This phrase, allegedly used in Victorian and Edwardian times to encourage over-loud sharers to switch languages to keep sensitive conversations from the ears of the ever-present servants, has no place in the Abbey world. Upon hearing this reminder, the speaker would then proceed to dish the dirt in French, rather than English, making acquisition of the latter language a desideratum for little pitchers. But not only do Abbey Girls refrain from innuendo and idle gossip so that there is no need to check their utterances, there are virtually no domestiques in Elsie’s oeuvres.
Critics of Elsie J. Oxenham’s works complain—justly!—that they are set in a Cloud Cuckoo-land, where it is always spring or at least high summer, where it never seems to rain or snow, where no one wakes up feeling grumpy or hung-over, where the girls are all pretty, the babies adorable, and the men above average—and silent, to boot.
A principal area in which this romance makes its mark is in the relationship between the Abbey Girls and their servants, or the lack thereof. Lady Joy of Abinger Hall, Lady Jen of Marchwood Manor, and especially Rosamund, the Countess of Kentisbury, at the Castle, live in large (in Rosamund’s case, enormous) edifices that in the pre-World War II era that these stories were set in would require an equally enormous number of servants to maintain—not as many as in Victorian times, partly due to some labor-saving devices created in the Twenties and Thirties, but still a larger number than any girl reading these stories in the 1950s and after would be able to comprehend. Housemaids, ‘tweenies, scullery maids, ladies’ maids, valets, nursemaids, boot boys, footmen, gardeners, under-gardeners, grounds-men, grooms and stable-men, chauffeurs, butlers, cooks—the list should have been enormous. And yet it isn’t.
Unlike the country house stories of P.G. Wodehouse, there is not a single butler in the canon, nor indeed any male indoor servants. There is a reference to gardeners, as Lady Joy directs them to leave the circles of blossoms falling from the apple trees to lie like a gown around the feet of the trees—but we don’t particularly see them (unless some unidentified men are needed to carry one of Margaret and Elizabeth’s hapless victims to the house for medical care). One cook—Susie Spindle—is named; the young Jen has a good relationship with the cook at her Yorkshire home; the housekeeper at the Castle has a walk-on part, but that is pretty much it with regard to indoor servants, with two exceptions.
The two exceptions are, as a group, the chauffeurs and the nursemaids. Before I get to the specifics, I think there are two things going on. One is that EJO doesn’t want to stress any realistic issues: while devices like telephones, motor-bikes with sidecars, automobiles (open at first), and even airplanes gradually come on the scene, EJO is silent about politics, fashion, royal marriages or deaths, or anything that could date her books. While she herself could remember back to the late Victorian era of her youth (she was born in 1880); she knew that most of her new girl readers at any given time could scarcely remember back more than five or ten years: a young reader in 1950, for example, would be unable to remember anything before WWII. The reality of life in a pre-War Castle was not something that they could easily relate to.
A second reason why there is relatively little engagement with the help is that a young lady of the pre-War era (either War) would not, I think, have interacted much with many of the groups of servants. Her mother would deal with the cook, the butler, the house-keeper, and the senior Nurse; her father with his valet, the estate manager, and some of the outside staff; but she herself would deal principally with her own maid, the butler, and, perhaps, with the chauffeur(s) who would take her to her social engagements.
While it suits us and EJO that her principal heroines are wealthy, so that they have no concern about having to mend frocks or decide between buying a new coat or a new pair of boots, it did not fit into her semi-democratic concept of the Abbey Girls for there to be a lot of servants about. And, yet, the houses had to be staffed, especially those teeming nurseries!
To fill this gap, the Abbey Girls end up hiring an enormous number of their friends or the May Queens of Miss Macey’s School. Many of the latter go on to get a baby-nurse certificate or credentials and then enter the Abbey Girls’ nurseries: Rosamund employs Ivy and Heather, with Honesty waiting in the wings; Joy is supported by the Stripes, Wild Rose, and Garden Queens; and Maidlin by one or two whose names we misremember. The girls also employ others who have fallen into their orbit: Betty MacLean runs Joy’s music school; Ann (Nan) Rowney runs Jen’s hostel for working girls in Yorkshire; Anne Bellanne will become Maidlin’s cook and housekeeper; Belinda Bellane works temporarily as the twins’ governess; and so on. It is comfortable for us as readers to know that these girls whom we have met and whose futures we are interested in have found safe landing places, even while as adults we find it unrealistic to think that things are so easily arranged. I should add here that “employ” is not a word that Oxenham uses—in fact, there is considerable coyness about money and whether some of these young women are really paid a decent salary or just receive board and pin-money. This is a tricky point for EJO, because in her time ladies didn’t take paying jobs.
In the male outdoor servant category, we have Frost, the kindly chauffeur at the Hall, Henderson, the kindly chauffeur at the Manor, and Peters and young Bob, the kindly chauffeur and under-chauffeur at the Castle. The three older men act as father figures, taking a great interest in the girls and their activities, and always ready and able to update anxious mothers with the latest news of their daughters.
It is an insular country, this Abbey world. While we know that Joy and the others go to London to shop or to attend an occasional concert, we almost never see them in action doing these things. We know that Jock and Maidlin are famous, or at least well-known, but we never see their fans or their critics. Popular culture rarely has an impact in the Abbey world, or if it does—as in the case of cosmetics—it is a sign of the lower class or of moral questionability.
Well, that’s just the way it is in a fantasy world! If these books were about dragons and elves no one would quibble about the unrealistic-ness of not having domestiques around. I mean, we know that Bilbo Baggins is a good cook and can bake a tasty seed-cake and even do the washing up after the dwarves, but surely someone—Mrs. Gamgee, perhaps?—comes in to do the rough cleaning and the laundry at Bag End! So perhaps we need to cut Elsie Oxenham a break—she is not trying to write a story about modern life; she is writing fairy tales, and therefore gets to play by her own rules.
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