It was not my original nor is it my present intent to blog about all of Elsie J. Oxenham’s books (88 published in her lifetime; 90 total), although reading her works and thinking about them is sort of like opening a bag of delicious Southern Heat Honey Barb-E-Que potato chips (crisps) and you say, oh, just one, and then you have one more because that first one was broken and then another and then another and pretty soon the bag is empty and your lips and fingers are stained orange and then you glance around furtively to see if anyone is looking and if they are not you find yourself licking those orange fingertips and jamming them into the bottom corners of the bag to dab up those last few yummy spicy-salty-sugary potato chip crumbs. In other words, it is hard to stop!
Fortunately, EJO is less caloric than BBQ.
I recently read and enjoyed these two books, just republished by the Elsie Jeanette Oxenham Appreciation Society, and, after what I’m sorry to say are the somewhat flatter Retrospective and Second Generation titles, it was a real pleasure to get back to EJO in her prime, particularly in the second book. I therefore thought I’d share a few comments on them.
There is no folk dancing in either one, so my dancing friends can stop reading right now and go walk the dog or practice your rant step or do whatever it is you do when not visiting me.
As is her wont, EJO presents us with two heroines, each of whom has a Problem that she must resolve and, compared to some of her other titles, these are relatively serious psychological problems, even if they are not labelled as such. In addition to the problem resolution, The School of Ups and Downs presents us with a clear and sympathetic portrait of the differences between the Camp Fire and the Girl Guide movements as well as a somewhat disturbing vision of what a Girl is, compared to a Boy.
So, let’s start off!
I have not read everything in the Rainbows Series, but Elsa Puts Things Right (1944) comes before Marjorie Meets the Roses (1947)—
—and, hey! Check out Ruth Allen’s The Big Abbey Read, in which she presents the best reading order of ALL of EJO’s titles, fitting the various series and even the stand-alones in with each other—
—and can be read as part of the Kane family sequence. We meet Nancybell Morgan, who has grown up with Margery Paine and her mother, Mary, who of course is known as “Polly.” (Calling a girl whose given name is Mary, “Polly” was common and remains A Victorian Mystery to me.) Polly and Mrs Morgan were best friends until the latter’s death when Nancybell was twelve. The two women kept a sweet shop (candy store) called “Paine’s Goody Shop.” The store has been closed for several years now, and can’t be re-opened until the girls find some capital. Margery is finishing up at school and dislikes it; Nancybell is working in a millinery shop and dislikes that.
I’m not going to go into much plot detail—suffice it to say that Nancybell is suffering from a sort of psychological disorder that makes her think that the universe is against her. Every time something nice happens to her, something else comes along to ruin or lessen it: at least, that’s how she sees it. Margery, Aunt Polly, and a young male friend of the family, Robin (no, not Robin Brent, nor yet Rob Quellyn—a different Robin; EJO apparently liked the name!) all try to talk her out of this point of view, but she is blinded by her Problem and can’t see the truth of their arguments. One of the things that she is clutching to her is her grievance that a girl, Elsa Dale, has taken over the defunct ferry business that Nancybell’s grandfather used to run between what is sometimes called an island and sometimes a point. Nancybell wants nothing more (she thinks) than to be in the country, rowing the ferry. She ignores the fact that the ferry had been closed for two years until Elsa came along—she feels entitled to it.
Various things happen: Nancybell is contacted by her other grandfather’s heirs, young Sir Gilbert Seymour and his younger sister Annamaria, who want to share their wealth with her; Nancybell in a pet rows the boat to confront Elsa, fails to tie it properly, and the two girls have to walk home. Their shared plight causes Nancybell to reluctantly appreciate Elsa’s good qualities.
Now aware of the depth of Nancybell’s grievance, Elsa generously (and somewhat improbably; there is no discussion of money) offers to share the ferry business with Nancybell, and with Elsa’s action as a guide, the latter finally realizes how flawed and selfish she has been. Elsa’s generosity makes Nancybell feel that something that had gone wrong inside her has at last been fixed, and she refuses the offer. As with all good fairy tales, her resolution of her Problem entitles her to the happy ending; it is made clear that she and Robin will marry when he is done with his agricultural course at Oxford, and will go and settle in the country.
I should add that not only do we get an introduction to the immature, girl-crazy Sir Gilbert, who is quite the lad whose roving eye is fixed temporarily on Elsa, but we are informed that Elsa’s younger sister Daphne, is a ballerina in London. Daphne ties us back to the Abbey sequence as she is the ballerina whose life Damaris will save; there is mention of a “great friend” of Daphne who is somewhat ahead of the latter in her career, but the girl is not named.
While Nancybell does not appeal to me much as a character, overall, Elsa Puts Things Right is still a good read, even if it doesn’t have the emotional and spiritual depth of the best of the Abbey Girl titles.
The School of Ups and Downs (1918) is a much richer story that presents us with a heroine who has a quite different Problem. Libby (nearly 15) and Tibby (13 and a bit) Mackenzie have grown up in the isolated Scottish countryside. They have never been to school and apparently have never even talked to other girls, so they have been best friends as well as sisters. But now Libby is beginning to feel that they are developing different interests and that they could grow apart. EJO shows us this when the family takes a rare trip to London and, when offered a family treat for the last day, action-oriented Tibby wants to ride around on the tops of double-decker buses while romantic Libby stifles her desire to go to beautiful historic spots in order to do what Tib wants to do.
At first this seems like a not terribly serious Problem, but it foreshadows Maidlin’s recurrent dreams that emblemize her fears of growing up. Libby is over-dependent on Tibby and can’t imagine a world in which they do different things. Oxenham was the eldest of six children, two of whom were boys, and the two pairs of girls closest in age ended up living with each other for the rest of their lives. EJO was very sensitive to the bonds of sisterly affection, and perhaps Libby’s Problem reflects something that she or her sisters experienced.
The father is ordered to the south of England for his health, and the family take a house on the downs near Mrs Mackenzie’s former school. She hopes that her daughters and the school girls will meet casually and make friends, and that this will ease the path for her girls to attend the school later in the year.
Libby and Tibby meet Rowena and Samanthy, sisters of about their ages. Libby is drawn to the elder, who belongs to a Camp Fire, and Tibby is drawn to the younger, who is a Guide. Libby is amazed that two sisters can still love each other and be friends even if they like and do different things. She can hardly believe it, and still feels that she should go into the Guides with Tibby, even though this goes against what she prefers. The more assertive and confident Tibby is adamant about not joining Libby in Camp Fire.
The Mackenzies grant the two groups the privilege of having their holiday camp on their grounds: the Guides on one side of the stream and the Camp Fire on the other. There is lots of charming detail about both groups, but Camp Fire is more thoroughly and sympathetically presented, and EJO’s skill and enthusiasm is such that if I had read this as a teenager I would have joined immediately! Recall that in 1918 Oxenham was an active Camp Fire Guardian, so she certainly knew what she was talking about when she wrote about the activities and ceremonies as well as about girls in general.
(Above: the two sisters are so eager to know what the girls are up to that they watch them in secret all the time.)
Ribby and Perks, Rowena and Sammy’s brothers, call the school the school of “ups and downs,” partly because it is physically up on the downs (the hills). They also specifically refer to the Guides as “Ups” and the Camp Fire as “Downs.” Rowena explains this distinction to Libby:
“If you think of a Guide, you imagine her standing up, saluting or standing at attention or drilling, always doing something active. Their motto ‘Be Prepared,’ means being up and ready for anything that comes along. They do study for badges, and sew, and cook, and draw, just as we do; but you don’t think of them as doing it. That’s all more behind the scenes with them; the things you see are the drilling and marching, doing things for people, going messages, and so on. . . . And after all, if you made a picture of a Camp Fire, you’d draw the girls all sitting down in a circle round the fire. That’s the very heart of it all, to sit together round the fire; we do it whenever we can. Perhaps we aren’t quite so active as the Guides; that’s because we’re without their soldier side, the drill, and the salutes, and the smartness and all that. I think perhaps the quieter things show more with us; you’ll more often see us sitting together working for honours, and we go in for all kinds of handcraft far more than they do—embroidery, and beadwork, and designing, and stenciling, and modelling [clay], and fancy arts of all kinds. Of course, we can’t do them all in camp, but we have them at school. The Guides stick to the very useful things. We learn things just because they’re beautiful in themselves, even if they aren’t particularly useful—like our beadwork, for instance. You can make lovely chains, and bags, and trimmings for hats and evening frocks; but the Guides wouldn’t waste time on it. They’d be making bandages or poultices, or finding out new ways to build camp ovens, or doing carpentry, like boys.”
Excellent discussion; thanks, Rowena! I wish I had read this when I was writing my posts on Guides and Camp Fire, but the book hadn’t been republished yet and, in its original, is very difficult to find.
Rowena then notes that Camp Fire walks just as much as the Guides, though they don’t call it “route-marches,” and that both groups have members who are active in the school’s team sports. It is made abundantly—and attractively!—clear that both groups exist because the girls want to do things, not just lounge around on holiday and have their meals brought to them, as many middle- and upper-class girls of the time did.
Libby longs to join the Camp Fire, but fears losing Tibby to the Guides, and the strain of this Problem finally causes her to break down in tears. Rowena counsels and comforts her, saying that it is better not to keep Problems bottled up inside—useful advice! She points out that it would be dull if she and Sammy both did the same thing—there would be nothing to talk about. EJO has presented us with a charming picture of Guides and Camp Fire sharing similar goals and activities, even if they have a different approach to them. Libby overcomes her Problem and each sister happily chooses the group that she will belong to, and of sharing their adventures with each other. Both girls now look forward to attending school.
And now for the sub-plot. There will be two things going on here: first, EJO wants to show each group of girls as being capable and confident, responding well through their training to emergencies of different sorts. Second, EJO is exploring the concept of honor, an extraordinarily important concept among gentlemen of this time period, but one with which, apparently, girls are less familiar. She wants her girl readers to understand what “playing up and playing the game” means, although she does not use that well-known phrase in this book (I discussed this concept in the post on A19_The Abbey Girls Play Up).
The brothers are desperately keen to know what goes on at a Camp Fire ceremony. Knowing this, and with a mischievous desire to tease Rowena and Libby, Tibby tells the boys the time and date of the next ceremony and invites them to spy on the festivities. Ribby instantly turns on her for being dishonorable, calling her “not straight,” and “a little cad.” When she later tries to apologize to the boys, Ribby makes his message even clearer: “‘I do like girls to be straight, but as a rule they aren’t.’”
As a rule they aren’t. Harsh words, even though he acknowledges that his own sisters “are as straight as boys.” In Adam’s Fall We Sinned All—but Adam was tempted by weak Eve. Girls and women are not honorable, are not to be trusted, are not straight, in the 1918 sense of the word. If we stopped here this would be a dreadfully disempowering message in a story that otherwise celebrates girls doing things themselves.
—Oxenham was not the only writer in her time to explore the question of whether girls could be as honorable or as brave as boys. Edith Nesbit, for example, explored this topic quite a bit, perhaps most explicitly in The Railway Children, serialized in 1905 and published in book form in 1906. Nesbit was far more left-wing than I perceive Oxenham to have been, but both writers were thinking about the role of women in society, even if EJO does not carry her thoughts too far. Undoubtedly these ideas were influenced by the on-going discussions about the female suffrage movement.—
Appalled at what she has done and shocked at what the boys have said about her, Tibby confesses to the Guardian who reinforces that her sense of honor is indeed too low—Miss Helen uses the words “sneaking, treacherous, mean, dishonorable, and underhanded;” no beating around the bush here!—as she guides Tibby to think through what she ought to do to remedy her error. Tibby finally confesses to the Camp Fire girls who then agree to let the boys view the ceremony. Ribby, who had been sensibly planning to put himself out of the way of the temptation to spy by visiting a school chum during the event, is very pleased, and both boys are deeply impressed and moved by the ceremony.
So, OK, EJO has spelled it out in black and white that girls need to be—and can be!—just as honorable as boys. The set-up was particularly harsh in order to make Tibby’s growth clearer. The young reader is not going to miss the moral of this part of the story! The Camp Fire has rallied and shown emotional courage, generosity, and leadership in giving up the secrecy of their rites to change the boys’ way of thinking and to help remove temptation from their path. We still have to see the Guides show their stuff.
And now comes the somewhat subversive, not as clearly spelled-out final crisis. Ribby is just as keen to know what it is that the Guides are up to on their frequent marches and hikes as he had been about Camp Fire. (Poor boy! He needs to join the Scouts and have some fun of his own!) Taking his bike, he follows after Samanthy and Tibby as they hike over the downs. He decides—actually planning this well in advance in front of Perks who refuses to join him—that, in order to test their supposed First Aid skills, he will pretend to have an accident, and then see what they will do. Doesn’t this seem a tad. . .dishonorable to you? It does to me. Well, he gets his come-uppance, for just as he is about to stage his “accident,” the bike hits a half-hidden stone and he has a severe crock-up. The girls rush to his aid, put a tourniquet on his arm, bandage him, cover him with a blanket that they beg from a nearby cottage (he is susceptible to bronchitis), then make a rough stretcher out of their coats and walking sticks. They are frightened, but EJO assures us that Sammy’s Guide training enables her to keep her head. While younger and smaller than Ribby, the girls gamely carry him back to the Guide camp. As they are carrying him, Ribby apologizes for the accident and Samanthy cuts his apologies short: “‘You didn’t do it on purpose,’” she says, and Ribby’s white cheeks “grow red,” obviously with shame, although this word is not used. He does not say that he had so done; we are only told that much, much later he confesses to Samanthy and, though his mother knows about his deed and intent, she “agree[s] that Ribby had better keep his own counsel on the point”—why? Why doesn’t she enforce The Code of Behavior? This troubles me. While being carried along, Ribby “felt guilty and uneasy, and knew he would have to ease his conscience sooner or later—though not by confession of his own foolishness.” Why not?
So, a bit of a mixed message here! Ribby has been just as foolish and unthinking as Tibby, but he doesn’t pay the emotional or public price for it that she did; just a physical one. Boys can be as foolish as girls, but EJO doesn’t underscore this point as strongly as she did the first one. Would the young reader pick up on this? I don’t know. I’m also not sure why Ribby is not made to confess—I am forced to conclude that EJO felt that pretending to have an accident is not as serious a crime of honor as inviting boys to spy on a girls’ ceremony.
Despite this flaw, I liked this story and will enjoy re-reading it. Crammed with colorful details—unlike EJO’s later works, time-stamping details are included; there are mentions of the war (sugar-rationing and the appearance of a handsome and heroic Scots Fusilier who will marry the Guardian)—The School of Ups and Downs is an entertaining read and a strong and compelling story.