Published in 1947, Margery Meets the Roses is a “Connector” book, part of the Rachel-and-Damaris/Rainbows group of eight novels, one of which is directly in the Abbey Girls series: A23 Maidlin to the Rescue (1934). Margery Paine, the principal heroine of this book that bears her name, is not an Abbey Girl, but her story introduces four sisters, one of whom goes on to become a May Queen. I enjoyed this book with its two romances when I first encountered it, not too long ago, but subsequent readings have left me a little uncomfortable or dissatisfied with it. It is, however, another important book for folk-dance readers.
(For those just joining the party, this blog’s current topics are an examination of Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girl novels plus Connectors from the point of view of a folk dancer. I have found EJO to be a reliable and informative narrator of the early days of the folk-dance revival in England, and want to explore what she has to tell us about that time. Posts generally have an initial discussion, a plot synopsis and then a dance-oriented discussion.)
For dancers, a central motif of this book is the perpetual and unresolved tension between making a dance or club open to all and focusing on beginners and easy dances versus restricting a group to those who really dance well and who want to work on style and fine points. And here I must apologize; in previous posts I had said that Oxenham doesn’t give us an answer, but actually she does (see below). She is also the first writer I’ve encountered in the folk world to acknowledge this dissonance.
Oxenham also presents another theme that she has long explored: that to those to whom much is given, much is expected. Young Mrs. Doranne Dering has inherited great wealth. She has used it to transform her estate—including chopping down beautiful old trees, which is a greatly decried act but one deemed necessary by Doranne because “people are more important than things”—to create a sort of commune. She has built little cottages and rents or sells them at very low rates and has made the great house into a social center, she sponsors dances and concerts and lectures, and it all sounds lovely and romantic and benevolent, and it is! But here’s a thing—you can only get into Rainbows New Village by application if you are the Right Sort. The characteristics of being a R.S. are not overtly defined, but they are clearly people who like country life, who are struggling taking care of elderly relatives, and/or who might fall into the category of Decayed Gentlewomen. We’re not talking Council housing here. Well, it is her money, after all, and she can use it as she wishes, but still. . . .
Another plot point that grates on my ear is one of unexpected and outright class snobbery that we haven’t seen so overtly in any other of EJO’s works, although she has certainly exhibited snobbery before and will again. Margery, from whose point of view the story is seen, is a nice young middle-class girl of no particular education or talent. She is being romantically pursued by a baronet, Sir Gilbert Seymour, and Sir Gilbert’s chauffeur, Martin, doesn’t think Margery is good enough for him. Not morally good enough, but socially good enough; she is not Lady material. (By the by, I am working on a post to be titled “Pas devant les domestiques” which will examine these very unexpected thoughts from Martin in more detail.) Sir Gilbert will end up with a girl who is a real Lady—the daughter of an actual Earl—and whose own sisters accuse her of putting on a haughty “V.R.” act (referring, for my American friends, to “Victoria Regina” or the Queen of EJO’s childhood). This young woman acts more regal and high-falutin’ than our own beloved Rosamund Kane, Countess of Kentisbury, who will outrank the future Lady Seymour! It is also this girl who wants the dancing to be done perfectly. She will rally in the course of the story, make a choice that is difficult for her, and prove that she is worthy of being a baroness. I dimly feel that EJO was somehow connecting this issue of rank and duty and that of doing dances perfectly but I am being a dull elf today and can’t quite make that connection. Perhaps you can.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
EJO begins this tale with a device she used frequently—a confusing mechanism but one that allows for a lot of explication of back-story. We start off with the voice of one girl, Elsa Dale, who runs a ferry—we are not told in this story where this is located. Elsa is visited by Margery (Polly) Paine, whose best friend Nancybell has just been married. Margery reveals that the Council has bought the building that she and Nancybell ran a sweet-shop in, that she consequently has 800 pounds in capital, and that she doesn’t want to marry a baronet, Sir Gilbert Seymour, who has been courting her. While she can’t tell him to get lost since he hasn’t actually proposed, she would like to run away from him.
Elsa tells Margery about her ballerina sister Daphne’s friend Doranne, who was left a huge estate and a great mansion called Rainbows. Doranne has turned the mansion into a community center and is building small houses in the country for people who can’t afford nice ones. Elsa suggests that Margery apply to set up a shop in this village. Elsa also tells Margery that Daphne had recently had the treat of going to Kentisbury Castle, where they saw all the sights and met the Countess’s children, two boys (Rosamund’s son and her half-brother) and the twin baby girls, Lady Rosabel and Lady Rosalin. She says that the Kane family gives all its girls some variation of the name “Rose.”
Elsa writes to Doranne, who invites Margery to Rainbows, where she says she will be put up for the night with “one of [the] fiddlers,” Virginia, who has three jolly younger sisters. Margery telephones Sir Gilbert’s younger sister, Annamaria, known as Mya, to tell her that she is moving and that it is partly to get away from Gilbert.
Margery travels to Rainbows and on the bus encounters two tall eighteen-year-old girls who have strange, soft accents, and who call each other Mandy and Minty. They are dark-haired twins. In conversation they reveal that their names are Amanda Rose and Araminta Rose—old family names of their American mother, married to their English father. Both parents are now deceased (of course; see my earlier post on the rate of morbidity and mortality in Abbey parents). Their elder sister is Virginia Rose and their sixteen-year-old sister is Atalanta Rose, known as Nanta. Mandy and Minty are singular characters in the EJO canon, they wear trousers all the time, tie up their heads in bright kerchiefs or “turbans,” and call each other and Margery “revolting woman.” I find their slang and approach refreshing and suspect that EJO intended it to be somehow saucy, irreverent, and “American.” I wonder if Oxenham had encountered some Americans in the war?
The girls take Margery’s bags to their cottage and she goes alone up the hill to meet Doranne Deering. She hears music—tall, blonde Virginia Rose is teaching a country-dance class at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon (both the time and date are somehow astonishing to Margery, perhaps because if one actually had a job it would not be possible to attend), while young Mrs. Deering fiddles. Margery, who has danced Haste to the Wedding and Speed the Plough at school and considers folk-dancing to be for “kiddies,” is astonished to see that all but one of the dancers are adults. (See below for more.) Nanta Rose also plays the fiddle for the dancing and everyone is impressed with her skill.
Mrs. Deering shows Margery around and tells her a little bit about the Rose sisters. Virginia had been recommended to her in London as a good violinist for the quartette that Doranne was putting together. Mandy and Minty were in business school and hating it, and the youngest sister wanted to play music but not to go to school and be separated from her sisters. Everyone is generally happier at Rainbows, but both Virginia and Nanta seem troubled by something. Doranne shows Margery a cottage with a blooming cherry tree outside and Margery is thrilled: she will run a sweet-shop and clubhouse for the kiddies.
Virginia graciously, almost regally, welcomes Margery to their cottage. She scolds the twins for slacking off their jobs in the village. Mandy says she’s crazy about dogs, and Mindy about boats. By the way, the dark-haired twins have Southern accents inherited from their Virginian mother, whereas the other two girls, who are blonde, have their English father’s English accent, showing that hair color and language travel on the same gene. Margery remembers that Elsa is looking for someone to help with the ferry and says that she might have an idea. The girls tease her about a possible boy-friend and Margery is rather snappish. Mandy and Minty also tease Virginia; they reveal that at a country-dance some months ago she saw a dark, handsome man—he wasn’t introduced, but she has been thinking about him ever since.
The next day, Elsa writes that Mya Summerton wants to know Margery’s address; she wants to write to tell her that her brother has found someone else. “He saw this girl somewhere and without even speaking to her he knew she was the only girl in the world for him.” The Perceptive Reader will sense that the two stories are connected.
Margery and Nanta walk to Cherry-Tree Cottage, where Margery offers Nanta a job in the tuck-shop. They encounter a man on a motorcycle whom the twins call the Wild Man—he is examining a bird that has flown into his wind screen. David Woodburn is the manager of the nature preserve near-by, as well as an artist. In the excitement over the bird, Margery misses the bus to the train station, and David takes her on his motor bike. They have tea and a friendly conversation.
Margery is spending her last night in her old home. Gilbert rings up and Margery doesn’t mind talking to him now—she congratulates him on finding the right girl at last. Gilbert offers to drive her to Rainbows, and she accepts with gratitude, as she will be transporting her enormous cat, The Pouffe, who features more heavily in this story than I care for, and dreads the train trip with him. Gilbert shows up with his chauffeur, Martin. Margery asks for the name of the girl he met, and Martin tactfully gets out of the car to look at the motor so that they can have a private conversation. Gilbert reveals that the girl’s name is Virginia; he doesn’t know her last name. Margery connects the dots and reveals that Virginia was much taken with him, too. She vows that she will find out what Virginia’s secret is.
Martin returns to the wheel and is relieved that there has been no “love-making”—he considers Margery unsuitable to be the future Lady Seymour, and there is a hint that Gilbert is a bit of playboy—he is in fact on the continuum of Spoiled Young Men that the Little Earl and several others are greater examples of. At the cottage they are met by David, and the three men, including Martin, help the movers unload. After lunch, Gilbert returns to Virginia Rose’s cottage, where he and Nanta had taken the cat to get out of the way. He encounters Virginia who cries “It’s you!” and then runs away. Gilbert is upset when he tells Margery this, but she comforts him by suggesting that it is because Virginia does indeed like him and is frightened by her feelings. He departs. The twins hear the story and say that Virginia says that she can’t marry without confessing something.
(Above, the frontispiece (not my fingers!) showing Martin in his shirt-sleeves helping to move furniture. Not my idea of the most evocative front image!)
David comes to call with a collar for the Pouffe, who usually dislikes men. Unaccountably, the Pouffe takes to him. Several days later, Mrs. Deering comes to call—she says that Nanta’s work in the tuck shop has made her a different and happier girl. She encourages Margery to come to the Tuesday dance classes and talks about Virginia’s folk dance “problem.” Margery tells Doranne that she thinks that Elsa will take on Minty to work on the ferry, and that Margery has a farmer friend who might take on Mandy. Doranne is pleased that Margery is Doing Good.
Margery and Nanta talk and Margery suggests that Virginia would make a lovely Lady Seymour. Nanta says that she can’t marry anybody without telling . . . things. “’‘It wouldn’t be legal!’” She runs away. Margery suddenly remembers the Kentisbury family tradition of Rose names and guesses the secret. She goes to the Rose girls’ cottage and her guess is confirmed: they are Lady Virginia Rose Kane, Lady Araminta Rose Kane, Lady Amanda Rose Kane, and Lady Rosalind Atalanta Kane. They reveal that their father was the second son (this is an unexpected but deft interpolation in the Kane family tree) and that when he had heard that his father the old Earl had died, he decided to sail home from America as he would be the next Earl after the young Geoff. While on board ship he was taken ill, and died without knowing that Geoff had just been killed in a motorcycle accident; he had therefore been Earl for a week without knowing it. It is for this reason that the girls have titles. Here’s a portion of the Kane family tree with the newest Earl (Number Two) and his family added in. I am indebted to Ruth Allen of the Elsie J. Oxenham Society for this information.
The girls reveal that the new Earl, Geoffrey the invalid, was actually the fourth son—the third one had died unmarried. He had reached out to the Kane girls in a kindly fashion, but Virginia says that she responded rudely—she didn’t want to be treated as a poor relation. The girls were feeling sore at being saddled with useless titles when they didn’t have the funds to live up to them. The Earl responded kindly again that he would still keep an eye on them from afar, and now Virginia feels bad about having been so rude. It is hard for me to understand why she is making such a fuss about this and feels that having a title is something she has to confess to. But, hey! the story has to have some conflict.
The next day, Margery tells the twins firmly that she doesn’t understand why they mess around in jobs that they don’t like when they have an uncle who could help them. They agree to think about it and leave. David bursts in with the news that Doranne Dering has been in a terrible accident—a plane took off and her horse reared and fell on her. (She doesn’t ride alone, of course, but her groom couldn’t get to the horse in time.) Everyone in Rainbows New Village is deeply distressed. David takes charge of things and the Rose girls help. Margery falls into the village habit of addressing him by his first name, and notices that he has noticed this. Margery urges Virginia to let her write to Sir Gilbert and she gives in. Margery pressures Virginia to write to Lord Kentisbury, in order to put things right.
David tells Margery that he wants Virginia to take over in the village and run things; Margery says that Virginia could do so much more if she would only use her title. David, a family friend of the girls when they lived in Edinburgh with their aunt, says that he’s met Lord Kentisbury and that he is very kind; he had asked David to look after the girls and to let him know if they needed anything.
Dorane’s operation is successful though her convalescence will be slow, and now the village, in relief, starts squabbling. No one comes to Virginia’s country dance class, nor to David’s lecture on birds. Marjery, who is quite an agent for change, thinks that if Virginia used her title, she could rally the village, but even after Virginia has overcome her dislike of this idea, she says that no one would believe her if she just starts calling herself a Lady.
David and Margery go to Kentisbury Castle to talk to the Earl. The Countess, Rosamund, is resting with her three-week-old second set of girl twins—they are premature, so she has succeeded (if you call it that, but she has her reasons) in having four babies in a ten-month period. David explains the Rainbows story and Rosamund suggests that Geoffrey, the Earl, should visit the village and introduced the Rose girls as his nieces. As they drive home, David says that the Countess had asked him something about Margery, and that he said that he hoped that someday. . . . Margery knows what this means and also that she feels about him the way she never did about Gilbert, but calmly says that perhaps—someday.
Several days later Mandy and Minty are out weeding in Margery’s front garden, when an expensive car with a coronet on the side panel drives up—it is the Earl. The three have a pleasant conversation and the girls realize how nice and kind he is. He promises them horses and boats, and he reminds Virginia that she has a duty to help her people at Rainbows. They all go to the post office (gossip command central) and Lord Kentisbury introduces his nieces, saying merely that “for family reasons,” they had not previously used their titles. The village is impressed and everyone starts participating again under Lady Virginia’s aegis.
Sir Gilbert comes to visit Lady Virginia (Martin the chauffeur is pleased about this) and it is clear that they will soon be engaged. Margery and David get engaged. Mrs. Dering is slowly recovering, and thanks Margery for all that she has done for Rainbows Village.
For Folk Dancers
EJO handles the dancing bits with her usual deftness, understanding, and wealth of detail. When Margery arrives at the great house she hears Virginia teaching, as follows:
“Corners set, fall back, and turn; use both hands! Ones lead down the middle and back, and cast. Four claps and change places—both hands again; now the ring—and clap and change back to your own side. That’s not too bad. Carry on.”
—Gentle Folk Dance Reader—can you identify the dance from this description? You ought to be able to (depending on the repertoire of your particular group!) for it is the only one that I know of with four distinctive claps: it is The Comical Fellow, one of the dances included in the Apted Collection, published in 1931, that I discussed in the last post. The paragraph above is indeed a short-hand summary of the dance instructions—you could reconstruct the entire dance from those sentences. EJO identifies the dance by name exactly one page later, but I think this is an example of the interesting workmanship of her writing: she has people doing the action before she identifies what it is. It is as if you went into a kitchen and saw someone shoving her floured hands through a yellow-ish gray, gloopy mass on the table, turning it over and over, stretching it and watching it slowly return to its original blob. It is only after she is finished that she tells you that she was kneading bread dough. Gentle Reader, you might not think this is such a different way of writing because making bread is something you take for granted, but if you were having the chapter in which this vignette appears read aloud to you, you would be scratching your head at the first mention of the action—four claps! Wait, I know what dance that is! What is it?—until the name of the dance is revealed. And if you have no knowledge of these dances it doesn’t bother you one way or the other, just as you might not care about the process of making bread and simply want to eat the end result.
Well, I like this approach!—
Mrs. Dering explains that Virginia has attended folk-dance classes in London and knows what she is doing. Margery reveals that she thought folk-dancing was for children, and Virginia responds:
“Oh, are you one of those people?” There was a scornful note in Virginia’s voice as she tuned the fiddle.
Margery flushed. “What do you mean?”
“Thinking folk-dancing is a childish stunt. How little you know.”
Yikes, Virginia! Let’s not sugar-coat it, shall we?
Doranne Dering defends Margery saying that not everyone has had a chance to attend classes and parties in London. She adds that she also felt that dancing was something that belonged to gym classes until she learned better, and tells Virginia that “You’ve made us see it as something much bigger, and we’re grateful.” She does not elaborate on what the “bigger” aspect is, nor does EJO clarify directly. We are left to infer that it is connected to Nature, music appreciation, loving-kindness, and other desirable values.
Young Nanta Rose now plays the fiddle for some more dances: The Old Mole, If All The World Were Paper, Parson’s Farewell, Argeers, and Rufty Tufty—these are all relatively challenging set dances; not dances that I would use with beginners!—and Doranne dances the last of these with Margery. Virginia points out their mistakes—they gave wrong hands in all the chorus figures: remember, this is one of those tricksy certificate-type points, LRRL. Virginia tells them to join inner hands as they lead in and out of the dance—if they were to take the farther hands the man would have to pull the woman—very rude. This is a little opaque for today’s reader, but the Sharp rule was that the woman’s hand almost always went across her body. So when the couples lead away from the center of the set it is with left hand in left (farther for the woman who is on the left of her partner); switch hands for the lead back in, right-in-right out with opposite, and left-in-left back in.
Virginia’s conflict over inclusion versus commitment and expertise is one that still resonates today. Mrs. Dering tells Margery that:
“She loves the dances and she wants to see them done properly; but there are people who will never be good, and yet they love it. The artist side, the musical side, of Virginia is very strong; she’d like to neglect the hopeless people and concentrate on the few, and train them till she had a really good team, who could tackle difficult but beautiful dances and work at them till they did them perfectly, She’d like to produce something quite beautiful. You [Margery] could be trained; she said so to me afterwards, but that would leave out all the rest, who enjoy themselves enormously but will never be good enough to satisfy her. And we keep on taking in beginners, who pull down the level of the class, so that she can only take easy dances. You see the difficulty? There isn’t time to do both. We all have our other jobs to do.”
“I see what you mean. But it would be a terrible pity to shut out the crowd and concentrate on a few.”
“It can’t be done. And she knows that I wouldn’t be satisfied, no matter how well her team turned out. The dancing is for everybody and the dud people must be helped. But all the same the problem is there. She wants results, in the way of beautiful dancing.”
“She gets results, in the way of a lot of people being happy,” Margery ventured.
“That doesn’t quite console her. It’s the old problem; the artist side and the social side tugging against one another . . . .” [Mrs. Dering goes on to say that she had the same problem about the trees on her estate: should she leave them or cut them down to make little houses? She decided to cut them down and is happy with her decision.]
“Oh, you were right!” Margery exclaimed. “People must come before beauty. It sounds dreadful, but if one can’t have both, people ought to come first.”
At the dance classes, Margery learns Christchurch Bells, The Indian Queen, Mutual Love, and The First of April. All four dances are quite accessible even to “dud” dancers: the first two were interpreted by Cecil Sharp and published in 1912 and 1922, respectively; the other two are from the Apted collection of 1931. (One of the amazing things about the descriptions of classes or dances of this period is just how many dances they manage to cover! Part of this is because of the repertoire that was limited compared to today’s, part of it because you learned the dances at a class and then just did them without teaching at the evening dance.)
As part of her leadership of the village during Mrs. Dering’s recovery, Lady Virginia gives a talk (with musical accompaniment by Lady Atalanta) on the (then-claimed) ancient origins of folk-dancing, touching on the Helston Furry Dance and the sacrificial rite element of dances like Sellenger’s Round—this romantic, Golden Bough influence, now dropped, was very strong in the early days of the folk revival and even, in my experience, up through the 1970s.