Published in 1948 by Muller, this tale continues the story of Lady Rosalind Atalanta Kane (Nanta Rose), Littlejan (young Joan Fraser; also known as the Marigold Queen) and nearly thirteen-year-old Jansy (young Janice Raymond). It takes place in the reign of Queen Jean, the Rosemary Queen, from September of 1934 to May of 1935, “Abbey Time.”
There is quite a bit of material here for folk dancers—not the repertoire so much, which remains a mix of the Playford set dances and the newer, simpler traditional dances like the Durham Reel or the late-eighteenth century dances from the Apted collection, but the style and details of teaching which, as I have commented before, is not a “do whatever you feel like” style. Oxenham showcases three set dances from the early editions of Playford’s The Dancing Master: The Old Mole and Picking Up Sticks, both for three couples, and Althea, for two couples. Sticks is still in my group’s repertoire, but I’ve never danced Althea and danced Old Mole only for a performance many decades ago. Complicated set dances are not as much in favor in the U.S. as they used to be. The amount of detail provided about these dances shows that EJO really knew what she was talking about—it is not just a recitation of the figures but practical and accurate advice as to how to dance them well.
There is also a touching little nod to Oxenham’s own dancing: Jen and Mary Dorothy Devine, EJO’s writing and counseling avatar, are dancing the easy longways dance The First of April. Mary says she finds it “rather hard work,” refers to its “wild rings” (slipping circles), and begs Jen to take it easy. She says that she is not as young as Jen is. The internal evidence of the books and Ruth Allen’s invaluable timeline show that in 1935 Abbey Time, Jen is 32 and Mary is only 44. In 1935 EJO herself was 55 and in 1948, when this installment was published, was 68—much more plausible ages to find slipping circles a bit exhausting! We don’t know when Oxenham stopped dancing.
The cover illustration shows Nanta Rose (plaits) and Littlejan leaning over the battlements at Kentisbury Castle to watch the dancing on the lawn from above.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
A Fiddler for the Abbey starts on the same night as the last installment ended with the Hamlet Club dance in the tithe barn celebrating the marriage of the Robins.
Jen shows Joan her two new twin babies: Christopher and Bernard. She is now up to 5 boys and two girls—still one boy short of a morris side. Rosamund, the Countess of Kentisbury, announces that there will be a dance party at the Castle in October and everyone can then meet the youngest set of her twins. Queen Jean, the Rosemary Queen, says that she would love to become a child’s nurse—this is a default career aspiration for many Hamlet Club Queens and may not reflect EJO’s perception of reality so much as her novelist’s need to keep former Queens near the school and handy for the coronations. Margia Lane, the fiddler and artist, tells Rosemary that she isn’t well and must go to a hospital for observation. This leaves the school’s Hamlet Club without a musician.
A day or two later, Rosamund asks Maidlin, Joan, and Mary-Dorothy Devine for advice about the youngest of her “American” cousins, Lady Rosalind Atalanta, who is 16. Nanta Rose, as she is known, is shy and dreamy and filled with music. Her eldest sister is to be married soon and the husband wants Nanta Rose and his own sister Annamaria, who is known as Mya but would prefer to be known by the swankier moniker Anne-Marie, which tells you a bit about her character, to live with them. Rosamund thinks this is a bad idea, as Mya is a stronger character and will bully Nanta Rose into withdrawing into a dream world. They hope that Littlejan, Queen Marigold, can help.
Littlejan, Mary-Dorothy, and Jansy go to the Castle for the Hamlet Club party. Girls are dancing on the lawn in front of it. The music is a fiddle, amplified (this is the first and, I think, only mention of amplification of live music in Oxenham’s oeuvre), and the fiddler is Lady Rosalind (Nanta Rose). The M.C. is her sister, Lady Virginia. Rosamund brings out her children, in the care of the nurses who are Queens as well (they will get a chance to dance, I am relieved to report). Jen Marchwood brings her new baby boys and her pipe. The Hamlet Club President, Cecily Everett, also attends, and is surprised to overhear little Roderick, Rosamund’s half-brother, address her as “Mother.” Rosamund explains to Cecily that they are doing this until he is old enough to understand why little Geoff-Hugh, the heir, is Lord Verriton and the little girls are all Capital-L Ladies and he isn’t anything. She will explain that he belongs to them three times: as her brother, as her adopted child, and as the Earl’s cousin. Rosamund and the Earl plan to send Roddy to a naval academy and thence to his future career in the Navy. Why the Navy and not the Army or a profession? Does this reflect EJO’s fascination with the sea and sailors or an early-twentieth century perception that the Navy conferred higher social status? I do not know. Perhaps a Gentle Reader will comment.
The dancing begins again and Littlejan and Nanta Rose bond while watching the dancing from high on the battlements. Later, Littlejan suggests to the Jansy and Queen Jean and Nanta Rose that they run a dance weekend to really work on dances that the younger members don’t know.
The girls can’t have their usual teachers for the weekend school: Mrs. Thistle (Tazy Kingston Thistleton) has had another baby, Tazy Rose, and Maribel Marchwood, who usually fiddles, can’t attend because she just had another baby, Marilyn Rose—EJO is at this point going practically berserk with babies, but they do make a good excuse to remove the adults from the scene of action. Virginia, an experienced teacher and fiddler, would like to help out, but Rosamund says no—she wants Nanta Rose to find her feet with the girls. Littlejan feels competent to teach and asks Nanta Rose to play. All agree that this is a marvelous idea.
The school’s dance weekend is to take place in November, with Littlejan as teacher. They have a successful Friday evening session, but return to the Hall to hear bad news: Littljan’s young brother Alan, at school “up North” with his brother Alistair and the two Marchwood boys, has appendicitis and must be operated upon. Joan Raymond (his guardian) and Littlejan race to his bed side. Queen Jean worries about the weekend—she’ll now have to take over the teaching and she does not feel competent to do so. She receives a middle of the night phone call and is whisked away. Will the weekend have to be cancelled? No, on Saturday the girls ask young Jansy to take over, and she is a great success. Tessa and Phyl, who will have stories of their own in later installments, are both amused and impressed by her. Some older girls wonder if she’ll swank and put on side about it, but of course she doesn’t. Her talent, pluckiness, and humility signal that she is an excellent candidate for a May Queen.
As Christmas approaches, everyone expects Lady Joy and Sir Ivor Quellyn with the nearly twelve-year-old Marchwood twins and the two baby Quellyn boys but there is bad news: one of the children’s nurses, Queen Bee (Beatrice, the Striped Queen), has contracted typhoid. (As Waring and Ray observe, it sometimes seems that EJO will go to any length to keep Joy off-stage!) Joy will not leave Bee, but hopes to arrive in March for An Important but Unspecified Reason—of course you can guess what it is. Rosamund, Jen and Joan are worried—she shouldn’t travel after the holiday. (Oxenham seems to have had an exaggerated feeling that expectant mothers should be kept wrapped in cotton wool, and that crossing the ocean in stormy seas should be avoided.) Rosamund contrives to send Gracie Gray, the Garden Queen, to New York, to join Joy (the Green Queen), Queen Stripes, Queen Wild Rose (Barbara “Babs” Honor—the has her B.A. and is tutoring the twins), and the Strawberry Queen, Marguerite Verity, who has a husband and family there.
After the holidays, Queen Marigold calls for a mid-term dance of the Hamlet Club and invites the older Queens to attend. Much to her own surprise, Jansy is elected Queen—she will be the Lobelia Queen, with a dark blue train. Jansy’s mother, Joan, the Violet Queen, is very proud.
Joy misses participating in Jansy’s coronation in May; she has just had baby Madeline Rose. Nanta Rose decides to attend school beginning in the summer term, taking the Cookery course, which lasts about two years. Jansy asks Nanta Rose to be her maid-of-honor, and suggests that perhaps Nanta Rose will be the next Queen; the latter says that if elected she would be the Lavender Queen in pale purple.
For Folk Dancers
This installment provides an excellent overview of how to teach dances well, as shown by both Littlejan and the very young Jansy who is modeling herself after her mother Joan, who had always been something special, as Jen observes, in the way of teaching. It also makes mention of a prodigious number of dances that the teenaged girls not only know but are competent to teach.
Complicated set dances from various editions of Playford: Chelsea Reach, Althea, The Old Mole, Picking Up Sticks, Epping Forest, Sellenger’s Round, Parson’s Farewell, The Boatman, Newcastle, Merry, Merry Milkmaids, Hey Boys Up Go We, Goddesses, Maid’s Morris.
More accessible longways dances mostly from the Apted Collection: The First of April, The Dressed Ship, The Spaniard, Childgrove, The Way to Norwich, Pleasures of the Town.
Traditional (i.e., recently-collected) dances: The Circassian Circle, Speed the Plough, Durham Reel, Haste to the Wedding, Meeting Six, Gloucestershire Three Meet, Yorkshire Square Eight.
I may have missed some, but I make that 26 dances, many of them quite complex. It is quite a good weekend program.
Oxenham provides us with a number of style points, starting with the timing of “lead down the middle and back.” She actually stresses this twice: first when we see Jen’s daughter Rosemary, who is seven years old, dancing at the Castle party. Queen Jean notes that she is a jolly dancer and always “on the beat.” Littlejan says:
“I noticed that. If it’s five steps down the middle, Rosemary takes five steps; if it’s eight slips in a ring, she slips eight. People aren’t all so particular.”
The second reference to this figure is much more explicit and callers today should heed EJO’s advice. Inexperienced callers often say “lead down the center for eight steps and come on back”—this is wrong. Pay attention! Littlejan (Queen Marigold) is teaching the longways dance Haste to the Wedding and the girls aren’t listening to the music.
—Here I’ll interrupt to say that there are many versions of Haste to the Wedding—it was and is an easy and popular tune to play and the dance figures are easy to adapt to the needs of the audience. Sharp himself published two versions in the first Country Dance Book of 1909. In some versions the 1s lead down the middle of the set and return to places after which they and the 2s dance a once-and-a-half swing-and-change (dance around) to progress; in others, the 1s lead down and then come up the set (usually with a slipping (galop) step) and cast off to second place, followed by a partner swing. Here Littlejan is calling the second version, which requires good timing on the lead down and back figure. She asks Nanta to play the tune and put an accent on a certain beat (which Nanta does without being told which one (it is the first beat of the second phrase of the B music).
Littlejan gave a loud stamp [on that beat]. “There! Did you hear that? Rosalind [Nanta Rose] played it too, she knew what was wrong. You must start to skip back on that beat. None of you do it; you’re still turning the woman under your arm [at the end of the lead down]. It’s a strong beat, the first of a phrase. You mark it by starting your return journey on it. You’re late, and so you don’t get round the corner [she means the cast off] and you’re fearfully late in beginning your swing. You meet your partner about the third beat, instead of on the first. And the way to put the whole thing right and keep it all up to time is to go only five, or at most six, steps down the middle. You go right on and on for eight, and then you start to turn, and you can’t possibly get back in time. Now start again; the music will help you, if you’ll only listen. Five down the middle—it’s quite far enough. A nice easy turn, in three beats, and up the middle on the new first eat. Then round the corner, and meet your partner for the swing as the music stars again.”
. . . . “I say, Marigold, that’s much jollier!” Tessa cried, at the end.
“It fits the music now,” Phyl added. [These are both older and musical girls.]
Littlejan then instructs them in some fine points about Meeting Six, a set dance from Buckden published in Six Dances from the Yorkshire Dales. It has two lines, a man in the center of each with a woman on either side. After some initial forward and backing, the men turn the woman on their right by the right arm, then the one on the left by the left, and then repeat. Here’s Littlejan’s helpful suggestion and she is quite correct:
“If the women came to meet their man in the arming, instead of waiting for him to come and drag them in, you’d find it much easier. You make it an awful rush for the man. And the woman who has been armed needn’t stand still and go to sleep, and have to be wakened up by the man, when he comes back to her in four beats. Keep moving; keep on your curve, women. . . . “
[Tessa again says that it is better and asks if everything Marigold will teach them will be easier?]
“I should think so. The right way’s sure to be easier, because they’re folk dances, and they’ve been altered and polished by people for centuries, until the easiest way was found.”
“I see,” Tessa said, with interest. “Anything hard or awkward would be altered.”
Um, well, sort of, yes. Let’s carry on with the teaching for a minute more and then come back to this thought.
Jansy teaches the two-couple dance Althea, which has a distinctive setting step not seen in any other dance: spring on the right and swing the left foot, spring on the left and swing the right, then three little jumps with “crossed feet.” You can see it here performed by Teatro Olimpico Nuovo as part of a vampire LARP (Live Action Role Play; I am amused and even touched by the wistful onlooking of the dance by the young vampiresses in the audience). This group interprets that direction by alternating one foot slightly in front of the other on each hop. Because Cecil Sharp used the word “spring”—the original instructions from 1657 say “step,” I deduce that the Abbey Girls and EJO herself danced Althea faster than this performance group does—it’s difficult to spring at a slow tempo.
I’m not going to excerpt EJO’s details about Althea, since it is no longer in the common repertoire, but the girls are having a difficult time remembering who is dancing as a man and who should “honor” (set to) whom. They want to have some way of distinguishing gender and Jansy says that her family used to wear bonnets when dancing as a woman, but now they’ll just have to remember.
EJO also gives us plenty of style suggestions for The Old Mole, a set dance for three couples, with an eight-bar tune that is played 22 times through. A distinctive figure is that pairs of dancers on the side of the dance (top two women, bottom two men, for example) join inner hands, advance to the singleton opposite them, retire, then cross over, with the singleton going under the arch. Jansy tells the girls:
“When you’re doing arches, don’t swing up your arms in the first bit, the forward and back. Just let them do what they want to do; they won’t go away up to your heads! Lead forward naturally, and then raise your arms when you come to the arch. There’s some point in it then.”
There’s some point in it then. The older girls in particular respond to knowing why she is asking for certain movements or style points, and EJO articulates this point directly. But, again, to know and articulate why is to be certain that there is only one way of doing the movement. It is also to have a keen sense of performance style—this level of detail is not what we’d approach in the U.S. at a casual weekend event today, although it was more commonly stressed or understood back in the 1970s.
Finally, another dance that EJO goes into significant detail about is Picking Up Sticks, for three couples: you can see it here. The girls sort of know how it goes and start dancing. Jansy watches their efforts “with widening eyes,” and stops them after the second figure, which is the one I call “sandwiches and orbits.”
“Awful! Simply awful! What a ghastly mess! Even the first figure was a scramble, but you had some idea of what you were supposed to be doing. I don’t believe you had any idea at all in the second figure. I think you’d better walk it, and I’ll tell you what it ought to be.”
Nanta Rose observes her teaching with “delight and understanding” —she realizes that not only does Jansy really know details of the dances, she can clearly articulate what she knows, which is a very different skill. Jansy asks to see the first figure of Picking Up Sticks and reminds the girls not to skip in it. Do you know this figure? It is the one that I sometimes call “shoelaces”: lead up a double and back, then first man changes places with second woman and then with third man, if you start with the set all “proper,” which they certainly did in Sharp’s time. (Some groups today dance with the second couple improper so that, if dancing in he-she couples, all the crossings are with the person of the opposite sex.) Then repeat, criss-crossing until all are in original places. Nanta Rose starts playing, and suddenly Jansy shouts: “‘Stop! Stop! I will not have those crossings skipped!’” The girls observe that she is “dancing with rage” as she stands on her chair so that she can see better. The phrase about Jansy dancing with rage and her exhortation is repeated with amusement in more than one place in this book as well as others, and I feel that EJO was remembering a teaching moment of someone whom she knew, probably Madam (Helen Kennedy North), who was very bossy indeed.
One girl protests that it is a “very skippy tune,” (it is in jig time, 6/8, which does feel skippy) and Jansy agrees but says: “‘. . .don’t you see? You skip through the other two figures. You can’t do the whole dance alike; there’d be no contrast. You want differences in the figures; a quiet one to start with, and then working up the excitement in the middle and at the end.’” Nanta Rose, whose sister Virginia is also an excellent teacher, is pleased at this exhibition of Jansy’s knowledge and her ability to explain why she wants the dancers to follow her style suggestions commands.
But here’s the thing. There’s nothing in the original of Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651 that indicates whether anything in this dance is skipped or not; likewise, there are no tempo markings. In fact, Sharp didn’t care for the tune associated with the dance in Playford’s edition, so he set his reconstruction of Picking Up Sticks (the middle word in the title was “of” in the original) to the tune of the dance “Lavena” in the same edition. So these rules and style points that Jansy fiercely defends are Sharp’s own, rather than based in historical documentation, and this is an insight that seems to have been opaque to Oxenham and her generation. Further, the complicated mid-eighteenth century set dances like Picking Up Sticks had never been dances “of the people”—meaning the common people or “folk,” which is such a complicated word!—they were dances of the upper-middle and upper classes and had even for them long fallen out of favor, so that there was no “folk process” going on, at least not within the last 200 years.
Don’t get me wrong—I like Sharp’s interpretations and am happy to be an acolyte. And his approach and his standardization of the dances is an enormous part of why and how he succeeded and triumphed over his competitors. I will have more to say about that topic in the future. But for now, while the characters’ references to the “folk process” smoothing out awkward bits is not entirely wrong, it is not wholly right, either. It’s complicated!