While there have been hints of weaknesses in the last few books, with this installment published in 1950 at the beginning of Elsie J. Oxenham’s last decade, we are now in, I am afraid, the downward trajectory of her writing. In this decade she published one to two books a year in the Second Generation and Retrospective groups. Alas, her plots—always rather slight—grow more fantastic, and her writing simultaneously redundant and contradictory: a character will say something and then either repeat it or contradict it within a few subsequent sentences. EJO was in a hurry to get her girls safely married and their stories “finished.” Babies bust out like mushrooms after a rain. The ballet emphasis in the books that feature Rachel and Damaris is not compelling—EJO didn’t understand ballet the way she did folk dancing, Guiding, or Camp Fire, and it really shows. Other commentators have noted that during this time there were some changes in the publishing industry that did not work in Oxenham’s favor, and of course there had been changes in girls themselves—the girl reader of 1950 was not that of 1920. But I also think that Oxenham was growing tired: she had been producing at least one book a year since 1909 and she was now in her seventh decade. Here’s how the last decade stacks up.
Second Generation Retrospective Other
1950 A34_Guardians of the Abbey A07_Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey
1951 A35_Rachel in the Abbey A08_Strangers at the Abbey
1952 A09_ Selma at the Abbey
1953 A36_ Dancer from the Abbey
1954 A37_Song of the Abbey
1957 A10_Tomboys at the Abbey New Girls at Woodend
1959 A38_Two Queens at the Abbey
January 9, 1960: EJO dies.
And yet, despite these weaknesses, there remain flashes of beautiful descriptions and thoughtful commentary on life and its meaning. We still care enough about these characters to want to find out how their stories end.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Fiddler for the Abbey runs from September of 1934 to May of 1935, Abbey Time, and Guardians runs from November of 1934 to July of 1935. The careful reader can spot the occasional overlap of events in the two books and this, I think helps give a sense of realness (not reality, exactly!) to the saga—just as in real life people’s stories overlap.
Nearly 16-year-old Joan Fraser (called Littlejan—she is Jandy Mac’s daughter) is dancing the Bacca Pipes morris jig over two crossed “churchwarden” clay pipes on the Abbey Garth, when tall, blonde Rosalind Kane appears—she dressed in a silk frock. Joan Raymond is sending Mary-Dorothy Devine, Littlejan, Jansy (Joan’s daughter) and Rosalind to London to see a performance by the wonderful ballerina Mary Damayris—the stage name of Damaris Ellerton, Maidlin’s cousin. During the performance, another dancer, Daphne, is depicting Sleeping Beauty, lying on a bench. A piece of scenery starts to fall and from the wings Damaris rushes across the stage to push Daphne out of the way—the scenery falls on her instead. The curtains go down. Rachel goes to Damaris and fortunately a great doctor, Sir Robert, is in the audience and comes to help.
The girls go home; Jansy in particular is very distraught. Everyone is worried first that Damaris will die or, if she recovers, that she will never dance again.
Damaris makes a slow recovery at Sir Bob’s nursing home—the expenses are covered by Madame from the ballet company. Rachel refuses all offers of help and visits from the Abbey “clan”—EJO uses this word now. Some days later, Damaris has recovered enough that Rachel feels that she can spend a night away from her, and everyone feels better. Littlejan and Jansy go to the Abbey to tell old Mrs. Watson, Damaris’ aunt, the good news and find her unconscious on the floor—she has had a stroke. Littlejan uses the telephone (still a novelty to her, apparently!) to summon help and Mrs. Watson is carried to Abinger Hall to await the doctor. Jansy and Littlejan enjoy acting as the tour guides for the day. At the end of the day, Mary-Dorothy brings tea and Rachel appears at the Abbey gates.
Rachel tells the girls that Mary Damayris is “dead”—she will not dance again. Madame and Antoine have offered to craft easy roles for her to suit her weak hip, but Damaris has refused—if she can’t dance as well as before, she doesn’t want to dance or even teach dancing. Rachel says that, since Ann Watson is unlikely to recover, she wants to offer herself and Damaris as caretakers of the Abbey. Mary-Dorothy and the girls approve. Rachel asks the two girls to pretend to be tourists and to assess Rachel’s ability to tell the Abbey story. They pass her with honors.
Damaris is deeply troubled about not dancing ever again and Sir Bob says that they must heal her mind—the whirl of performing for the last three years has over-excited her. Joan Raymond approves of the plan that the girls be caretakers of the Abbey and suggests that they come to live at the Abbey in the early spring, when tourists start coming more often.
Daphne has begged to be allowed to see Damaris but the latter refuses: she doesn’t want to be wept over. Suddenly Daphne shows up, radiant with good news; she announces that he’s going to marry an American, Richard David Dandy, whom she will call Dicky D. or Dandy Dick, and here I will say that an American publisher of today would not allow the latter nickname to stand. Damaris calls Daphne a rotter and a viper for leaving the ballet company, but Daphne doesn’t care. Why Damaris should feel this way is not clear to me, but I haven’t read all of Rachel and Damaris’ back story, which is told in the Rainbows series of books. I expect it is that Damaris loves ballet so much that Daphne’s leaving the company really feels like a betrayal to her. However, one additional underlying thought that we’ve encountered before is that a married woman does not work for two reasons: first that since she is supported by her husband she should not take a job away from a single woman who needs it, and second because as soon as she is married she will get pregnant, and in Oxenham’s Victorian view pregnant women don’t appear in public. Maidlin is the only married Abbey Girl who manages to continue a career in singing, particularly religious pieces, but her work is only vaguely described—she seems to be singing on the radio where of course she isn’t seen.
Madame visits and hears that the girls are going to the country. She tells Damaris that she must find some way to create beauty—some special thing for the Abbey. Rachel asks Damaris to think about how to redecorate the rooms they will live in—perhaps they will scrub Aunt Ann’s awful pale pink walls and restore the gray stones. Poor Aunt Ann! She gets short shrift in the canon and is clearly presented as lower class, whereas Rachel and Damaris have attended “good” schools where they have imbued middle-class values and artistic tastes.
Damaris doesn’t want to visit any of the clan—she can’t bear being fussed over. Joan sends Rachel some lovely white material for her to make an “overall” (depicted by the artist as a monkish robe) for her to wear in her role as caretaker and tour guide of the Abbey. In February, Sir Bob drives the girls down and approves of the Abbey. Joan and Mary-Dorothy have had the rooms redecorated and the pink wash removed.
Damaris continues to mope around. Some weeks later, Jansy shows Littlejan and Damaris some yellow crocuses hidden in the grass—Aunt Ann had been given one (Given one! Who gives someone just one crocus bulb?) and it spread. Damaris wishes she could make a garden there and the girls are enthusiastic about the idea. Damaris talks about having flowers to represent each of the May Queens. They ask for Joan Raymond’s permission to make the garden and she is reluctant at first. Jen Marchwood comes and hears of the plan and likes it. Littlejan remembers something, rushes away, and returns with the book that Ambrose had written, talking about meeting Lady Jehane with the garden filled with lilies and roses. (If we were reading these books in publication order, this Ambrose motif, a feature of the Retrospective titles, would be fresher in our minds than it is now.) This convinces Joan that the garden is a good idea. Damaris is quite bucked up by this project. Jansy begs for lobelias in the garden as they are her favorite flower (at this point, Jansy is not yet Queen-Elect).
The clan donate plants. Jen gives Rachel a wireless and Rachel says that Damaris still can’t stand to listen to music—it reminds her too much of what she has lost. Jen also gives Rachel two kittens, one black, the other gold. The black one is regrettably named “Nigger”—not the first cat so-named. EJO had occasional episodes of tone-deafness, and I may address this in a later post. Rosamund, the Countess of Kentisbury, visits with her “Square of Four”—two pairs of girl twins (Rosabel and Rosalin and Rosanna and Rosilda) and some roses for the garden. She tells Rachel that she and Maidlin are sure that “the Abbey takes hold of certain people, to carry on its traditions. I believe you and Damaris are the right sort to serve here and be the guardians.”
The Hamlet Club holds a dance, but Damaris refuses to attend—she says that if they do Shepherd’s Hey she would die—this was the tune for her signature dance that she choreographed. The girls have chosen Jansy to be the next May Queen—the Lobelia Queen. They will call her Lob.
Rachel shows a tall young American man around the Abbey and he reveals himself to be Dicky Dandy. He is disappointed not to see Damaris—he wants to thank her for saving his sweetheart’s life. Joan gives Damaris a badge to wear on the front of her jersey; she is the Abbey Gardener while Rachel is the Abbey Guardian.
Rachel goes out to return to the news that Daphne and Dick were married that morning and are already starting the journey to America. Dick has sent a check for 200 pounds to Damaris for her garden as well as a letter explaining that he has set up 25-pound accounts for her at several good nurseries and that she is to make the Abbey gardens as fine as possible. Rachel convinces Damaris to accept. With the money she is able to create two rock gardens, one made from red stone from the Wirrals and one from grey stone from Windermere.
Damaris has asked everyone not to tell Lady Joy about the garden—the latter is in New York, stuck first by tending for her nursemaid (Queen Beatrice, the Striped Queen) who came down with typhoid and second by being pregnant again. Rachel notes that Damaris is not particularly fond of Joy, but she does want her approval of the garden.
Damaris reads I the paper that Antoine has created a new ballet. She runs to the Abbot’s Oratory and throws herself down to weep in despair and bumps against the wall and an unnoticed door which opens to a secret room. Up four steps an old crucifix hangs on the wall and the stone in front of it is worn hollow by the holy men praying. Everyone is thrilled at this discovery. News comes that Robin Quellyn has had a baby boy to be called Bobbibach (Little Bobby).
Joy and her family finally arrive and she loves the garden. Damaris rings Cecily and Michael to welcome her. The last sentence reads “after two years, Joy had come home.” Sentences like this—and there are several such conclusions in the saga—are part of the evidence that Oxenham gave Joy her name for a particular reason: we all want Joy.
For Folk Dancers
Virtually nothing, in part because Damaris refuses to attend dances. We hear that the girls dance Epping Forest, Steam Boat, Soldier’s Joy, and The Twin Sisters.