Published in 1951, Rachel in the Abbey takes place from July of 1935 to May of 1936. It continues the story of Rachel and Damaris Ellerton, Maidlin’s cousins, as well as the stories and tribulations of some of the younger school-girls. While there is mention of dance names, and a dance takes place in the barn at the coronation, there is little detail provided.
Alas, this is a relatively weak installment; as I commented in the last post, Oxenham’s powers were waning. It is also a rather confusing book, especially if you were encountering the Abbey world for the first time. Oxenham now circles round “the clan,” as she terms it, checking in with all the heroines so that the reader knows that all is well with them. The principal news that we hear of each is that she has had or is expecting to have a baby, which is nice news for them, but a little confusing for us, especially if we have sort of forgotten who these people are. And the clan is quite large now! There is a lot of back story to recount.
Plot Synopis (Contains Spoilers)
Rachel in the Abbey starts on the same day as Guardians of the Abbey ended—what an interesting novelistic technique!—the day that Lady Joy and her family arrive home after a long sojourn in New York City. Literally an hour before Joy arrives to see Damaris’ Abbey garden for the first time, a character whom we met long ago, Benedicta “Benneyben” or “Blessing” Bennet, also arrives at the Abbey to visit the scene where, four years earlier, she saved Margaret-Twin from a nasty fall, injuring herself in the process. She is at loose ends as her parents are dead—remember that high parental mortality rate!—and her brother Jim and his wife Gail (Abigail Alwyn) have just had a baby—Penelope or “Penny” Rose. Benney and Penny. Yeah. While Benedicta, a graduate of the Wood End School that trains girls to run their estates, would have liked to have gone to college to get her degree in gardening, her godfather has refused to let her on the grounds that the point of getting a degree would be to get a job, and girls shouldn’t work, although he has promised Benedicta his money when he dies. It has been a while since we’ve seen this kind of old-fashioned reaction! It also just occurred to me that godfathers are not the same as guardians; they are supposed to look after their goddaughters’ spiritual welfare, not their physical or educational one. One wonders what a teen reader in 1951 made of all this. However, this plot point’s purpose is mostly a mechanism to get Benneyben to the Abbey and keep her there.
Benedicta meets Damaris, the creator of the beautiful Abbey garden and offers to help her garden. Lady Joy and her family, including her new baby girl, have arrived that day at Abinger Hall from a long stay in New York City. Nearly fourteen-year-old Janice “Jansy” Raymond has been the Lobelia Queen for just two months—her maid of honor is Lady Rosalind Atalanta (“Nanta Rose”) Kane, the seventeen-year-old fiddler, a Cookery student at the school, now headed by Miss Raven after Miss Macey’s somewhat overdue retirement. I regret to tell you that Miss Macey had grown slack in her standards. While she is young to be a Queen, Jansy has the support of the two prior queens: Rosemary (Jean) and Marigold (Joan “Littlejan” Fraser).
—By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned before that the school has no official name: it is not, for example, the “Abbey School.” It is always referred to as “Miss Macey’s School,” but that is an informal title. When Miss Raven takes over (Did she buy it? She must have.) we don’t know if she continued with that moniker or if it will now become known as “Miss Raven’s School.” In others of EJO’s works, notably The School Without A Name (1924), she deals with the creation of new schools or the merging of two rival schools, and how developing a school name and traditions forms an important part of the bonding of the girls who attend it. But while they feature school-aged girls, the Abbey Girls series are not really classic school stories, so we don’t get that level of detail here. Also note that both headmistresses and indeed all the mistresses at the school are unmarried. The only way they could work after marriage would be if they were widowed.—
The story begins with an odd incident in which Littlejan, Jansy, and a reluctant but compliant Rosalind feel that they should leave the crowded Hall and go stay with Lady Jen at the nearby Manor and make these plans without asking Lady Joy, who becomes very angry indeed when she finds out about them. I had a difficult time understanding why she was so upset when the two buildings are literally (and implausibly; it’s almost like a suburban subdivision) within walking distance of each other. Her stated reason is that she wants the older schoolgirls to live at the Hall to help smooth the twins’ way at school, which they are attending for the first time and it’s long overdue! Have we mentioned before that Joy is a bit selfish? Well, she is. However, as with Benneyben’s story, the novelist’s reason for this little incident is to show that Rosalind, though older than Littlejan, is too diffident, and relies too much on Marigold’s stronger personality. This is her Problem, which she must overcome.
Benedicta greatly admires Damaris, the former star ballerina who injured herself while saving another dancer’s life, and the girls recognize each other as kindred spirits. Benneyben receives permission from her brother to work in the garden and board in the village. There is at this point no talk of a salary, although later Joan Raymond tells Benedicta that she will pay her what she pays Damaris. Littlejan’s sailor father suddenly appears and whisks her away to Ceylon, where her mother Needs Her, as the family’s longtime Samoan nurse wishes to return to that island to care for her dying father. A baby is on the way and expected at Christmas, and little Cecily Rose is only about two, so Jandy Mac needs help. Queen Jean is also whisked away on family affairs, leaving Jansy the sole May Queen at school, which the Marchwood twins, Elizabeth and Margaret, are to attend for the first time. The Wild Rose Queen, Barbara Honor, the twins’ former governess, is to be an English mistress there. At about this time we hear that Rob and Robin Quellyn have had their first baby, Bobbibach.
The term gets off to a bad start; Miss Raven wants to make changes. The older girls, the Fifth and Sixth Forms and the Cookery students, are no longer permitted to wear their gym tunics to classes; they are to wear skirts and jackets. In addition, Mademoiselle has retired and there is a new French mistress, Miss Verity, who is English, not French. Many of the older girls—especially Tessa and Phyl—are outraged. They believe that Mademoiselle has been wrongfully fired, they think it is appalling to learn French from a non-native-speaker, and they are outraged about the uniform edict. They plan to refuse to wear the coat and skirt. The girls seek advice from Rachel, who gives tours of the Abbey in her long, white monk’s robe; she has become an unofficial counselor to the younger girls. Rachel, Damaris, Blessing, and Nanta Rose all feel that Miss Macey had been getting slack when she let the girls wear their gymmies in class—they also stress that it is the duty of the older girls in particular to support Miss Raven for the good of the school. Benedicta suggests to Jansy that the Hamlet Club and its motto—to be or not to be—might be of some use.
Jansy persuades shy Nanta Rose to make a speech about the motto and the good of the school, and this gives an easy out to the older girls Tessa and Phyl, who have come to see that their position is untenable. The girls all greatly admire Nanta Rose, whom they had always liked but had not thought that she had leadership potential. Miss Verity turns out to be a splendid French teacher—and the niece of the third Hamlet Club May Queen, Marguerite Verity (Strawberry), so all is well. Margaret-Twin experiences a shock: as a violinist accustomed to performing with her mother and sister, she expected to be lauded at the first meeting of the school orchestra, but they have plenty of “fiddles” and instead are more excited to have Elizabeth with her cello. The twins turn to Rachel for advice and she urges Margaret to learn to play well with the orchestra and assures her that someday she will be its leader, as cellos can’t lead—somewhat rash advice, one thinks. But this is part of the set-up of Margaret’s Problem which won’t be resolved for another couple of books.
Disaster strikes: Benedicta is weeding the garden when two great horses pulling a wagon run amok. Fearing that Damari’s beautiful garden will be damaged, she rushes at them to ward them off, falls, and is taken up unconscious. She is taken to the Hall for a few days and then returns to the Abbey where Damaris and Rachel take care of her. Maidlin is Not Singing this fall and winter and we understand that her twin daughters will be two years and nine months old in March—obviously another baby is expected. Lady Jen is also expecting and Lady Rosamund wishes that she “were in the race.” She indicates that she plans to have another baby “next year.” Lady Virginia Kane has her first baby: Nancybell Rose. (The name Nancybell runs in her husband’s family.)
In November we hear that Littlejan’s mother has had a baby girl: Janet Joy, to be called “Jantyjoy.” In late March Nanta Rose turns eighteen. On that very day, Maidlin has her little John Paul (named after his father John and Maidlin’s Italian grandfather, Paul). Also on that day, Lady Jen has her baby—not the boy Patrick that she wanted to round out her morris side of boys, but a girl, who will be called Barbara Rose. Because Nanta Rose’s birthday falls on a Saturday, Jansy has called for a Hamlet Club dance and urges Lady Rosalind not to put her hair up until after that—it is automatic that once one is eighteen one either puts up one’s hair or crops it; there is no other path. Thrilled by the news of the two babies born on her birthday—she will be godmother to both—Nanta Rose fiddles beautifully. The girls ask for the tune Haste to the Wedding, which always signifies an important event, and Tessa comes up the two lines of dancers to bestow a bouquet of lavender-colored iris on Nanta Rose; the girls have unanimously voted to make her May Queen for her service to the school as well as for her music. She will be the Club’s twenty-fifth Queen.
The coronation of Queen Lavender takes place; Margaret is her train-bearer and Elizabeth is Jansy’s, signifying that they are taking their own roles at school rather than simply supporting their mother, while the little girls Sally and Susan from Bell Farm are train-bearers for Lady Joy, the Green Queen. Damaris reveals that she has regained her hip “position” and that she will rejoin the ballet company. Rachel at first wants to accompany her, but all the girls agree that Rachel must remain in the Abbey, to be its Abbot, and to continue to counsel the younger girls. EJO’s avatar Rachel says that she will never marry. Benedicta says that she will look after the garden. What a blessing that she came back to the Abbey!
For Folk Dancers
Some dances are named in passing, especially with regard to Rosamund’s Square for Four (her two sets of twin girls): Rosamund suggests that they will dance Argeers, a challenging two-couple dance. On Nanta Rose’s birthday they dance the easy dances Bonnets so Blue—Miss Raven dances that with Miss Verity!—and The Queen’s Jig, as well as the more challenging set dance for four couples, Hunsdon House.
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