosamund’s Tuck-Shop, with its significant subtitle, “A School Story,” was one that initially made my eyes roll back into my head. It starts off in a typically discursive way, with one girl in a bit of an inexplicable jam, who then meets up with other school pals, all of whom have names, nicknames, alternative nicknames, and so on until the brain bubbles and swells and one must call faintly for Jeeves to bring a restorative and a cold towel to tie around one’s head.
But perseverance (and multiple re-readings) pays off and I think I can now parse this for you or at least ease you over the early and confusing chapters. We will skip introducing most of the girls; just be aware that there is a younger group of rather wild girls, and an older group that includes Rhoda and her friends Tamzine and Sonny.
And here props to Elsie Oxenham, that consummate long-arc story plotter and re-purposer of characters! In 1909 she had published her fourth book, what was then a one-off tale titled The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends. It told the story of Robertina Brent, left an estate in Wales called Plas Quellyn, by her god-father, painter Robert Quellyn, an admirer of her mother’s. Robert had unofficially adopted a friend’s orphan daughter, Gwyneth Morgan, but failed to make provision for her in his will. Deprived of her beloved Plas Quellyn, Gwyneth won’t make friends with Robin, until they are reconciled and become adopted sisters at the end of the story. Their conflict, which they relate to Rhoda hoping to help her in her dilemma, is not dissimilar to hers, though she refuses to acknowledge it. But what is more interesting to me is the slow and subtle interweaving of Robin into the Abbey series. We had a hint of it in the last installment: Sir Ivor Quellyn refers to the Welsh pictures of a distant cousin, that same Robert Quellyn, and to the heiress and estate. We’ll have occasional further hints of Robin and her estate until her story concludes in A32_Robins in the Abbey. It seems unlikely to me that when EJO published The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends in 1909 she knew that she would repurpose Robin (although we can’t know for sure and there are other clear signs of careful, long-term plot planning), but having created her, she puts her to good use and brings her back. What fun it is to encounter old friends again!
A25_Rosamund’s Tuck-Shop was published in 1937 and takes place in September through October of 1930. It is a satisfying installment, showing Rosamund in fine form as a compassionate lover, sister, and friend. It also shows her as an excellent English folk dance teacher!
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Lady Rhoda Kane is mourning the recent death in a motorcycle accident of her younger brother, Geoff, the sixteen-year-old Earl of Kentisbury. The new Earl, also named Geoffrey, is the semi-invalid younger brother of Rhoda’s deceased father. His health has improved since he became engaged to a young girl whom Rhoda and her mother do not know but whom they hate. The new heir-presumptive is this girl’s baby half-brother, and Rhoda hates him, too. They feel that a distant cousin, Bill Kane the sailor and his younger sister Rosalie, have been skipped over—like Mrs. Bennet, they do not seem to understand how the rules of entail and succession work. Lady Verriton had also been looking forward to acting as the head of the family during Geoff’s minority, and resents the young future countess and the fact that she, Lady Verriton, and her daughter will be turned out of the castle upon the Earl’s marriage. Rhoda has the additional chip on her shoulder that she herself is dark and petite, not tall and fair like all the others in the Kentisbury family.
—Now here Lady Rhoda and her mother are being just plain ridiculous! There are centuries of precedence that the Dowager and her daughters, younger sons, etc. are bounced out of the ancestral home as soon as the current Earl or Duke or whomever marries. It’s rather like the peaceful transition of power between one American President and the President-Elect! You don’t get to stay in the White House forever!
But Rhoda and Lady Verriton are unreasonably thinking that Bill, whom they know and love, and who often visited the estate when he was growing up, should have had the title, or should at least be next in line for it. They seem indifferent if not actively antagonistic to the new Earl, the invalid whom apparently no one paid much attention to until he got engaged and his fiancée took him to see new doctors who improved his health. Their animus is reserved for that nameless young gold-digger (as they think of her) and her wretched baby brother. The kindest thing one can say about Rhoda is that she and her mother are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder over the relatively recent death of their father/husband, respectively, and the very recent and tragic death of the teenaged Earl. The Careful Reader, who was not I until about the third re-reading, will have picked up that the boy was willful and stubborn and wouldn’t have made a particularly good Earl in any case. But that’s neither here nor there in this episode. —
Lady Verriton leaves the country to visit her sister and Lady Rhoda and her distant cousin Rosalie (Bill’s sister; she has no title) go to attend Wood End school, which is designed for girls who don’t want to go on to college, but whose future lies in running their husbands’ estates. They need to be able to direct and supervise the servants and outdoor staff. The curriculum is hands-on-learning of things like the insides of a motor car, basic veterinary skills, how to run a Women’s Institute meeting, and lots of gardening and other outdoor work, as well as French, which well-brought up young women are supposed to be fluent in. The uniform is like those of the Women’s Land Army of World War I—” …khaki breeches like those the land-girls had during the war and smocks [emphasis added].’” Which war is not specified—of course, WWII had not occurred either in real time nor Abbey Time—in fact the series ends before the war begins. But depending on when you read this installment, you might be forgiven for thinking the uniform was that of the Land Girls of WWII.
—Elsewhere EJO refers to the Wood End uniform as being a “smock” over the breeches and boots, and some illustrators (and I) took this to be a traditional shepherd’s type of smock below, as translated to the left. In the cover illustrations at the top of this post you’ll see the smock concept on the right, along with the stout gloves needed for pruning roses.
However, a loose billowy smock gets in your way if you are bending over hoeing or weeding. In fact the Land Army uniform was a long, belted jacket with lots of useful pockets and various colored arm-bands and hat-badges to show different lengths or service and accomplishments. The U.S. and Australia also instituted Women’s Land Armies or the equivalent, in order both to free up men for service and to increase home production of agricultural and, later, mechanical products. Here’s a good website devoted the Women’s Land Army, founded in January 1917 and disbanded in November, 1919. Here’s a website with more information.
Below and especially to the right is the uniform: keys are slouch hat, breeches, high boots or short boots with puttees, and a coat that protects other garments.
Cousins Rhoda and Rosalie quickly make friends, including Robin Brent and Gwyneth Quellyn of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends, and Rhoda is reunited with Sonia (“Sonny”) Raymond, who is Joan Shirley Raymond’s husband’s niece. Near the school is a cottage with two halves: the Squirrel is a tea-shop and the Rose sells hand-made craft items. Both places are out of bounds for the school girls. They are allowed to visit the school tuckshop (Americans: closest analogy is ice cream parlor or candy store), run by pretty young Gail Alwyn. Due to her youth Gail has a little trouble keeping order; the left-hand image above shows her (flowered overall) telling two of the younger girls to get down off the counter.
The girls meet their country dance instructor, a tall, fair girl named Rosamund. They assume that her last name is Abbott, as she keeps referring to her aunts who run the Squirrel tea-house, but she just wants them to call her by her first name. Rosamund is blonde, walks with grace due to her years of country dancing, and wears an enormous diamond on her left hand—the girls speculate that she must be going to marry someone important. They try to pump Gail for more intel, but she is adamant about not gossiping. Of course, she is our Rosamund Kane, but shh! don’t tell Rhoda!
One day one of the younger girls, who is out-of-bounds, spies a loom in the front room of the Rose, and tells the others. Sonia is wild to see it more closely and the girls decide to—it’s hard to believe this!—sneak downstairs in the middle of the night, go out-of-bounds —that is, impugning their honor to obey the rules—and commit a little B&E. Robin Brent tries hard to dissuade them from this bad idea. Rhoda is uneasy about the project but goes anyway as part of the group. The girls enter the cottage to see a lovely piece of white material shot with gold and silver on the loom. Gail Alwyn comes down and tells them to go home. Then Rosamund, in a jolly blue kimono and with her hair in long fair plaits, comes down to see what the noise is. Rhoda has just picked up a piece of paper that she assumes is instructions for the weaving pattern, but is actually a letter from Maidlin. Rosamund is furious and accuses Rhoda of reading her letter (a cardinal sin in Victorian England, but also she wonders if Rhoda has deduced who she is and is trying to find some dirt on the future Countess), and Rhoda denies it. After everyone calms down and cocoa is served, a teacher from the school, Lisbeth Durant, comes in; she had seen the girls leaving the school building, but it took her some time to dress and figure out where they went. She carelessly reveals Rosamund’s last name and Rhoda turns white with rage when she realizes that this jolly dance teacher is the horrid interloper. The girls leave, and the adults promise that they won’t tell the Head of School. Rosamund weeps when they leave. Rosamund has been aware all along that Rhoda hates her, and she has convinced the Head not to reveal who she is, hoping that she can get Rhoda to change her mind before she reveals her identity.
(Above: Rosamund is in a red kimono. Dark-haired Rhoda is seated and it is probably Tamzine wearing the school jacket and tie. This illustrator did not get the Land Army uniform memo! BTW, that is not my thumb.)
While her friends try to convince her to play nice, Rhoda remains adamant in her rage and dislike of Rosamund. The latter finishes the piece of material–it is for Maidlin, for her upcoming singing debut at the Queen’s Hall under the baton of Sir Ivor Llewellyn, Lady Joy Shirley Marchwood’s fiancé. The other girls come to apologize again, and Rosamund sends them back to school, urging them not to go via the commons, as a developer has cut down many trees, leaving the great top-heavy pines dangerously exposed. A storm with high winds is arriving. Rhoda also appears at the cottage and angrily confronts Rosamund. As Rhoda jerkily moves to leave the room, she bumps into the writing table and knocks ink onto the material, ruining it. Rosamund speaks harshly to Rhoda, who runs out of the cottage, sobbing.
Rosamund works to compose herself. After a while she realizes that Rhoda is not really to blame; that it was an accident and not done on purpose. She scribbles a note of apology (in pencil! Nice touch, Elsie!) and takes it up to the school, where Rhoda is not to be found. Rosamund intuits that Rhoda has run to the commons so as not to be easily discovered, and she goes after her, despite the high winds. She starts to lead Rhoda to safety, but the girl trips and, before she can recover, a large tree named Adam, falls and pins her down. Another tree, Eve, is swaying dangerously and is certain to fall soon. Rhoda urges Rosamund to flee, on her own account as well as Geoffrey’s and her brother’s, but Rosamund refuses to leave her alone. They wait for Eve to fall and Rosamund hopes that she’ll be killed outright, rather than left crippled. Here EJO shows us without telling us that Rosamund is playing up and playing the game as well as being true to the motto of the Hamlet Club. The tree does crash, but lands on the first tree. Rosamund is briefly knocked out, but the girls are safe.
Adam and Eve and the fall of the trees—man’s fall from Eden? Oxenham rarely indulges in overt religious symbolism, but this could be one of the times, although I am still puzzling over it. Oxenham liked to give her heroines a Problem to resolve—and Lady Rhoda’s is pride. Rhoda has to be humbled by Rosamund’s generosity with regard to the ruined fabric and her gallantry in staying with Rhoda in the face of danger and possible death before she can achieve peace of mind and happiness.
The gardener and other men arrive and help the girls back to the school. Rhoda apologizes profusely for ruining the dress, but Rosamund assures her that Maidlin will prefer the reconciliation to the material, as indeed she does. Rhoda becomes completely reconciled to Rosamund and also confesses to the other girls that it was she who had ruined Maidlin’s gown. Rhoda and Rosalie offer to be bridesmaids at Rosamund’s wedding.
For Folk Dancers
This installment has quite a lot on dance: both on some new dances that Rosamund teaches the girls as well as the style of teaching and some of the comments on dance style itself.
Rhoda is eager to learn the country dancing, as her local Women’s Institute does it—she has not, however, cared to join in with them because she does not want to reveal her lack of knowledge and be “hauled through” a dance by mere villagers. (Her friends laugh at her for her snobbish attitude.) Rhoda asks if the teacher knows a lot of dances: “A dreadful thing happened once in our village. The W.I. had had lessons from a school teacher, and thought they knew a lot. Then someone else took them on, and she said they were doing it all wrong. She taught them all different ways, and the poor things didn’t know where they were, or what or who was right’ (97).” She is assured that Rosamund has the headquarters’ certificate. Rosamund appears, walking lightly “with a movement which told, to anyone who understood, of years of folk-dancing” (98).
Accomplished pianist Gail plays the dulcitone for the dancing: a pretty but rather quiet and tinkly sound-ing spinet-like instrument. Rosamund thinks that it fits the dances even better than the penny whistle that Gail had wanted to play, but I’m not sure I agree with her, at least not for some dances—here’s a dulcitone.
Gail asks for a chance to dance and Rosamund assures her that she’ll play better if she does. She then tells the girls to join hands and slip clockwise—and the girls asks which way that is. (102). And this was when everyone was using analog clocks!
To start the session, Rosamund tells the girls to form two lines and Tamzine says rather scornfully that she knows what’s going to happen: “‘Lead your woman down and turn her under; skip her back and swing your partner! These things in lines are all alike’ (98)” It is clear from this comment that folk dancing has to some extent already permeated the school P.E. curriculum. Rosamund says that perhaps she’s done Haste to the Wedding or Pop Goes the Weasel (both from Sharp’s first Country Dance Book of 1909), but what they are going to do is different. Later, Rosamund tells them to form a two-couple set, Tamzine scornfully thinks it’s going to be for Rufty Tufty, which apparently she is rather sick of. These sound like comments from real girls.
Here is Rosamund teaching:
“‘Take hands-four; oh—sorry! Make small rings of two couples! Now—those with their backs to me are Ones, those facing me are Twos. You’re sure of that? Keep your same number till you reach the end of the line, then change. I’ll take care of you when you change your number. Play the tune, Gail; listen everybody! It’s ‘Christchurch Bells.’ Do you know it?’ (99)”
Rhoda says that she knows it as a song and Rosamund tells the girls that many of the dances were songs. Rosamund continues, making the girls “practice the brisk clapping and the ‘cast,’” but almost at once insisting on the movements being fitted to the music. “As soon as the girls knew what they had to do, they were urged to try it with the tune, so that the music and movements should go together in their minds. (100)” This is excellent teaching technique! I have seen far too many people teach a dance without giving any indication of the music.
Christchurch Bells is indeed a jolly little dance and a good one for beginners in that it is short and the progression very clear. It is a three-part tune, originally a round or catch, written by Oxford don Henry Aldrich in 1673 and published in 1733 in The Second Book of the Catch Club.
- Hark the bonny Christchurch bells, one two three four five six.
They sound so woundy great, so wondrous sweet,
And they troll so merrily, merrily.
2. Hark the first and second bell that every day at four and ten
Cries come, come, come, come, come to prayers, and the verger troops before ye.
3. Tingle, tingle, ting goes the small bell at nine to call the bearers home,
But the de’il a man will leave his can ‘til he hears the mighty Tom.
The song Christchurch Bells in Oxford reminds us that the city was a place of worship as well as study, and that the bells of the various churches pealed all day long to tell the hours and to call students to class and celebrants to prayer. English bells were not pitched to play a tune as in a carillon, but different-sized bells did have different tones and pitches and could be rung in changes for specific purposes. Tom is clearly a basso profundo who says it’s time to high-tail it home. (For more on bells, read Dorothy Sayers’ mystery The Nine Tailors (1934). Did Oxenham read this? Probably—in addition to her popular mysteries, Sayers also wrote on religious topics, and she would have been of interest to EJO.) The “can” referred to above is the mug of beer that some prefer to other pursuits.
Here is a delightful rendition of the catch—be sure to watch it to the very end!
Here’s the dance as interpreted by Cecil Sharp from the seventh edition (1686—thirteen years after Aldrich wrote his song; it must have already been popularly spread by word of mouth) of The Dancing Master. Phrase One: first man turns second woman by the right, then his partner by the left. Phrase Two: second man turns first woman by the left and his partner by the right. Phrase Three: all four slipping circle around in 8 steps, then two claps (own hands, partner Right, own, partner Left), and in four steps the ones cast off to second places, twos moving up. Fun and easy but with amusing potential to get mixed up on the turns—is it left-hand or right? Well, here’s what EJO has Rosamund say; the girls are having some trouble at the ends of the lines when they change numbers and Rosamund urges them to trust the couples coming at them.
Presently Rosamund called a halt. “Look here, you people! Trust the couple coming up or down the line to you. They’ve been doing it all the way; they won’t suddenly go wrong. If the second woman wants to give right hand, let her, new first man! She’s correct; don’t insist on giving her your left.” Rosamund is right! This kind of insight reminds us that Elsie Oxenham taught dancing to her Camp Fire and her Girl Guide troop.
Later one of the girls asks how many dances Rosamund knows: she responds “120,” but that they won’t get through them all in this term (185). Rosamund is being a little dated—her answer would have been nearly correct up to 1922, which was about the time that the Oxenham family left London and presumably that EJO ceased to dance quite as often as formerly with the EFDS crowd.
The Country Dance Book I (1909) 18 (or 20 if you count variants in this edition)
Book II (1911) 30
Book III (1912) 34
Book IV (1916) 43
We’ll leave out Book V (1918) because it is devoted to the Kentucky Running Set. Book VI (1922) contained another 52 dances interpreted by Sharp from the Playford publications. However, the sum of the dances in the first four books is 125. (The total sum, again excluding Book V, is 177.)
However, Elsie and Rosamund are not wholly out-of-date! The dance Corn Rigs, with its polka step, comes from Sharp’s amanuensis and prominent collector in her own right, Maud Karpeles’ 1931 publication of Twelve Traditional Country Dances with pianoforte arrangements by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In a later instalment, EJO will refer to the dance Steamboat, which also comes from this publication. These dances deserve an essay of their own, which they are not going to receive at present—their importance in this story is that Oxenham, 57 in 1937 when the book was published, was still in touch with dance trends. The girls enjoy this dance and its new step: “. . . at the end of ‘Corn Rigs’ they broke into spontaneous clapping. ‘That’s tophole! Great, that one is!’”
And now on to two dances that Rosamund teaches that I am confident that few if any Gentle Readers will have encountered (I was certainly unfamiliar with them!): Sage Leaf and Put on Thy Smock on a Monday. Both are set dances with some complexities and both have tunes that are. . . . undistinguished. Dull, in fact.
Like (and probably related to) the Boulanger that Jane Austen enjoyed about 130 years later, the Sage Leaf (fourth edition, 1670) is a dance that is probably a blast at the end of your first grown-up party, when you and the other eighteen-year-old kids are slightly tipsy on the punch that you didn’t know was as strong as all that, and there’s a cute boy who keeps looking at you. In other words, it’s a party dance. There’s lots of skipping about and then plenty of time to catch your breath. Here’s how it goes.
As many couples as will, lady standing to the gentleman’s right, join hands in a big circle and slip to the right and then to the left. Gents dance in to the center and fall back; ladies the same. Now comes the distinctive figure—let’s say there are four couples in this set.
First couple lead in to the center, fall back, and then right-hand turn. Then second couple does the same thing, then third, then fourth. Now first man turns his partner by the right-hand once and a half around, then turns the second lady by the right, then the third, then the fourth, wending his way around the ring. Then the second gentleman turns his partner thusly and then all the other ladies. Then the third gent, then the fourth the same.
Now, to change things up, that whole paragraph is repeated with the second couple starting with the leading in. Then that paragraph again for the third couple, then again for the fourth. You can see that if there are a lot of couples, there is a fair bit of standing about, which is when you get to chat with your partner. The dance concludes with everyone circling right and left back again. One pities the musicians.
(Actually, with stronger tunes to support it, I could see this dance being fun in certain situations, particularly with a community of people who are familiar and comfortable with each other—at the closing party at a dance camp/weekend or for a home-school group or something of that sort. It wouldn’t take long to teach and is very accessible.)
Put on thy Smock on a Monday is a round for three couples that doesn’t deserve to be as forgotten as it is, again probably because the tune is dull, IMO. It has the standard USA figures (up a double or slipping circle, siding, and arming) with a chorus that is led by each gentleman in turn. The chorus is not difficult, per se, but, as Rosamund notes, you have to have a good spatial sense. Think of it as the first gentleman honoring, in turn, the third lady, then the second, then his own partner. Here’s how it goes: you are in a circle, first gent, and the first lady is on your right hand and the second on your left. Join hands with these two ladies and advance in a line to the left-over lady and retire; as the 2L and 1L turn each other once around behind your back, so to speak, you turn that honored third lady three-quarters around to end facing the second lady, opening into a new line of three numbered 1L – 1G – 3L. These three advance and retire and the two ladies turn once around while the first gentleman turns the second lady three-quarters around to re-orient the line facing the first lady, numbering 3L – 1G – 2L. Advance and retire and the first gent turns his partner while the other two ladies turn each other: all end at home positions. If you keep in mind that the honored lady will always end up at the active gentleman’s right hand with the nearer other lady in his left, and that the lines are oriented in three directions, it’s not so bad! This chorus is repeated by the second gentleman after the siding, and by the third after the arming. It could be tricksy in an all-girl set! The Wood End girls call it a “dear little dance,” but they have difficulty in controlling their three-quarter turns. (It takes a fair bit of control to turn only three-quarters in the phrase of music that you could turn once around in!) Rosamund tells them that they must cultivate their sense of “design.” This is a new word for EJO—she has mentioned “pattern” before—patterns work themselves out—but “design” is probably closer to what is needed in terms of the spatial awareness for this dance.
One of the tricky points that Rosamund is aware of is that Sage Leaf, a round for five couples, is numbered anti-clockwise, whereas Put on thy Smock is numbered the more usual clockwise. I do not know why or how Sharp came up with these rules—I don’t see anything in the facsimiles to indicate it. But this kind of detail would certainly have been part of the certificate testing.
Our next episode brings Rosamund to her happy ending, but there is more drama ahead. But first, a brief detour to the world of the certificate.