Published in 1945 but set in July through August of 1932, A30_Two Joans at the Abbey takes us into the Second Generation titles. While it is not one of my favorite titles, it is satisfactorily constructed with a nice balance of adventure and folk dancing.
There is an enormous difference in the experience of reading the Abbey Girls series in Publication Order, which is how Stella Waring and Sheila Ray organized their Island to Abbey analysis, in Reading Order, which is how this series of posts is organized, or in Random Order, which is how I (along with, I suspect, many other readers) first encountered Oxenham’s works. We don’t really need to discuss Random Order, which was confusing and sometimes frustrating, but also fun to try to puzzle out the characters and relationships. This puzzlement was not aided by Elsie’s fondness for repeating certain names: take Cecily/Cicely/Cecilia, Rosamund/Rosalind, Marjorie/Maidlin/Maribel, Joan/Janice/Jehane/Littlejan/Joan-Two/Jansy/Jean/Jen, for instance. Who are all these people?
In Reading Order, we dealt with the seven titles that form the Retrospective Titles, A4 through A10, long, long ago—way back in July of 2020. These titles focus on the exploits of young Jen Robins and her pal Jacky and the still teenaged Joan and Joy Shirley as they uncover the many secrets of the Abbey: Lady Jehane’s jewels, the Monk’s Path, and other treasures hidden by Ambrose, the lay brother who loved Jehane and who became a saintly emblem—a Guardian as it were, and I don’t use that word carelessly—of both the secrets of the Abbey and its spiritual heritage. You’ve forgotten about them, right? I know I have.
But if we were reading in Publication Order, those exploits would be fresher in our minds: A4_Schooldays at the Abbey, the story that introduced Jandy Mac and Ambrose and his ring, came out in 1938, A5_Secrets of the Abbey in 1939, and A6_Stowaways at the Abbey in 1940. Whether influenced by the paper shortages of the War, the demands of her publishers as a result of changing reading patterns of the target audience, or her own development as a writer, Elsie Oxenham’s writing style changed in these years and after. She became much more succinct, as she herself noted—
I feel those early books are rather wordy and spun-out. There is probably just as much story in the modern ones but it is told much more tersely and neatly. I used to put in whole pages of what people thought. Now I let you discover it from the things they do.
I rather miss the longer, more flowery and descriptive passages of the earlier books, but there is no denying that the stories from this post-war period bustle along much more rapidly.
I bring up the Reading versus Publication order because for the prior nearly twenty volumes we have galloped along without knowing anything about Ambrose or the secrets of the Abbey. Now, with the Retrospective novels scattered in between the current ones, these story elements will become more prominent.
A30_Two Joans at the Abbey strikes a nice balance between the adventures and discoveries and the folk dancing that has been absent for a number of installments. The older girls are now safely married but still able to attend dances in between having babies, and we now have Littlejan Fraser firmly established at the Abbey and able to lead younger girls into folk dancing and the activities of the Hamlet Club.
Cover illustration: Here we see Jansy (unaccountably wearing a frock; she should be in school uniform) with the twins who, most unusually, are not identically attired, looking at some of the old religious carvings over the doorway of the tithe-barn.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Janice Macdonald Fraser, “Jandy Mac,” has traveled to England with her thirteen-and-a–half year-old daughter Joan. This girl is named after Joan Shirley Raymond, and is called variously Little Joan, Joan-Two/Too and Littlejan, which is the name I’ll use throughout. They ride from Kentisbury Castle where they have been staying to visit Joan and her ten-year old daughter, Jansy (named “Janice” after Jandy Mac). Joan has just had baby Jim. She tells them that she will be temporarily living at Abinger Hall while her own house is being renovated, and assisting–as best as she can and it is an uphill battle!—in supervising the nine-year-old twin daughters of her cousin Joy Shirley Marchwood, now Lady Quellyn. Lady Joy as she is popularly and incorrectly known, is in New York City with her conductor husband and new baby boy. The twins are in raptures over Littlejan’s pony, Chestnut, but Joan observes that there is no stable for him (she also doesn’t want the twins riding—very sensible!).
A telegram arrives! It is from Jandy Mac’s Scottish relatives—her Aunt Mary is ill. Conveniently hauled away from the scene as another competent adult, Jandy Mac races off to Scotland and Littlejan is comforted by the twin’s teenaged governess Belinda “Lindy” Bellanne, whom she admires very much. To cheer Littlejan up, Joan’s husband Jack Raymond promises to make a book of photos of Littlejan to give to her mother.
Despite Joan’s objections, Littlejan wants to find a billet—a very wartime word!—for Chestnut. Joan says that Bell’s Farm, right next to the Abbey, would be the closest place—however, she was never acquainted with the former owner, Mr. Edwards, who was a grumpy old man who did not permit the girls on the farm after Joy had trespassed there once. The farm and the Abbey are separated by a row of ilex trees—a sort of pine that does not lose its leaves in winter—so she has never seen the farm. In fact, dear Reader, this farm hasn’t existed before! EJO weaves in the place, its history, and its current owner very skillfully.
The Marchwood twins, who are a disaster magnet, are eager to find housing for Chestnut. They also have a secret that they want to explore so they can have a share in the uncovering of more treasures of the Abbey. Their secret is near the farm, and they are afraid of the farm’s giant bloodhound with red eyes that they call the Horrible Enemy. One day, the twins seize the chance to run off. They have found a secret passage between the Abbey and the farm and scramble in. Elizabeth notices that it is not just a hole: it was built by someone—there are bricks that form the roof. Suddenly they are joined by Jansy, who had seen them running across the lawn. The girls go deeper into the tunnel, which is blocked by dirt. They wonder if they can dig their way out and Jansy pulls on a board that precipitates an earthfall that blocks the entrance. Jansy protects the little girls and then goes to the farm end of the tunnel and digs. They make their way through and find a building that looks a bit like the Abbey with the same perpendicular windows. The door is locked and they hear the baying of the Horrible Enemy. They flee back to the tunnel.
Joan has become concerned about the girls and starts a search. They find Jansy’s coat and bookbag near one end of the tunnel. They see the fallen-in hole and send for men with spades. They also send someone to get the bloodhound, who, when they give her Jansy’s coat, starts baying at the dirt and trying to dig. The girls are rescued, but in the process a brick falls on Jansy and gives her a slight concussion. The girls are sent to bed in disgrace.
Jack has brought Littlejan back from Kentisbury Castle where he has been photographing her riding Chestnut, and she asks to walk back to the Hall through the Abbey. She spots the hole and the signs of digging and enters the tunnel, follows it to the end and sees the interior of the building and thinks it would be a marvelous place for dancing. On her way out, she sees a brick poking out, and, thinking only of the next explorers who might bump their heads on it, pulls on it. There is another landslide, and Littlejan is hurt. She wonders if and when anyone will think of her. Poor Joan! When Littlejan doesn’t show up, she and Jack go back to the Abbey and see the evidence of the second landslide and effect the rescue all over again. Littlejan has several broken ribs.
Jandy Mac races back from Scotland on a train that arrives in London very early. She is met by Rachel Ellerton, whom Maidlin had asked to meet her in a friendly fashion and give her breakfast before the later train to Whiteways, and Rachel responds competently. She likes to see herself as an “outpost” of the spirit of the Abbey. Damaris’s ballet dancing has been a great success, but Maid is worried that her cousin Rachel is worried about something. (If you are just reading these posts, you haven’t heard about Damaris and her dancing—the Connector title Damaris Dances was published in 1940. I acquired and read it just a few weeks ago and I’ll write about it in a few installments from now.) We don’t hear what the worry is about in this installment, though.
John Edwards, the nice son of the grumpy farmer, is very pleased to give the building, which he says was the tithe-barn of the monks, back to the Abbey—his father had previously leased it for farm uses from the Abinger family, then quarreled with Sir Anthony Abinger and refused to return it. In return, he asks that Joan pave the way for his twin daughters to find life easy at Miss Macey’s School and to teach them some dancing, showing that he is eager to see them moved up into the middle-class. (I’ll add here so that we don’t forget, that the Abbey Girls do a good job of sponsoring the twins, who end up being Joan’s maids-of-honor for at least one coronation.) Joan, Maidlin, Lindy, and Littlejan are delighted, and start dancing right away. As the farmer clears out the building, which had housed old farm equipment, he finds a bell—her name (like ships, all bells are “shes”) is Cecilia. The inscriptions on her, as well as John’s family recollections, show that the lay brother Ambrose had hidden the bell at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbey Girls are delighted, and put the bell into the Abbey where it is rung to call people to the dance. The bell also refers to a companion bell, Michael, and the girls wonder if they will ever find it.
The girls have a dance to “handsel” (a Scottish word meaning to take ownership of) the barn and at last we are back in the world of folk dancing.
Two last discursive notes. First, Cecilia is the patron saint of music in the Roman Catholic church. Her feast day is November 22. Future musician Cecil Sharp was born on that day in 1859—hence his very satisfying name. By this time in her writing career, EJO has become mildly obsessed with saints and their religious connection to the Abbey: many of the boys born in this period will bear saints’ names. In fact, though we don’t know it yet, not only does Jen Robins (Lady Jen) aspire to bear a morris side of boys (that’s six boys, if you don’t already know), but they all end up with saints’ names as either their first or middle names. This is a late development—we didn’t know about this when she had the first boy (Andrew).
Second, I want to stress again Oxenham’s brilliance at keeping track of her own plots and characters, weaving in stories or little elements that we may or may not have read, such as the farm, Damaris’ career in the ballet, and the various discoveries in the Abbey, without overwhelming a new reader with details with which they are unacquainted. This ability is one of the characteristics that set her apart from lesser writers of series novels; it gives a rich sense of tapestry and background to her stories that adds to their appeal
For Folk Dancers
There is no new ground here—the usual, Sharp-based repertoire—but it has been quite a few installments since we had a dance, and the big dance scene at the end is delightful, not just for the dancing but for the sense of girl-oriented community. The dances Scotch Cap and Picking Up Sticks, both for three couples, and the longways dances The Butterfly, and We Won’t Go Home ‘Till Morning are all referred to, but not described, and Sellenger’s Round forms the traditional finale of the evening dance.
Janice watches the girls dance the three-couple dance The Old Mole in the tithe barn, with tall Rosamund and petite Maidlin taking the most demanding position as second couple who must remember which neighbor in turn they must form arches with. This dance has undeservedly dropped out of the popular canon, probably because not only is the tune just one, eight-bar phrase that is repeated twenty-two times, which is not currently preferred, but because it is a rather challenging series of figures to remember and it goes lickety-split—fun! The little girls like to think that the dancers ducking under the arches are like moles creeping through a tunnel just as they did, but Kate Van Winkle Keller notes in The Playford Ball that a mole was an artificial harbor created with massive stone piers—the diarist Samuel Pepys noted in 1661 that a great storm had destroyed the mole at Algiers and many of their ships were sunk. She also says that the image of a burrowing creature may also have been intended, suggesting some current political intrigue.
“What pretty dancers the twins are already!” Janice thought, as she watched. “And Maidlin’s dancing is full of music, like she is herself, while Rosamund keeps her dignity even when she’s skipping of course. But little Margaret is careless; she nearly went wrong. There! I believe it’s happened!” at an agonized cry from Elizabeth—“Pass right, Twin—right! Oh, you are a silly girl!”
Margaret, who has trouble focusing, has come to grief in the sixth and final part of the dance: first the women dance the hey (a weaving figure) along their line; then the men; then all six dance a circular hey twice round; then the ones, followed by the others, cast down to the foot of the set and then back up to the top. All these figures are danced with a skipping step—it’s a great performance dance!
At an earlier scene on the Abbey garth, we see Jansy imitating her mother’s “Women’s Institute” teaching style for Rufty Tufty as she, the twins, and Lindy dance as Lindy sings: “Now I want to see that again. Be careful of your setting! Margaret sometimes puts one toe in front of the other she mustn’t do it—it’s wrong. Remember what hand to use when you lead out. Left the first time and back with the right then the other way round.” What she is referring to here is the chorus figure which contains one of the Sharp “tricky bits”: the couples lead out towards their own “wall” with the man on the woman’s right and their left hands joined, lead back right in right, lead neighbor out right in right, lead back left in left—the woman’s arm is always crossing her body. Remember at this time in the folk revival, couples always joined right hand in right; the tradition of joining inner hands is something that came with Pat Shaw in the Seventies. I had thought that this “handing”—left, right, right, left—was a Sharp style preference, but the instructions to the dance, published only once in 1651 by John Playford, do clearly say “Lead your owne with the left hand to each wall, change hands, meet again, turne S. – One man lead up and the other downe, change hands, meet againe, and turn S.”
The other attribute of this scene is that we are seeing ten-year-old Jansy take on the role of competent teacher—a gentle foreshadowing of her future role in the Hamlet Club and of Oxenham’s long-term planning of her plot lines and character development.
When the grownups first enter the barn they start morris dancing “to take possession.” (This is before Mr Edwards has actually given the barn to them!) Maidlin produces a blue handkerchief to match her blue linen frock and Joan pulls out a green one to match hers, and Joan dances the morris jig Princess Royal while Maidie sings. “Lindy watched, wide-eyes, the side-step and the high springing capers in a big circle round the barn. ‘I never saw anything like that before!’” Joan remembers that when she and Joy first danced for old Sir Anthony they were wearing blue and green overalls (pinafores). Joan is 32 and has just had her fourth child. Go, Joan!
In the grand finale, the crowd dance the four-couple Newcastle three times, showing how popular it was and how much EJO loved it—in an article on folk dancing she mentions that at dance parties it might be danced five or six times in an evening. The first time is a “family” set, with Jansy, Littlejan, and the twins as women dressed in vivid green frocks and their “men,” Joan, Maidlin, Rosamund, and Janice in grey, gold, blue, and lemon, respectively. Oxenham was extremely sensitive to color and its relationship to “balance” in life. This would indeed have been very pretty to see.