Despite what Aslan the great Lion of Narnia says about never knowing what would have happened, which means that since you cannot change the past there is no point in regretting it (unless it changes one’s present or future course of action), I do have regrets. One of my regrets is that, thirty years ago when I was acquiring good reading copies of EJO’s works for very reasonable prices, I did not pick up all eighty-eight of them, especially rare Connectors like Patch and a Pawn, now going for $270 to $900 on Advanced Book Exchange. Even Santa didn’t cough up for these! Patch and a Pawn is part of the Kentisbury set, which is closely interwoven with the Abbey Girls series. That installment comes before A27_Rosamund’s Castle and contains backstory on the Kane children and on young Tansy Lillico and her unhappy feelings.
Rosamund’s Castle was published in 1938 and is set in November of 1931 through February of 1932, Abbey Time, starting about seven months after Rosamund’s wedding. While I am very fond of Rosamund Kane, now Countess of Kentisbury, this is not one of my favorite of her stories, partly because she appears rather flat in it, partly because of the sensational plot-line, and mostly because the idea of one of Our Girls living in the enormous castle that was apparently based on the real-life Arundel Castle in Sussex is just a little too hard to believe. This installment does feature the girls of Wood End School, and they are a jolly touch to a convoluted story.
So, this episode is a bit of a slog, and it won’t hurt you to skip it! There is nothing of note in it for folk dancers.
A thought on young Tansy’s name, Tanis. One source says that it is the Greek variant of the Phoenician name “Tanith,” meaning “serpent lady.” Did Oxenham know this? Is Tansy the Serpent in the Castle’s Bosom? The new Earl and his Countess do not initially know that she is living at the Dower House. EJO doesn’t often indulge in name symbolism, although two of the original Hamlet Club girls have the surnames of Honor and Verity, and, of course, we’ve already explored Joy’s name. Tanis is the name of the woman that Sinclair Lewis’ character Babbitt has an affair with in the book of that name published in 1922, and which won Lewis a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930—EJO could well have read it, although the association is not suitable for girls. Additionally, “Tansy” is the Greek name for “immortality.” It is also a flower in the aster family, and is sometimes known as “bitter buttons.” So, who knows? Perhaps EJO just found it a pretty name.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The story opens with fourteen-year-old Tansy (short for Tanis) Lillico arriving at the train station in the small town of Kentisbury, just outside the Castle and the Park. Her pal Roger, the doctor’s son, meets her. Tansy’s school has had scarlet fever and been in quarantine, and now they have to have the floors up to deal with drains; she is sent back to her aunts, one of whom is housekeeper at the Castle and the other of whom runs the Dower House (where the Earl’s mother traditionally retires to upon his marriage) in the Park outside the Castle. Tansy is a troubled child. Orphaned, she came to the Castle at the age of four and was pals with the Castle children: Geoff, “the young Earl,” who frankly is not worthy of his position; his sister Rhoda (we’ve already encountered Rhoda and the chip on her shoulder in A22_Rosamund’s Victory); and their distant cousins Geoffrey-Bill (Wilfred, really; but he is known as Bill the sailor) and Rosalie Kane. In Tansy’s childhood Geoffrey-Bill was a strong runner-up for the title if young Geoff hopped the twig, and the Old Earl therefore encouraged him to visit the Castle frequently. Tansy is several years younger than the youngest of them, and she hero-worships Rhoda and Rosalie. After the death of the young Earl, the two girls left the estate and have never written to Tansy—they wouldn’t think to write to the housekeeper’s niece says one of the school-girls, matter-of-factly when she hears Tansy’s complaint. Tansy is very unhappy at this desertion and blames it all on the new Earl and his young bride, our Rosamund.
Elsie Oxenham has shown us many times that excessive hero-worship is bad for the worshipper, and Tansy is no exception. It is clear to her friend Roger, to the other girls with whom she shares her story, to the Reader, and, eventually, to Rosamund herself, that Tansy is wrong and mistaken, and that her actions are un-balanced, a key sin in Oxenham’s world.
After this introduction of the problem that will need to be resolved, we turn our attention to Benedicta (Ben, Benneyben, “Blessing”) Bennett who arrives at Wood End School mid-term, in November. (Remember her? She was the one injured saving one of the Marchwood twins in the last installment.) She is thrilled with the practical school uniform of smock over breeches and boots, happy to learn about veterinary care, gardening, first aid, chairing Womens’ Institute meetings, and all the other things that these girls who are destined to run great country houses—and by “run” I mean marry into and manage. These are future Ladies of the Manor. That night a fire breaks out! The house is uninhabitable! Disaster! What will the school do?
Rosamund shows up and offers to house the school at the Dower House. (It wouldn’t be appropriate to have them at the Castle, she says, and everyone agrees. Why not? I don’t know. Too much a lowering of the Castle’s dignity, I suppose. After all, there are days when the General Public is permitted to visit.) The girls are all warned to stay out of the Park that surrounds the Castle; the deer—so ornamental at other times!—are “looking for lady friends”. The stags, especially the oldest one, Alexander the Great, are dangerous and unpredictable. Can you guess what is coming?
Tansy introduces herself to Benney and her chum Daffodil. She says she hates the Countess. She makes a midnight feast for the girls, lighting three candles—she is playing at being Camp Fire, but Benney truly is! Benney says that being Camp Fire means obeying the rules, and refuses to join in the feast. The next morning the other two girls say that she was right to do so. As she often has, EJO presents Camp Fire not just as fun, but as a standard for living and doing the right thing.
Tansy reveals that she and Roger used to play with the Castle children, and that Geoff gave her a wonderful chess set, but that her aunts won’t let her have it, since he never wrote down that it belonged to her. There is a hint—so subtle that I only picked it up on the third reading—that Tansy has heard some village gossip: this would be about the Countess’s pregnancy and the hoped-for heir. Tansy remains resentful here will be another heir to take over the Castle away from Geoffrey-Bill, and that the girls she idolizes will never return.
The Marchwood twins come for a visit, explore the Castle, and show Benney a wonderful playroom filled with toys. She takes the key from them to talk to Tansy about it. Tansy takes the key, steals into the Castle in the middle of the night, takes the chess set, and buries it in the sand of a shallow cave overlooking a small lake.
The twins and Maidlin explore the lake and discover the cave the next day. Tansy observes them and fears for her chess set. She develops the plan that she’ll take the little girls into the Park and scare them with the stags. She dimly knows that this is wrong, but cannot stop herself. The narrator comments that no “decent” person, especially Camp Fire, would do this and that every grownup would condemn her for her “treachery,” but there is a weakness in Tansy’s character that her mother might have addressed, but that her aunts did not or could not. She leads the twins to the lake and then into the park where, predictably, they encounter Alexander the Great. The children hide, and Tansy bravely tries to fend off the stag.
Rosamund and Maidlin have dismissed the chauffeur after visiting a retainer. With Rosamund at the wheel, they drive through the Park, hear the stag roaring, and see that Tansy, in her red cap, is trapped by him. Rosamund sends Maidlin, who can run, to fetch some men and she carefully—she is six months pregnant although as usual we have only had the reference to A Loose Frock—goes to save Tansy. They confront the stag; Rosamund trips and falls down; Tansy throws herself in front of the Countess and shrieks for the stag to gore her first; the men arrive and save the day; Margaret and Elizabeth pop up from behind a bush; and Maidlin realizes that the stakes were higher than she had thought. Rosamund has fainted and cannot be revived. The men carry her to the car and young Bob drives her to the Castle. The Earl and specialists are sent for.
Rosamund doesn’t recover well; she is deeply troubled by the stag’s “hot eyes.” Maidlin and the Earl are urged to not let her dwell on it. Finally, Tansy comes to the Earl and confesses her part in the situation; he reluctantly gives her permission to tell her story to Rosamund. This is cathartic for both. Tansy wants to give her most precious treasure—the chess set—to the Countess. Rosamund realizes how hurt and betrayed Tansy has felt by Rhoda’s and Rosalie’s desertion; she understands and forgives Tansy for the plan and is touched that Tansy stood in front of her when she had fallen.
Happy endings all around! The Earl, who shows to advantage in this episode, forgives Tansy and they play chess; she is a worthy opponent. Rosamund has her baby boy, the heir, Lord Verriton, in February, and the villager light bonfires on the tops of the hills all around as if he were the heir to a throne. For his careful driving, Bob, who is promoted to the job of under-chauffeur, is also given the privilege of riding his motorbike through the estate grounds—the only non-family member who is permitted to do so. The keepers salute as he passes, as they do to the family cars. Is this feudal? Yes. Rosamund even acknowledges it: “‘We are a bit feudal here—but only for the fun of it and because we all enjoy it. Bob’s as much amused as anybody, and his chums pull his leg about his privilege. But he’s terribly proud, all the same!’” To put this in perspective for the modern reader, recall that an estate the size of Kentisbury Castle in the 1930s was really a business—it employed people for miles around. It was worth your while to touch your cap.
Rosamund writes to Rhoda and Rosalie and, prompted, they write nice letters to Tansy, who also now realizes that just as the Castle children had included her in their games only when they wanted a fifth, she had been using Roger as a substitute friend in their absence. Tansy now adores “My Lady,” who has offered her a future position as housekeeper when her aunt retires: Tansy will go to school, presumably graduating around age sixteen, then on to Wood End for a couple of years to learn estate-management “stunts,” and then to college where she will essentially learn home economics. (“College” at this time appears to be different from “university.” A lot of the Hamlet Queens or other girls go to a “college” to learn a practical trade like being a nursemaid or a secretary; even our Rosamund has a highest-level certificate as a cook. But they are not reading “Greats” or anything like that; these are not the lady scholars that Dorothy Sayers depicts in Gaudy Night.) Rosamund has a plan in which Geoffrey-Bill, a “nice young naval officer” in ten years, will visit the Castle and fall in love with and marry Tansy.
For Folk Dancers
Very little. Sorry! This will change fairly soon, when we encounter younger heroines. The two milk cows at Wood End School are named Butterfly and Sweet Kate, after country dances. One pig is named Billy (Constant Billy, as he is constantly eating) and the other Lumps (as in “of plum pudding”)—both are morris dances. The horses are Old Black Joe (the title of a Stephen Foster song which is not, I expect, in the Sharp-approved canon) and Jockie (as in “to the fair,” another morris dance). One teacher, Miss Marshal, teaches the “outdoor stunts”: gardening and farm-work in the day and morris dancing in the evenings.