I think that, generally speaking, within the power structure of the school she simultaneously does a lot and not much.
First, let us remind ourselves that this is an imaginary role at an imaginary school—while real schools had May Queens from time to time or even for a long time—see my book for more on, for example, Whitelands College and its long-standing tradition of May Queens and now May Monarchs—I do not think that they had the role that Elsie J. Oxenham assigns to her May Queens of the Hamlet Club.
Let’s start with the power structure of a real public school at the time, which is that of prefects, head of games, and, possibly, form captains. As a Reader has clarified for me, prefects are the principal “policing” officers within a school. Presumably chosen for her leadership and moral qualities, a prefect’s principal duty is to keep order when the mistresses are not present, rather like, as the Reader wrote to me, “shop security.” The Head Girl or Boy is the senior prefect. A form captain performs these policing duties for her form, rather than for the whole school. The policing is for things like leaving library books around, or not wearing the right clothing for a certain occasion, or of having a midnight feast after lights out, or even for inappropriately meeting boys in a clandestine fashion, which seems like a much more serious lapse of behavior. The Head of Games or games captain is a girl who picks the teams and assigns positions for whatever the school sport(s) is or are. Prefects are usually older girls/boys–girls in the Upper Sixth, for example.
The May Queen at Miss Macey’s is not part of this power dynamic in which the prefects represent the authority of the headmaster/mistress; she is only the elected leader of the Hamlet Club, which is one of the most popular clubs of the school. She is the person who organizes the dances in the barn or the rambles around the hamlets or other Club activities. While some May Queens like Littlejan (Marigold), Jansy (Lobelia) or Lady Rosalind Atalanta (Lavender) have dance-teaching or fiddling talents, it does not seem to be the case that the May Queen is the de facto M.C. or principal teacher of the actual dances themselves. She is important, however, in the fact of her mere existence that creates the springtime ceremonies that people outside the school attend, as we saw in the last installment, The Song of the Abbey. In modern terms we would call her the “face” of the school—Miss Macey asks Maidlin, the super-shy Primrose Queen, not the Head of School, to welcome the un-named Princess. (Although one hopes that the Head Girl was involved in some way as well!) Finally, while some May Queens like Jen or Nanta Rose are older and nearly ready to leave school, others are quite young: at thirteen, Mirry (Forget-me-not) is an adequate but not exceptional Queen.
May Queens at Miss Macey’s are clearly lower in rank than a prefect or Head of School—when Alison, the Head Girl, walks in the procession carrying Littlejan’s crown of flowers this is considered a great honor to Littlejan. And May Queens act not as enforcers but as counselors—they welcome the new little kids and find them friends, sort out disputes among the young ones, and so on. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in the posts, but May Queens wear a silver pin so that the children can identify them. EJO generally makes a fairly big deal about the trappings of rank: at others of her imaginary schools, prefects wear “girdles” (loosely-tied belts) of a special color, or the Upper level of a Form wears a girdle of, say, purple, and the Lower level of that Form wears one in lavender. So presumably the prefects and the Head Girl at Miss Macey’s have a girdle system whereas the Queen has the badge.
Some May Queens—again, Littlejan and Nanta Rose come to mind—have considerable power in the school due to their personal qualities. Littlejan brings new life to the Club and therefore a new sense of solidarity to the school when she introduces fun and easy new dances and the folk play: this achievement is why the Head Girl honors her. Nanta Rose overcomes her natural diffidence to lead the Club and therefore the school through the crisis with Tessa.
And, just as a little detour, you remember all the Queens’ names, right? A big shout-out to Ruth Allen and the EJO Society for this!
White, Gold, Strawberry, Green, Violet, Speedwell, Honesty, Stripes, Wild Rose, Rose, Beech Brown, Primrose, Clover or Ivy, Ivy or Clover, Bluebell, Poppy, Garden, Hyacinth, Heather, Lilac, Forget-me-not, Marigold, Rosemary, Lobelia, Lavender, Lupin, Wallflower, Buttercup and Daisy.
We hear that at least one Queen is “slack,” but she is not identified. There are several Queens whose stories we know nothing about— Ivy, Poppy, Bluebell, and Lilac—so the slacker must be one of these, although we also know that Phyl was not a very good Queen.
Back to prefects and real schools. One reason for their existence is to provide opportunities for young people to experiment with leadership roles. Children at these schools in the nineteenth century and possibly even up to WWII had a remarkable amount of unsupervised freedom, which could lead to bullying and power abuses. I suppose a prefect is theoretically someone whom a bullied child could confide in, if he didn’t want to go to one of the masters, although I don’t know that I’ve seen that happen in fiction. And I have to keep reminding myself that these books are indeed works of fiction—and thus crises can’t be resolved too quickly or easily through the normal power structure of real life, they have to be left for the protagonist to solve.
A practical reason in real life for having prefects is that I think teachers in many schools back then had what we would consider very large classes and also because a Form might cover a wider age range than we would see today. The teachers needed these auxiliary police to help keep order. I think this might also explain why discipline, especially at boys’ schools, was so strict—they had to cane the boys and “give lines” and so on because there were too many children to engage in gentler but more time-consuming behavior modification efforts. Also, teachers weren’t trained then as they are now—in fact, it’s not clear to me that one had to be trained at all, at least prior to WWII. If you had gone to Oxbridge—at least for boys’ schools—that was all you needed to get a job. I have encountered this in other novels or mysteries written pre-war when any random young man with a Second in Greats could suddenly hired to be a master and thrust into a classroom with no guidance. Of course in those sorts of books he then immediately falls in love with the headmaster’s wife, and someone is murdered, and so on, but that is a different kind of story!
The policing component comes across very clearly in stories set at boys’ schools, such as Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899), and here an additional reason for having these ranks of policing officers is because Stalky’s school is a military prep school, and the boys expect to be going on to Sandhurst and then into the Army. They are being trained early to obey orders from higher ranks—although Kipling’s novel, first published in serial form, is largely a subversive story, as the principal efforts of Stalky, the Beetle, and Turkey are to evade or thwart over-zealous or ill-applied authority. However, it is shown in the end that the wily Stalky’s cleverness, honed in these scrapes, as well as his fierce but understated loyalty to the school (a proxy for Captain/Flag/Country, etc.) will stand him in good stead a few years later when he is leading his troops on the northwest frontier of India.
Hopping to a related educational topic, I am beginning to understand EJO’s distinction between “college” and “university.” Patch tried to read history (that is, study history) at a university, but it couldn’t keep her attention. Lady Rosamund says she should have gone to “college” instead to study baby-care or home economics, like her young nursemaids, the Queens Heather and Lilac. So college seems more like a trade-school—Rosamund herself earned a cookery certificate. Jacky-boy goes to uni (I think) and becomes a doctor. Barbara Honor earns a BA in English. I don’t believe that we hear that any other characters get any other degrees.
Actually, the Abbey girls are remarkably ill-educated by our standards! Or else EJO doesn’t really want to focus on that side of things, which is perfectly understandable from her novelistic point of view. But in the epistolary novel Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster, when the orphan heroine goes to college (here “college” in the U.S. sense of post-secondary education ending with the conferring of a baccalaureate degree), she writes to her sponsor with a lot of amusing details about the volume of water in a swimming pool, or of reading Wuthering Heights, or other things that she is learning. There is one mention in EJO about reading Austen and Dickens rather than The Decline and Fall of Rome, but that is it as far as intellectual attainments go. Joy’s and Maidlin’s French must be good enough for them to travel with, as is Biddy’s, but otherwise Mademoiselle seems to have been remarkably ineffective, although in her defense I am reminded of a great line in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1906) when there is a crisis involving a foreign stranger and the narrator says of her three, tongue-tied child protagonists: “All three had been TAUGHT French at school. How deeply they now wished that they had LEARNED it!”
So, to answer the question in a most discursive way, while the May Queen at Miss Macey’s does not have an official role in the power structure of the school, she often has an important role in its social structure.