Published in 1954, The Song of the Abbey takes place from March of 1937, Abbey Time, to May of 1938. It is the next to the last of the Abbey Girls series, I am sad to say. Oxenham would publish only three more books before her death in early 1960. There is a little dancing in this installment, but it is not described in detail.
(Left: Lady Rosalind Atalanta, with her hair “up” showing that she is a grownup, is playing in and about the Abbey. To her right are, I think, Michael the good Abbot, Ambrose the lay-brother in brown, and his Lady Jehane in the pointy hat, with a cat (Rory) and more monks n the background.)
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
It is March, and Mary Damayris (Damaris Ellerton’s stage name) is about to make her big return to the ballet stage. A crowd of girls from the Abbey will be there, but the Queen-Elect, Tessa, has been forbidden by her aunt to attend, even though her far-away mother permits it. She is desperately unhappy. Walking home from school she is suddenly accosted by an acquaintance of her mother: Caroline Carter—we know her as the bad girl of A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club. Caroline is attractive and well-dressed, but has rather too much makeup on, and this of course is a sign of moral weakness. She inquires as to Tessa’s problem and offers her a ticket—she’ll pick Tessa up in the car after the girl sneaks out of her aunt’s house. Tessa is somewhat shocked at the sneaking, but she so longs to go that she recklessly agrees. On the night itself, the aunt is called away to a sick relative and Tessa feels even more guilty that the sneaking is no longer required.
The next day, Tessa is troubled and wants advice from the reigning Queen Lavender (Lady Rosalind Atalanta Kane), but Nanta Rose is away visiting babies. Tessa confides in former Queen Jansy who tells her that she is in trouble. Apparently, the Head of the school saw Tessa at the ballet and thought that her aunt had relented. Jansy urges Tessa to confess, and, to her credit, she does. The Head, Miss Raven, says that she thinks Tessa is unfit to be Queen. She wants the Hamlet Club to elect another Queen, but the girls refuse. Much pressure is put on Queen Lavender to rally the girls behind the Head’s wishes. Tessa offers to step down, showing that she is fundamentally worthy of the title. Miss Verity, niece of the Strawberry Queen and now a mistress at the school, offers to talk to the Head and they come up with a compromise: Tessa will be crowned in May, so that the tradition is unbroken for the outside world, but will not serve until the fall, and Nanta Rose will stay on as Queen for another term. They propose this to Nanta Rose and she is dismayed—she wants to leave school at the end of the term and go to live with her sister, Lady Virginia, who is expecting another baby. Lady Rosalind (Nanta Rose) seeks advice from Rachel in the Abbey and Rachel reminds her of the motto of the Hamlet Club: “to be or not to be” with its meaning that a girl must make the difficult but correct choice. Nanta Rose is troubled, because Virginia will be much alone in the summer, but finally agrees to stay on for the good of the Club and the School. The girls are thrilled and thankful, especially Tessa, the Lupin Queen. Everyone feels strongly that, while Tessa was weak and impulsive, the real blame falls on Carrie Carter, who should not have tempted her so.
Later that summer, Nanta Rose is alone at Kentisbury Castle when visitors arrive: Captain and Mrs. Kane. Who can they be? They are Bill Kane, who for some time was the third in line to the earldom, and his new wife Patricia (they have “connector” books of their own: The Secrets of Castle Vairy and Patch and a Pawn). Patricia, who goes by the nickname of Patch, had been bringing up her motherless little brother, who is now five, but her father’s new wife wants to take over, and Patch is desolated. Bill, a sailor, requested permission to go marry her and his jolly old skipper gave him a month’s leave. They have been married one day, and Bill and Patch have come to talk to Rosamond, Lady Kentisbury, to ask her help in finding Patch a little house nearby when he goes back to his ship.
Rosamund comes up with an alternative plan. Patch will be too lonely in a little house and she clearly wants to be around babies—she should come work in the Kentisbury nurseries with Nurse, and Queens Lilac and Heather. She will still be treated as family, of course. Everyone is happy. The young couple are sent off to Vairy for a brief honeymoon before Bill returns to his ship. Of course, you should know enough by now that it is not long before Patch is Wearing A Loose Frock.
Time passes. Lady Virginia has her baby, a boy in order to secure the baronetcy. Now Damaris is to be married to Brian Grandison, and she asks Nanta Rose to be one of the bridesmaids. Rosamund and several others decide that the groom’s cousin, Derek Grandison, should fall in love with Nanta Rose, who of course looks beautiful in the wedding procession. Derek is a rising young composer. After the wedding the girls go to the barn and dance while Nanta Rose plays for them and Derek is impressed. The beauties of the Abbey and its stories about Ambrose and Lady Jehane inspire him to write a piece of solo violin and piano (later orchestra) called The Song of the Abbey. He asks Nanta Rose to play it at the premiere. They spend a lot of time together working on it, but Nanta Rose is unaware of Derek’s feelings for her (like most Abbey men, he falls in love at first sight, but it takes the girl longer to be aware of her feelings).
There is a rather nasty minor episode involving Joy (now Lady Quellyn) and Carrie Carter. Carrie is eager to obtain a ticket to the ballerina Mary Damayris’ final performance. She accosts first Tessa and then Nanta Rose, who both turn her down. Carrie then meets Joy in the street and calls her by that name, rather than by her title, and begs for a ticket. Joy turns her down in a rather snobby way, saying that everyone “loathes and despises” Carrie, and then goes home to her daughters and Nanta Rose and brags about her put-down. She has paid off old scores and the new one. The scene—both the smack-down and the bragging—just left an unpleasant taste in my mouth—it doesn’t seem like proper Abbey behavior.
At Christmas, Patch has her baby—twins! Boy and girl! Everyone is very jealous that she got a mixed set. Rosamund would like to have another baby. Jen would like another baby, but Ken says that eight are enough to clothe and educate. Margery Paine Woodburn has a little girl. Oh, Damaris is expecting, too! She and Brian hope for a girl, to be called Rachel Maidlin or Raimy for short. Jansy now her intention to marry Dickon, the President of the Hamlet Club’s eldest son. Rachel’s first book is published, which is sort of like having a baby. One or two other characters are mentioned as being engaged or intended for other characters—Elsie is wrapping loose ends up.
The big concert arrives and The Song of the Abbey and the fiddler are a great success. Lady Virginia asks Nanta Rose if she’d like her to invite Derek to the house so that she can get to know him better. Nanta Rose says yes. Soon they are engaged! They will live at Rainbows.
For Folk Dancers
There are several dance scenes, but none is terribly detailed; they feel comfortable and cozy rather than stimulating. Hunsdon House, Althea, Winifred’s Knot, the Queen’s Jig, The Triumph, The Mary and Dorothy, Indian Queen, Picking Up Sticks, Beggar Boy, Lady in the Dark, Heartsease, Speed the Plow, Steamboat, and the morris jig Princess Royal are all mentioned. Derek finds the tunes “delightful,” but “strange.” Are they minor, he asks, or are they “by any chance,” modal? Joy laughs and calls him clever. “‘They are in the old modes, Dorian and the others. Don’t ask me how our country folk and early writers could make such lovely tunes!” she adds, which is really a rather nonsensical statement to make (especially if you are involved with folk and/or early music as I am)—but we have to remember that people of Oxenham’s generation grew up on straight-up major and minor tunes; it was almost with difficulty that Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth introduced modal tunes to the public’s ear back at the turn of the last century.
Do you know your modes? In Western music modes have been used for many centuries as a way of characterizing different scales. The two that I hear and play most often are Dorian (found in a number of Irish tunes; all the white notes D to D on the piano, or a scale with a minor third and a flattened seventh) and Mixolydian (found in a number of Scottish tunes; a major third with a flattened seventh). English tunes also use these two modes. There are two things to keep in mind about modes in English country dances. The first is that Cecil Sharp, a professional musician, adored modes and felt that they were older and therefore more authentically English. He went out of his way to find and document modal tunes, and this is well-known about his song collecting. What is perhaps less well-known is that he had the same preference in dance reconstruction, choosing dances with modal tunes (and he had a wonderful ear for choosing strong tunes!) and sometimes setting figures of one dance to a preferred modal tune with less interesting figures. The result is a somewhat disproportionate number of dances set to modal tunes, compared to the entire canon. The second thing, and this is something that is becoming clearer and clearer in our century as more old tune-books are digitized and made available, is that tunes traveled a lot more frequently and widely than Sharp and his contemporaries knew. Sometimes they traveled under new names and sometimes with tune variations, but the vernacular musical world was much more permeable than it was thought to be back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.