Our attention lately has been on Elsie J. Oxenham’s Cinderella-heroine Rosamund Kane but now another character, her best friend Madalena di Ravarati, re-enters the spotlight. EJO has been quietly and cleverly setting up Maidlin’s emotional Problem for fourteen or so novels, starting from when she was introduced back in the fourth book to bear the Abbey title, A13_The New Abbey Girls, published in 1923 and set in 1921 (see the note below about publication order). In this episode, published in 1937, we will happily see her come into her own, tip-toeing on the edge of her romantic and artistic fulfillment.
Here, just as a reminder to those who have lately come to the party, I am blogging about the Abbey Girls series of novels by Elsie J. Oxenham, who wrote nearly ninety books for girls and women. I examine each novel in reading order, which is not the same as publication order, although we are over the rocky territory of the seven Retrospective episodes, published between 1938 and 1957 but set in the roughly two-year period when the initial Abbey Girls, cousins Joy and Joan Shirley, were in their late teens. Could we say here just how brilliantly Oxenham interwove all these stories? A tour de force! The principal purpose of these posts is to examine the folk dance elements of the stories, but of course I indulge in more than that.
Maidlin—the North Country version of the name Madalena. . . .
—here I digress to note that Elsie J. Dunkerley was the eldest of the six Dunkerley children, all of whom used their father’s pen-name of Oxenham in their own writing. The children were Elsie, Marjorie (Maida), Roderic, Theodora (Theo), Erica, and Hugo. None of the four girls married, and they grew up to live in pairs, Elsie with Maida. While there is no evidence to connect the fictional heroine to EJO’s sister (we have very little biographical information on the family), the name seems representative of her affection for her.—
. . . came onto the scene as the fourteen-year-old orphaned and poorly-educated niece of the caretaker of the Abbey, Ann Watson. Maidlin is a “between” girl—I nearly wrote “mixed race,” which is how a modern novelist might choose to represent her issues and her resolution of them—she is the daughter of a poor North Country housemaid and a wealthy Italian gentleman. She has been brought up by her dour Yorkshire relatives who have not permitted her to enjoy color, music, or art of any kind, but Ann has learned that Maidlin will soon be a fabulously wealthy heiress. Ann feels that Maidlin must be brought up “right,” and begs wealthy Joy Shirley, mistress of Abinger Hall, to take her in and educate her to the station to which she will belong. Maidlin has always felt in two halves: the hard-working, sensible, cautious, housemaid half and the emotional, impulsive, artistic Italian half that also gave her her dark eyes and hair. At fourteen and for many years after she is frankly a mess, and really needs more therapy than just folk dancing! She is pathologically shy, absurdly temperamental, and wildly over-dependent on Joy who is not, perhaps, the best of guardians for her in that Joy has maturity issues herself. Maidie is also overly dependent on Rosamund, almost a year her senior.
Nature versus Nurture? Like many of her literary generation—think of the unusual upbringing of Tarzan of the Apes, a/k/a Lord Greystoke—Oxenham wrestles with this issue, and generally, or at least initially, lands on the side of Nature. This is very apparent in her treatment of the village people who, while they can enjoy dancing and beautiful things, simply don’t thrill to it the way the gently-born do. Maidlin is shown as having a pragmatic, hardworking, matter-of-fact North Country side and an artistic, impulsive and temperamental Italian side. Over the last four or five installments, however, Oxenham has shown us in a tender and gradual manner how Maidlin is slowly integrating her two halves and asserting her independence. This, perhaps, is Nurture asserting its force. Outsiders don’t understand how the lovely artist who lives at the Hall can be the niece of the caretaker of the Abbey, Mrs. Watson. But here at last through education and experience Maidlin can reconcile her duality. Now she is ready to Bear the Torch.
The Torch of what? The first reference is obvious.
I will write at greater length about the symbolism, practices, and early days of the Camp Fire movement, but for now know that there were three ranks of leadership or accomplishments. Every girl who joined a Camp Fire was given, gratis, a silver ring decorated with a fagot or bundle of logs.
After making and decorating her gown and head-band and beginning to earn “honors”—accomplishments such as sleeping with the windows open for a month, or learning to identify and describe twenty wild flowers—each of which gained a bead of a certain color (Home Craft was flame-colored; Health, red; Nature Lore, blue; Hand Craft, green, etc.), the girl would earn the rank of Wood-Gatherer. The next rank was Fire-Maker, and the girl earned a bracelet. The final rank was Torch-Bearer, and the girl earned a brooch. A Torch Bearer had to show true leadership qualities. Early in this episode, Maribel Ritchie Marchwood, who is herself a Torch Bearer, will carry the torch to the Camp’s Guardian Maidlin, and promote her to that rank. Maribel talks about Maidlin’s service and accomplishments, but in this book EJO will show us how Maidlin plays up and plays the game.
Cover illustration: Benedicta Bennett with lint-white hair stands to the left; Cecily Perowne, with dark-red plaits, is on the right, explaining Camp Waditaka (the Camp of Adventurous People) to her. It is possible that the artist intended to show Maidlin in the center.
Folk dancers—once again, sorry, not much in this episode. There is a bit of dancing at Rosamund’s wedding, but it is a pretty standard set piece and doesn’t offer any new insights into the world of folk dance.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The headmistress of an unnamed school calls fifteen-year-old Benedicta Bennett to her office to tell her that her mother will arrive soon to take her to a concert of avant-garde composer Alwyn’s music, conducted by the famous Sir Ivor Quelleyn. Benedicta’s brother, Jim, has refused to go because, nine months earlier, Sir Ivor had both disparaged his efforts at musical composition and had caused Alwyn’s granddaughter, Gail, who Jim was sweet on, to disappear.
Benedicta and her mother attend the concert, and the latter is mesmerized by the sight of Lady Quelleyn (Joy Shirley Marchwood), accompanied with her two young twin girls and tall, blonde Rosamund, who is to be married in one week to the Earl of Kentisbury. A beautiful, half-Italian singer—of course she is Maidlin—sings beautifully, and Benedicta recognizes her as the “Daffodil Girl” waitress from A21_Biddy’s Secret. Benney tells Jim about the girl, as he had been much taken with her two years earlier when the family encountered her in France, and the three decide to motor down to view the Abbey and perhaps get a glimpse of the girl.
By great chance, Benney and her mother meet Maidlin, who shows them around the Abbey. She sees Benney’s Camp Fire ring and invites her to stay for a special meeting that evening. Mrs. Bennett agrees, and there is a lovely description of the Camp Fire meeting, enhanced by the songs of Maidlin—Nawadaha the Sweet Singer—and the circle dances Circassian Circle and Sellengers Round performed around the fire in the garth of the Abbey.
Benney, whose Came Fire name is Ohitaya, “to be brave,” is resting after the ceremony when young Jim arrives—there has been a bad crash and Mrs. Bennett is concussed and very badly injured. Maidlin suggests that Benney stay with her at the Hall, as it is closer to the hospital than London. This crisis, and the one at the end of the novel, shows that Maidlin, who in prior difficult situations has been useless—Jen, Rosamund, and Joy all said so and we saw it!—can now rise to the occasion and give both comfort and practical help.
Lady Jen Marchwood’s littlest child, Rosemary Jane, three years old, is ill with what turns out to be appendicitis and everyone is worried. Recall that in Abbey Time we are in pre-penicillin days and even at the time of publication appendicitis was a more worrisome condition than it usually is today. The Marchwoods send their elder boys away to the Grange in Yorkshire, and Benney moves to the Abbey, to give more room for the Quelleyns, who have just arrived at the Hall. Jim, now much smitten with Maidlin, starts to visit once or twice a day ostensibly to give Benney the news about their mother. Lady Jen visits the Abbey and she and Benney have a long talk about God and why He lets bad things happen. They will each pray for the other’s ill loved. Joan comes to support Jen; this is the first time in some episodes that Joan, the good girl who has become a slightly boring adult, has made an appearance. Benedicta tells Maidlin that Jim isn’t really serious about her, as he really likes someone else—Gail. After blazing up in anger—that Italian temperament again!—Maidlin says that she knows a girl named Gail; she is Gail Alwyn, who runs Rosamund’s tuck shop. The two talk about marriage and that the girl has to give up more than the man. Word comes that Mrs. Bennett is getting better, and Benny asks to stay on until the wedding.
Rosamund’s happy day is over-shadowed by the baby’s illness, and they determine to operate for appendicitis on the day of Rosamund’s wedding. After a chance meeting with Joan, Benny offers to be the person at the telephone near the church so that Joan can pass on details of the operation, which they are keeping from Rosamund so as not to spoil her day. Benny is delighted to help. She goes down to the church to see the procession in and meets girls from Wood End School in their smocks and breeches. One of them is Gail. They all dance Christchurch Bells and the Ribbon Dance with ribbons of crimson and emerald, gold and deep blue. Benny reveals that she is to attend Wood End School soon.
The phone rings and the operation has gone well. Benny is able to slip a note into Lady Joy’s hand and everyone is relieved. There is more dancing—Put on Thy Smock on a Monday—(remember that the Wood End uniform is a smock over breeches and gaiters), We Won’t Go Home till the Morning and more (unnamed). Suddenly Jim appears and sees Gail, whom he eyes “hungrily”—EJO often uses this word when the man sees his girl. (Do we find this word icky and unrealistic when applied to romance? Yes, yes we do. It strikes a jarring note of sexuality. But EJO had no idea of how to write about adult romance and situations and uses this word as code for Romeo-and-Juliet-type love just as she uses “loose frocks” for pregnancy.) Though still only seventeen, Gail suddenly grows up and begins to feel the same towards him. (Well, not “hungry” but at least affectionate.)
Some days later, Sir Ivor reveals to Maidlin and tangentially to Benney, that he has been offered a prestigious conducting position in New York City for the next three years. Much consternation all around! What will Joy say or do; she is so impetuous! Joy wants her children to grow up at the Hall, not in a city. Sir Ivor seems to want Maidlin to break the news first, but Maidlin refuses (but ends up doing it anyway as she cannot keep a secret from her beloved Joy). After long debate and anxiety, Joy says that people are more important than places or things—an unexpectedly mature point of view, as both Mary and Jen acknowledge!—and agrees to go with him, though she’ll be back in November (the perceptive reader will infer that there is a baby on the way and that she wants to have it at the Hall). Whether or not her daughters will accompany them is somewhat undecided.
Joy goes to kiss her daughters good night—but they have vanished! Sir Ivor reminds her that this isn’t America; they wouldn’t have been kidnapped (and here Maidlin shoots Sir Ivor A Warning Glance, and I’ll discuss why in a couple of weeks). Everyone runs around looking for Margaret and Elizabeth. Benney remembers that they had said that they wanted to go see the Abbey at night, and races to find them. The girls are there and Margaret in particular has been frightened by something she calls The Thing, a large owl that screeches. Benney, ahead of the rest, finds the girls hiding, but the owl screeches again and Margaret starts running towards a large hole in the floor. Benney pushes her back to safety but falls herself.
Benedicta has broken her arm and several ribs—what Ray and Waring calls the “price of admission” to the Abbey circle. She will appear in later installments. Joan, Jen, and Rosamund each independently offer Maidlin a home if Joy goes to New York. Gail and Jimmy get engaged though they won’t marry for some time. Rosamund appears after her honeymoon in Scotland and reveals that the specialist says that Geoffrey will lead a normal life. The perceptive reader will pick up her hint to Maidlin that she is pregnant.
Rosamund tells Maidlin that the other girls have had to leave the Abbey and now Maidlin is its Torch-Bearer. The “spirit of the Abbey” is something that has been touched on in prior installments (it will be heavily stressed in the Retrospective books that were published after this episode), but this is the clearest allusion to it that we have had so far.
“. . . you’re the only one of the real family left. All the rest of us have new responsibilities, and we must give ourselves up to them—I to Kentisbury—Joy to Ivor and his music—Jen to her delicate Rosemary and all the others. Joan has gone completely, though I know she was a great help to Jen and you lately. You’re the only one of us all who is free from other claims. . . . You’re still free and able to carry on—to bear the torch. We’ve had to pass it to you. You’re the Torch-Bearer for the family, as well as for your Camp Fire, Maid.”
Maidlin asks what the torch is, and Rosamund replies that it is a “spirit of welcome—and helpfulness—and kindness,” and reminds Maidlin of all that she has done to help her cousins and Biddy and others. Maidlin asks if “it” could be “the right of sanctuary? . . . The Abbey was holy—sanctuary—refuge for people in danger, even if they were guilty. Are we, without thinking about it, bringing back the old rights and the old spirit, by welcoming anyone who is in trouble?”
This is—I think—the first time the word “sanctuary” is used in the canon if you are reading the books in publication order. It is an unusual word, with a very specific meaning that is more than just being helpful. It is also a word that invokes the England prior to the dissolution of the monasteries, an imagined merrie old England of the simpler world of folk dance. More on this in the future, perhaps.
The book concludes with Maidlin saying that she had been feeling a bit lost and forsaken with Rosamund and Joy leaving, but that she’ll try to bear the torch. “‘You’re doing it already, my dear,’” Rosamund [says] quietly.
This is touching, and easy and obvious for the young reader to grasp. But I think that perhaps Elsie Oxenham had one more torch in mind, a third one, not just the literal torch symbolizing Camp Fire leadership, nor that of the special Abbey spirit of sanctuary, but the spirit that she believed that God gave to each of her readers.