Published in 1953 and set in May 1936 through February of 1937, Abbey Time, A Dancer from the Abbey is a rather disappointing addition to the canon; EJO would publish four more novels (three retrospective Abbey books and one Wood End installment) before her death, but her powers were waning. While the plot gallops along reasonably enough, the characters are rather flat, and a reader who started with this book might not care to find out anything more about the Abbey world. Oxenham’s grasp of the world of professional ballet is weak to nonexistent, and she sensibly does not try to take us on-stage, at least in this installment, but this deficiency—compared to her intimate and enthusiastic involvement with Camp Fire, the Guides, and folk dancing—removes a lot of the color and verisimilitude—and fun!—from the story.
However, this installment is notable for EJO’s own explanation of her career as a writer for girls. Mary Devine encourages Rachel, who has sold several short stories, to write a novel for girls, explaining that:
“I’ve never dared to think that I could help grown-ups; I doubt if I could even amuse or interest them. But it has seemed worth while to try to influence girls and children for the good, by amusing them and catching their interest. Girls are the grown-ups of the future. They may keep something of what is put into them while they are fresh and receptive. I’ve believed that it is more worth while to write for them than to try to write novels.”
This is clearly Elsie Oxenham explaining her long and prolific career.
There is almost no folk dancing: Jen pipes the tune of Shepherd’s Hey and Damaris dances an undescribed ballet sequence to it, and the older Queens dance Hunsdon House and Newcastle for their visitors (Nanta Rose stepping in for Rosamund, who Shouldn’t Be Dancing Right Now).
And why ballet? It doesn’t seem like something Elsie Oxenham would have been innately interested in—perhaps her publishers suggested it. In 1937 Noel Streatfeild published her first novel, Ballet Shoes, which was very popular (I loved it! Still do. Just re-read it and watched the recent movie version of it: quite good!) When we first met Damaris Ellerton in Maidlin to the Rescue (1934), there was no mention of her having taken ballet lessons; apparently this begins to be explored in Damaris at Dorothy’s (1937) and delved into more deeply in Damaris Dances (1940). While EJO could have deflected Damaris off into her initial projected career as a bee-keeper, she was sufficiently at loose ends enough to be crammed into the role of prima ballerina. I think that what this shows us is not that EJO was adept at writing about the world of stage dance, because she wasn’t, but that she was brilliant at developing plausible back-stories and interconnections for her characters.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Brian Grandison, son of the famous composer of ballet music John Grandison, has come to the Abbey to meet injured ballerina Damaris Ellerton (stage name: Mary Damayris). It is the day after the crowning of Lady Rosalind Atalanta (Nanta Rose) as Lavender Queen. He meets Benedicta (Blessing, Bennyben) Bennet working in the Abbey garden and she tells him that Damaris has regained her strength and “position” (here EJO means, I think, “turnout,” but does not use that technical word) and will return to the stage.
We briefly see Lady Jen: she is concerned about her shy, nine-year-old daughter Rosemary (Brownie), who is going to school for the first time. Nanta Rose pairs Rosemary up with a shy younger girl, Hermione, who turns out to be the daughter of Queen Clover, now a widow with a baby on the way. In helping Myonie, Rosemary overcomes her shyness. There is a rather sweet sequence in which Lady Rosamund and the Earl tell Rosamund’s half-brother Roddy why he is not the heir to Kentisbury, and map out his future plans as Admiral of the Fleet.
Rachel Ellerton is sad to see Damaris go back to the stage, but she cannot leave her beloved Abbey. Damaris and Brian grow close: there is a little suspense as to whether Brian might be attracted to Blessing, but it is quickly resolved, and Damaris and Brian get engaged. With the stakes high—marriage means giving up dancing, although here EJO suggests that if the husband were a dancer too, it might be managed, and this idea of a two-career family is extraordinarily rare in the canon—Damaris has some conflicts; she wants to show the world that she has regained her ability before she leaves it forever and does she love Brian enough for this? She has a wildly-successful three-month run in her signature ballets, beginning in February 1937—her debut will create the crisis in the next installment. She will then leave to marry Brian and go to his rock garden in Yorkshire; he wants to be a market gardener, and she suggests that they sell lavender—
—here one has to question the ability to grow commercial quantities of lavender—or, really, any lavender at all!—in Yorkshire. I had always thought of this as a South of France type of flower—
—and all ends happily. Rachel is “married” to the Abbey as its Abbot: Jen even gives her Ambrose’s gold ring, as if she were a nun accepting convent life Rachel’s novel is accepted, and she will use the pen-name Rachel Damayris. Lady Rosamund has her sixth baby: Geoffrey-John.