Published in 1947 and taking place in August of 1933 to September of 1934, Robins in the Abbey brings back Robertina Brent who we first met in a stand-alone novel The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends, published in 1909. We encountered Robin again in parts of Rosamund’s story arc, but this is her very own Abbey story. Oxenham is brilliant in her re-use of this character; Robin is a thoughtful, serious, kind girl and it is a pleasure to encounter her again. Robins in the Abbey is a nice installment, one of the most “romantic” in the sense that the young lovers are, most unusually for an EJO story, aware of their love for each other before they declare it. And with Queen Marigold (Remember? Littlejan Fraser, Jandy Mac’s daughter) firmly on her throne, there is more dancing now than we saw in the last installments of the first-generation stories. There is nothing particularly new for folk dancers although it is rather charming to see how the younger girls introduce Lady Joy, who has been in New York City for several years, to the new dances, largely from the Apted collection, that they have learned in her absence
Robins in the Abbey overlaps with the Connector Margery Meets the Roses and the books could be read in either order without too much disruption of the characters’ story arcs.
With regard to the robins of the title, Robertina herself was given her nickname by her brothers as she was both “cheeky” and “chirpy”—common personality attributes of the English robin, apparently. She also has brown hair and eyes and favors wearing brown and red. Rob Quellyn’s mother called him “Robin,” and Lady Jen’s maiden name was Robins, so of course her nick-name was Jenny-Wren. (Of course? What do you mean, of course? Wrens and robins are different species. Baffling.) Also, there is a real robin in the Abbey, and our Robin feeds him crumbs when she stays in the little room there.
And here is one of the many times when I wish we had any information at all about Oxenham’s outlines and story plans. When she wrote about Robertina Brent in 1909 she surely could not have foreseen her romance to another Robin in 1947. And yet, perhaps by setting up an out-of-the-family heiress (Miss Brent of Plas Quellyn) she was leaving room for an eventual problematic romance with a future Quellyn boy. And her use of Robin into Rosamund’s Victory surely suggests that she was thinking about that character’s own story to be taking place soon. There are several other references to Robin in the saga, usually connected with the Welsh estate and Sir Ivor’s resentment of her inheritance of it. I think that EJO remembered Robin and her inheritance which causes so many problems—she used inheritance and interlopers several other times in her works—and thriftily and very deftly wove her into her main saga.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Lady Joy Quellyn, her two ten-year-old Marchwood twins, and her little Quellyn boys David and Richard, with their governess Belinda “Lindy” Bellanne are on the liner leaving New York City for London. Lindy spots a pretty girl all in brown who looks lonely, and befriends her. It is Robertina “Robin” Brent, the heiress of Plas Quellyn in Wales. Now we finally get the story about this estate that was hinted at in a couple of previous installments: there was once the painter Robert and his cousins Richard and Tom Quellyn. There was a dreadful family row and the three ended up never speaking to one another again. Robert became the god-father of Robertina, the daughter of a woman he had loved and lost. Robert also unofficially adopted Gwyneth Quellyn, but failed to make provision for her in his will, so the entire estate of Plas Quellyn went to Robertina, rather than to next cousin, Richard, the father of the future famous conductor, Sir Ivor Quellyn. Tom ran away to sea and ended up settling in New Zealand, where he also fathered a son, Robert (whose mother called him Robin) Quellyn, who is both a painter and a composer. (Frankly, the inheritance story is a bit of a muddle for me; cousins Ivor and Rob can’t both inherit the estate. And if Ivor were to have had it as the son of the (apparently) elder of the two brothers, it could only go (intact, at least) to one of his boys, not both. But we’re mostly to understand that while Ivor has become somewhat reconciled to Robin inheriting Plas Quellyn, he does not approve of her plan of splitting the estate—which is now quite large compared to how it was presented in 1909—with Gwyneth. And we’re also setting up the Problem that Robin doesn’t want to appear to be marrying Rob for the Quellyn name (so that she can be Mrs. Quellyn of Plas Quellyn) and Rob doesn’t want to appear to be marrying Robin for her money.)
Lady Joy is particularly resentful that the Welsh estate did not come to Ivor for the benefit of the Quellyn boys—Abinger Hall must go “of course” to her elder, Marchwood daughters. Showing her petulant side, Lady Joy refuses to speak to Robin on-board ship. As the ship approaches London, Robin gets a telegram: her father has been badly injured in a plane crash in Lisbon, and her mother is taking an airplane to be with him. Lindy begs Lady Joy to take Robin in—she shouldn’t be left alone in Plas Quellyn.
And now, in a relative rarity in the later books, we see the good side of Joy. Chapter two is aptly titled “Joy Conquers.” Joy is touched by Lindy’s plea and realizes that she has been selfish. “Joy could keep a grudge while she thought only of herself, but it could not last in the face of trouble like this. Her generous side was strong, and it surged up and conquered.” She invites Robin to stay with her at the Hall—in fact, her first words of greeting to Mary-Dorothy Devine when they party reaches the Hall is to urge Mary to “be good” to Robin and help her with a long-distance phone call to the housekeeper at Plas Quellyn, who is the point of contact with Robin’s mother.
Joy visits Maidlin and her dark-haired three-week old twin babies Marjory Joy and Dorothy Rose; Rosamund, Countess of Kentisbury, joins them with her fair-haired, seven-week-old twins Lady Rosabel Joy and Lady Rosalin Cicely. We hear that Joy’s cousin Joan has had her fifth child and fourth daughter, Jillian, and we learn that Mary-Dorothy’s younger sister, Biddy, now married to her French husband, has had a baby, Marie-Rose, younger half-sister to Madelon Marie. They all agree that there is some good in Biddy, as it would have been more to her interest to name the new baby after a rich French relative instead of her old friends. (Biddy’s flaw is that she is eager to “advance.” While she has named her second daughter after Rosamund, Countess of Kentisbury, the latter cannot stand as godmother to the baby, since she is Protestant and Biddy is now Catholic. However, it’s still not a bad move on Biddy’s part!)
Jen comes to tell them that her husband, Sir Kenneth Marchwood, who had been in that bad motor crash that reactivated some dormant germs from South Africa, has been ordered on a round-the-world cruise for his health, and that she must go with him and leave the children behind. The others console her and help her to buck up.
Robin is amazed at Lady Joy’s generosity in taking her in, and Rosamund urges Robin to be as cheerful as she can and assures her that she is not a bother. She urges Robin to go into the Abbey for consolation and peace: “‘It’s the rule of the house to help anyone who needs it; it’s our inheritance from the Abbey. Joy’s only doing what the old monks would have done. It was sanctuary, where people came for refuge. If you’re in trouble, that gives you the right to be here.’”
That night, Robin goes to Mary-Dorothy for comfort (in addition to being a writer of stories for girls and Lady Joy’s secretary, Mary is a confidante and spiritual counselor to the girls), and Mary says that: “‘as long as we . . . take risks for the sake of speed and pleasure and business, accidents will happen. . . all this flying—it’s wonderful, and it’s valuable, but we have to pay the price. It’s a new thing, still in its infancy, and sometimes matters will go wrong.’” I frankly don’t see why she thought this would be a comforting thought! She then urges Robin to trust in God, not to blame Him.
The older girls have a conclave: with all these babies and Jen’s nursery to take care of they all need helpers! Maidlin, Jock, and “the girls” are soon to move into the newly-built house called The Pallant, with Anne Bellanne as cook-housekeeper and Lindy to accompany her sister and continue with her musical training. Joy will have the Wild Rose Queen—Barbara “Babs” Honor; she has her B.A.; one of the few if not the only girl in the stories to accomplish this—as governess to the ten-year-old twins, but still needs more help. They suggest that Queen Beatrice—Stripes, the Striped Queen—should go with her to New York City. Queen Hyacinth (soft pink and blue in bands around a white center with one strip of dark blue and one of red: the colors of garden hyacinths) is already an under-nurse at the Castle and Nesta (Queen Honesty, the Silver Queen, with a silver train with bands of purple and with silver honesty pennies painted on the boarders) will go to Maidlin. Queen Lilac is still in training, but she’ll be ready to join the nursery staff soon. Queen Marigold (Littlejan) will remain at the Hall and assist Mary-Dorothy. The Hamlet Club to the rescue!
Sir Ivor writes that Robin Quellyn has shown up in New York City wanting to meet him: his parents are dead and he himself is a composer of charming tunes. While traveling in Samoa, Rob had met Jandy Mac Fraser, Littlejan’s mother, who convinced him to look up his family. Robin Brent is dazed and upset—she somehow jumps to the conclusion that everyone will think that they should marry—he to get the estate that should have been in the Quellyn family (although according to Joy it would have gone to Ivor and not him anyway) and she to get the name. The others reassure her that even Ivor doesn’t really want Plas Quellyn—he is too busy traveling and conducting.
Littlejan rushes in—there has been a landslide and she and the twins have discovered another Abbey bell, a larger one than Cecilia/Cecily. She (bells, like ships, are female) is called Michael, for the first Abbot of the Abbey; the bell was hidden by the lay-brother Ambrose during the Dissolution of the monasteries, so this is another tie to the astounding discoveries of the Retrospective series. Michael has a deeper voice than Cecilia, and the girls work out a charming code for how the bells can speak to them and call them to dances.
Robin has had better news of her father, so she can enjoy the dance in the barn at which Marigold greets Lady Joy and the new babies. Sir Ivor and Lord Kentisbury show up with a fair-haired young man who can’t take his eyes away from pretty, brown-haired Robin in her red frock. She is aware of him and tells Littlejan that she is going to the Abbey to sleep and she doesn’t want to see Rob Quellyn. She inadvertently leaves behind one of her red dancing shoes. Queen Marigold takes the shoe to Lady Joy, who gives it to Rob to enable him to make friends.
—I’m just here to say that my cast-off dancing shoe, no matter how delightfully red, would not be something you’d fondly put in your pocket.—
The next morning, out for a walk in the Abbey, Robin comes across Rob, who is sketching. He returns the shoe. He talks about being torn between music and art, with each side wanting him to specialize. Robin encourages him to do both. Robin’s mother invites Rob to Plas Quellyn, and the young couple do a lot of hiking together. Robin’s mother likes Rob. She is perhaps the nicest mother in the canon—oh, wait! That’s partly because she is one of the few who are alive, at least for now. (See my earlier post on parental morbidity and mortality in EJO’s works.) But she is also very sensible.
Mr. and Mrs. Brent return to Plas Quellyn and Robin joins them—her father is paralyzed. Rob travels to visit Scottish relatives. Robin tells her mother that perhaps she Likes him, but what would Everyone think if they married? Her mother urges her to ignore Everyone. Christmas comes and the Hall is filled: Biddy and her two babies visit as does Mary and Biddy’s cousin Ruth Devine, now married with daughters Mary Ruth and Bridget Rose. Over the winter Queen Marigold writes long letters to both Rob and Robin conveying all the family news as well as news of each other. Rosamund—with A Secret Smile which is the equivalent of A Loose Frock—tells Maidlin that she and her husband have decided to have their family as fast as they can in case Lord Kentisbury’s health declines. Jen returns home—Ken is much better. Her friends urge her Not To Dance Too Much. You know what that means.
May comes, and Littlejan’s mother, Janice Macdonald Fraser, comes to see Queen Marigold retire and crown her successor, the ginger-haired Queen Jean (Rosemary). Playing the fiddle for the dancers is tall, blonde Maribel Ritchie Marchwood—both Guide and Camp Fire; we met her in several previous novels—now married to Scout Mike Marchwood and with a three-year-old Marigold and a baby Micky. Rob Quellyn has also come to the crowning and Robin is now certain that she loves him, but he does not come to speak to her and, in fact, races off to London—his pictures are being shown next to his uncle Robert Quellyn’s Welsh fairy-tale paintings. He then travels to the continent. Robin is devastated—this is one rare Oxenham romance in which the girl is in suspense for several months. Rosamund has two more twins, born two months prematurely when the first set are ten and a half months old: the Ladies Rosanna Maidlin and Rosilda Mary. Everyone laughs at this accomplishment and say that she will look as if she is running a boarding school, taking her “Double Twos” for “croc. walks” (two-by-two, a girls’ school custom).
In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth and went to bed.
They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine—
The smallest one was Madeline.
(I loved those stories and their illustrations as a child! Still do.)
Rosamund also reveals that four young American cousins of Lord Kentisbury have been discovered; their father was the Earl for one week before he died, not even knowing it, so they are Lady Virginia Rosemary Kane, twins Lady Araminta Rose and Amanda Rose Kane, and young Lady Rosalind Atalanta Kane. They had not been friendly at first, but have now found their place in the family—as we saw in last week’s post on Margery Meets the Roses.
Robin’s father dies; her mother falls down speechless; Robin writes to Littlejan who sends a message on to Rob, but the latter shows up before he could have received it—he has had a premonition that things were not well with Robin. Mary tells him to go to her. As Rob and Mary have this conversation in the garden, Jen appears in A Loose Cloak, playing her morris pipe, and tells him not to be an ass about Robin’s wealth. Rob goes to Robin; they are engaged; Mrs. Brent opens her eyes enough to approve; Gwyneth, Robin’s adopted sister, marries her Ivor Lloyd.
After their wedding in Wales, the two Robins visit the Abbey and there is a dance held in their honor. Hamlet Club President Cicely Hobart Everett appears with her new second daughter, Shirley Rose, named after Joy and Joan Shirley. They dance Christchurch Bells and Jock Richardson clangs Michael and Cecily in happy harmony. The bells, silly, not the children! Joan Raymond appears to tell everyone that Jenny-Wren, Lady Marchwood, has had twin boys—the first boy-twins in the clan: Christopher and Bernard. The Robins run away into the Abbey to escape being made the center of Sellenger’s Round, “[a]nd the Hamlet Club laughed and went on dancing.”
For Folk Dancers
While it has a couple of pleasant dance scenes, Robins in the Abbey is not particularly illuminating for the folk dancer. We continue to see the—division is too strong a word; perhaps divergence is better—the divergence between the easier, longways dances that don’t take much time to learn or master that the younger girls prefer and the more complex set dances for two, three, or four couples that the older girls learned well. At the first party in the tithe barn they dance The First of April, The Dressed Ship, The Way to Norwich, The Pleasures of the Town, Cumberland Square Eight, and Corn Rigs—all nice, accessible, party dances.
Oxenham is very much in control of her material; she is very aware that Joy, who has been in New York City for the last two years, doesn’t know the new dances. Joy is introduced to The Alderman’s Hat, a three-couple dance (originally a triple minor) with a lot of skipping and clapping. “. . . Joy collapsed in helpless laughter at her own mistakes. ‘I say, people, I’m awfully sorry, but I’ve never even heard of it before and it is extremely rapid! Can we do it again? I’ve grasped it now. And give us something we know soon, Marigold! I’m going to have musical indigestion with all these new tunes. Each one is jollier the last, but I know they’ll get mixed up in my head at night.’” They then dance the old set dance favorites Nonesuch, Picking Up Sticks, Newcastle, and The Old Mole. When Rosamund and Maidlin leave to tend to babies, they dance Circassian Circle, The Huntsman’s Chorus and Sellenger’s Round, with Queens Jean (“Rosemary”), Littlejan (“Marigold”), and Mirry (“Forget-me-not”) in the center as the “maypole.”
At Queen Jean’s coronation and Marigold’s abdication, Jandy Mac happily joins in the dancing, even though she doesn’t know the new dances: Meeting Six, and “the Gloucestershire ‘Three meet,’” The Hunstman’s Chorus. These are all “traditional” dances, meaning those collected in living memory from village dancers in the north of England. At the end of the volume when the Club is holding a dance to celebrate Rob and Robin’s wedding, they dance Twin Sisters (this volume has abounded in twin sisters, if that hasn’t already been made clear).
Lady Jen teaches Marigold and Jansy a new dance; it is not named, but it is danced with a polka step and is apparently the first one that the Club has ever done that is in a Sicilian circle formation (couple facing couple around the room). Generous Marigold—what a nice girl she is!—would like Jansy Raymond, who is nearly twelve, to be the one to teach it to the Hamlet Club; she is grooming Jansy to be Queen in a year or so. Lady Jen plays the tunes of Chelsea Reach, Newcastle, the Tideswell Processional, the Winster Reel and Galop, and Jamaica on her three-hole morris pipe and Mary Dorothy comments on how full of “dancing” her music is. EJO is correct in her assertion that good dance musicians are frequently also dancers.
Marigold goes to the Abbey to see if Robin is all right and they talk about the dance—Littlejan can never get to sleep after a dance—she says the Huntsman’s Chorus is stuck in her head—what is in Robin’s? Robin answers “’A jumble of all the lot, and the colours of the frocks, and all the laughing, dancing people.’” Nice answer! That’s how I used to feel, in the Before. When I was young, I often could not get to sleep after a dance, whether I was a dancer or a musician. This is a nice touch on Oxenham’s part, and one which her young readers who liked dancing must have resonated to.