While there have been hints of weaknesses in the last few books, with this installment published in 1950 at the beginning of Elsie J. Oxenham’s last decade, we are now in, I am afraid, the downward trajectory of her writing. In this decade she published one to two books a year in the Second Generation and Retrospective groups. Alas, her plots—always rather slight—grow more fantastic, and her writing simultaneously redundant and contradictory: a character will say something and then either repeat it or contradict it within a few subsequent sentences. EJO was in a hurry to get her girls safely married and their stories “finished.” Babies bust out like mushrooms after a rain. The ballet emphasis in the books that feature Rachel and Damaris is not compelling—EJO didn’t understand ballet the way she did folk dancing, Guiding, or Camp Fire, and it really shows. Other commentators have noted that during this time there were some changes in the publishing industry that did not work in Oxenham’s favor, and of course there had been changes in girls themselves—the girl reader of 1950 was not that of 1920. But I also think that Oxenham was growing tired: she had been producing at least one book a year since 1909 and she was now in her seventh decade. Here’s how the last decade stacks up. [Read more…]
Published in 1948 by Muller, this tale continues the story of Lady Rosalind Atalanta Kane (Nanta Rose), Littlejan (young Joan Fraser; also known as the Marigold Queen) and nearly thirteen-year-old Jansy (young Janice Raymond). It takes place in the reign of Queen Jean, the Rosemary Queen, from September of 1934 to May of 1935, “Abbey Time.”
There is quite a bit of material here for folk dancers—not the repertoire so much, which remains a mix of the Playford set dances and the newer, simpler traditional dances like the Durham Reel or the late-eighteenth century dances from the Apted collection, but the style and details of teaching which, as I have commented before, is not a “do whatever you feel like” style. Oxenham showcases three set dances from the early editions of Playford’s The Dancing Master: The Old Mole and Picking Up Sticks, both for three couples, and Althea, for two couples. Sticks is still in my group’s repertoire, but I’ve never danced Althea and danced Old Mole only for a performance many decades ago. Complicated set dances are not as much in favor in the U.S. as they used to be. The amount of detail provided about these dances shows that EJO really knew what she was talking about—it is not just a recitation of the figures but practical and accurate advice as to how to dance them well.
There is also a touching little nod to Oxenham’s own dancing: Jen and Mary Dorothy Devine, EJO’s writing and counseling avatar, are dancing the easy longways dance The First of April. Mary says she finds it “rather hard work,” refers to its “wild rings” (slipping circles), and begs Jen to take it easy. She says that she is not as young as Jen is. The internal evidence of the books and Ruth Allen’s invaluable timeline show that in 1935 Abbey Time, Jen is 32 and Mary is only 44. In 1935 EJO herself was 55 and in 1948, when this installment was published, was 68—much more plausible ages to find slipping circles a bit exhausting! We don’t know when Oxenham stopped dancing.
The cover illustration shows Nanta Rose (plaits) and Littlejan leaning over the battlements at Kentisbury Castle to watch the dancing on the lawn from above.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
A Fiddler for the Abbey starts on the same night as the last installment ended with the Hamlet Club dance in the tithe barn celebrating the marriage of the Robins.
Jen shows Joan her two new twin babies: Christopher and Bernard. She is now up to 5 boys and two girls—still one boy short of a morris side. Rosamund, the Countess of Kentisbury, announces that there will be a dance party at the Castle in October and everyone can then meet the youngest set of her twins. Queen Jean, the Rosemary Queen, says that she would love to become a child’s nurse—this is a default career aspiration for many Hamlet Club Queens and may not reflect EJO’s perception of reality so much as her novelist’s need to keep former Queens near the school and handy for the coronations. Margia Lane, the fiddler and artist, tells Rosemary that she isn’t well and must go to a hospital for observation. This leaves the school’s Hamlet Club without a musician.
A day or two later, Rosamund asks Maidlin, Joan, and Mary-Dorothy Devine for advice about the youngest of her “American” cousins, Lady Rosalind Atalanta, who is 16. Nanta Rose, as she is known, is shy and dreamy and filled with music. Her eldest sister is to be married soon and the husband wants Nanta Rose and his own sister Annamaria, who is known as Mya but would prefer to be known by the swankier moniker Anne-Marie, which tells you a bit about her character, to live with them. Rosamund thinks this is a bad idea, as Mya is a stronger character and will bully Nanta Rose into withdrawing into a dream world. They hope that Littlejan, Queen Marigold, can help.
Littlejan, Mary-Dorothy, and Jansy go to the Castle for the Hamlet Club party. Girls are dancing on the lawn in front of it. The music is a fiddle, amplified (this is the first and, I think, only mention of amplification of live music in Oxenham’s oeuvre), and the fiddler is Lady Rosalind (Nanta Rose). The M.C. is her sister, Lady Virginia. Rosamund brings out her children, in the care of the nurses who are Queens as well (they will get a chance to dance, I am relieved to report). Jen Marchwood brings her new baby boys and her pipe. The Hamlet Club President, Cecily Everett, also attends, and is surprised to overhear little Roderick, Rosamund’s half-brother, address her as “Mother.” Rosamund explains to Cecily that they are doing this until he is old enough to understand why little Geoff-Hugh, the heir, is Lord Verriton and the little girls are all Capital-L Ladies and he isn’t anything. She will explain that he belongs to them three times: as her brother, as her adopted child, and as the Earl’s cousin. Rosamund and the Earl plan to send Roddy to a naval academy and thence to his future career in the Navy. Why the Navy and not the Army or a profession? Does this reflect EJO’s fascination with the sea and sailors or an early-twentieth century perception that the Navy conferred higher social status? I do not know. Perhaps a Gentle Reader will comment.
The dancing begins again and Littlejan and Nanta Rose bond while watching the dancing from high on the battlements. Later, Littlejan suggests to the Jansy and Queen Jean and Nanta Rose that they run a dance weekend to really work on dances that the younger members don’t know.
The girls can’t have their usual teachers for the weekend school: Mrs. Thistle (Tazy Kingston Thistleton) has had another baby, Tazy Rose, and Maribel Marchwood, who usually fiddles, can’t attend because she just had another baby, Marilyn Rose—EJO is at this point going practically berserk with babies, but they do make a good excuse to remove the adults from the scene of action. Virginia, an experienced teacher and fiddler, would like to help out, but Rosamund says no—she wants Nanta Rose to find her feet with the girls. Littlejan feels competent to teach and asks Nanta Rose to play. All agree that this is a marvelous idea.
The school’s dance weekend is to take place in November, with Littlejan as teacher. They have a successful Friday evening session, but return to the Hall to hear bad news: Littljan’s young brother Alan, at school “up North” with his brother Alistair and the two Marchwood boys, has appendicitis and must be operated upon. Joan Raymond (his guardian) and Littlejan race to his bed side. Queen Jean worries about the weekend—she’ll now have to take over the teaching and she does not feel competent to do so. She receives a middle of the night phone call and is whisked away. Will the weekend have to be cancelled? No, on Saturday the girls ask young Jansy to take over, and she is a great success. Tessa and Phyl, who will have stories of their own in later installments, are both amused and impressed by her. Some older girls wonder if she’ll swank and put on side about it, but of course she doesn’t. Her talent, pluckiness, and humility signal that she is an excellent candidate for a May Queen.
As Christmas approaches, everyone expects Lady Joy and Sir Ivor Quellyn with the nearly twelve-year-old Marchwood twins and the two baby Quellyn boys but there is bad news: one of the children’s nurses, Queen Bee (Beatrice, the Striped Queen), has contracted typhoid. (As Waring and Ray observe, it sometimes seems that EJO will go to any length to keep Joy off-stage!) Joy will not leave Bee, but hopes to arrive in March for An Important but Unspecified Reason—of course you can guess what it is. Rosamund, Jen and Joan are worried—she shouldn’t travel after the holiday. (Oxenham seems to have had an exaggerated feeling that expectant mothers should be kept wrapped in cotton wool, and that crossing the ocean in stormy seas should be avoided.) Rosamund contrives to send Gracie Gray, the Garden Queen, to New York, to join Joy (the Green Queen), Queen Stripes, Queen Wild Rose (Barbara “Babs” Honor—the has her B.A. and is tutoring the twins), and the Strawberry Queen, Marguerite Verity, who has a husband and family there.
After the holidays, Queen Marigold calls for a mid-term dance of the Hamlet Club and invites the older Queens to attend. Much to her own surprise, Jansy is elected Queen—she will be the Lobelia Queen, with a dark blue train. Jansy’s mother, Joan, the Violet Queen, is very proud.
Joy misses participating in Jansy’s coronation in May; she has just had baby Madeline Rose. Nanta Rose decides to attend school beginning in the summer term, taking the Cookery course, which lasts about two years. Jansy asks Nanta Rose to be her maid-of-honor, and suggests that perhaps Nanta Rose will be the next Queen; the latter says that if elected she would be the Lavender Queen in pale purple.
For Folk Dancers
This installment provides an excellent overview of how to teach dances well, as shown by both Littlejan and the very young Jansy who is modeling herself after her mother Joan, who had always been something special, as Jen observes, in the way of teaching. It also makes mention of a prodigious number of dances that the teenaged girls not only know but are competent to teach.
Complicated set dances from various editions of Playford: Chelsea Reach, Althea, The Old Mole, Picking Up Sticks, Epping Forest, Sellenger’s Round, Parson’s Farewell, The Boatman, Newcastle, Merry, Merry Milkmaids, Hey Boys Up Go We, Goddesses, Maid’s Morris.
More accessible longways dances mostly from the Apted Collection: The First of April, The Dressed Ship, The Spaniard, Childgrove, The Way to Norwich, Pleasures of the Town.
Traditional (i.e., recently-collected) dances: The Circassian Circle, Speed the Plough, Durham Reel, Haste to the Wedding, Meeting Six, Gloucestershire Three Meet, Yorkshire Square Eight.
I may have missed some, but I make that 26 dances, many of them quite complex. It is quite a good weekend program.
Oxenham provides us with a number of style points, starting with the timing of “lead down the middle and back.” She actually stresses this twice: first when we see Jen’s daughter Rosemary, who is seven years old, dancing at the Castle party. Queen Jean notes that she is a jolly dancer and always “on the beat.” Littlejan says:
“I noticed that. If it’s five steps down the middle, Rosemary takes five steps; if it’s eight slips in a ring, she slips eight. People aren’t all so particular.”
The second reference to this figure is much more explicit and callers today should heed EJO’s advice. Inexperienced callers often say “lead down the center for eight steps and come on back”—this is wrong. Pay attention! Littlejan (Queen Marigold) is teaching the longways dance Haste to the Wedding and the girls aren’t listening to the music.
—Here I’ll interrupt to say that there are many versions of Haste to the Wedding—it was and is an easy and popular tune to play and the dance figures are easy to adapt to the needs of the audience. Sharp himself published two versions in the first Country Dance Book of 1909. In some versions the 1s lead down the middle of the set and return to places after which they and the 2s dance a once-and-a-half swing-and-change (dance around) to progress; in others, the 1s lead down and then come up the set (usually with a slipping (galop) step) and cast off to second place, followed by a partner swing. Here Littlejan is calling the second version, which requires good timing on the lead down and back figure. She asks Nanta to play the tune and put an accent on a certain beat (which Nanta does without being told which one (it is the first beat of the second phrase of the B music).
Littlejan gave a loud stamp [on that beat]. “There! Did you hear that? Rosalind [Nanta Rose] played it too, she knew what was wrong. You must start to skip back on that beat. None of you do it; you’re still turning the woman under your arm [at the end of the lead down]. It’s a strong beat, the first of a phrase. You mark it by starting your return journey on it. You’re late, and so you don’t get round the corner [she means the cast off] and you’re fearfully late in beginning your swing. You meet your partner about the third beat, instead of on the first. And the way to put the whole thing right and keep it all up to time is to go only five, or at most six, steps down the middle. You go right on and on for eight, and then you start to turn, and you can’t possibly get back in time. Now start again; the music will help you, if you’ll only listen. Five down the middle—it’s quite far enough. A nice easy turn, in three beats, and up the middle on the new first eat. Then round the corner, and meet your partner for the swing as the music stars again.”
. . . . “I say, Marigold, that’s much jollier!” Tessa cried, at the end.
“It fits the music now,” Phyl added. [These are both older and musical girls.]
Littlejan then instructs them in some fine points about Meeting Six, a set dance from Buckden published in Six Dances from the Yorkshire Dales. It has two lines, a man in the center of each with a woman on either side. After some initial forward and backing, the men turn the woman on their right by the right arm, then the one on the left by the left, and then repeat. Here’s Littlejan’s helpful suggestion and she is quite correct:
“If the women came to meet their man in the arming, instead of waiting for him to come and drag them in, you’d find it much easier. You make it an awful rush for the man. And the woman who has been armed needn’t stand still and go to sleep, and have to be wakened up by the man, when he comes back to her in four beats. Keep moving; keep on your curve, women. . . . “
[Tessa again says that it is better and asks if everything Marigold will teach them will be easier?]
“I should think so. The right way’s sure to be easier, because they’re folk dances, and they’ve been altered and polished by people for centuries, until the easiest way was found.”
“I see,” Tessa said, with interest. “Anything hard or awkward would be altered.”
Um, well, sort of, yes. Let’s carry on with the teaching for a minute more and then come back to this thought.
Jansy teaches the two-couple dance Althea, which has a distinctive setting step not seen in any other dance: spring on the right and swing the left foot, spring on the left and swing the right, then three little jumps with “crossed feet.” You can see it here performed by Teatro Olimpico Nuovo as part of a vampire LARP (Live Action Role Play; I am amused and even touched by the wistful onlooking of the dance by the young vampiresses in the audience). This group interprets that direction by alternating one foot slightly in front of the other on each hop. Because Cecil Sharp used the word “spring”—the original instructions from 1657 say “step,” I deduce that the Abbey Girls and EJO herself danced Althea faster than this performance group does—it’s difficult to spring at a slow tempo.
I’m not going to excerpt EJO’s details about Althea, since it is no longer in the common repertoire, but the girls are having a difficult time remembering who is dancing as a man and who should “honor” (set to) whom. They want to have some way of distinguishing gender and Jansy says that her family used to wear bonnets when dancing as a woman, but now they’ll just have to remember.
EJO also gives us plenty of style suggestions for The Old Mole, a set dance for three couples, with an eight-bar tune that is played 22 times through. A distinctive figure is that pairs of dancers on the side of the dance (top two women, bottom two men, for example) join inner hands, advance to the singleton opposite them, retire, then cross over, with the singleton going under the arch. Jansy tells the girls:
“When you’re doing arches, don’t swing up your arms in the first bit, the forward and back. Just let them do what they want to do; they won’t go away up to your heads! Lead forward naturally, and then raise your arms when you come to the arch. There’s some point in it then.”
There’s some point in it then. The older girls in particular respond to knowing why she is asking for certain movements or style points, and EJO articulates this point directly. But, again, to know and articulate why is to be certain that there is only one way of doing the movement. It is also to have a keen sense of performance style—this level of detail is not what we’d approach in the U.S. at a casual weekend event today, although it was more commonly stressed or understood back in the 1970s.
Finally, another dance that EJO goes into significant detail about is Picking Up Sticks, for three couples: you can see it here. The girls sort of know how it goes and start dancing. Jansy watches their efforts “with widening eyes,” and stops them after the second figure, which is the one I call “sandwiches and orbits.”
“Awful! Simply awful! What a ghastly mess! Even the first figure was a scramble, but you had some idea of what you were supposed to be doing. I don’t believe you had any idea at all in the second figure. I think you’d better walk it, and I’ll tell you what it ought to be.”
Nanta Rose observes her teaching with “delight and understanding” —she realizes that not only does Jansy really know details of the dances, she can clearly articulate what she knows, which is a very different skill. Jansy asks to see the first figure of Picking Up Sticks and reminds the girls not to skip in it. Do you know this figure? It is the one that I sometimes call “shoelaces”: lead up a double and back, then first man changes places with second woman and then with third man, if you start with the set all “proper,” which they certainly did in Sharp’s time. (Some groups today dance with the second couple improper so that, if dancing in he-she couples, all the crossings are with the person of the opposite sex.) Then repeat, criss-crossing until all are in original places. Nanta Rose starts playing, and suddenly Jansy shouts: “‘Stop! Stop! I will not have those crossings skipped!’” The girls observe that she is “dancing with rage” as she stands on her chair so that she can see better. The phrase about Jansy dancing with rage and her exhortation is repeated with amusement in more than one place in this book as well as others, and I feel that EJO was remembering a teaching moment of someone whom she knew, probably Madam (Helen Kennedy North), who was very bossy indeed.
One girl protests that it is a “very skippy tune,” (it is in jig time, 6/8, which does feel skippy) and Jansy agrees but says: “‘. . .don’t you see? You skip through the other two figures. You can’t do the whole dance alike; there’d be no contrast. You want differences in the figures; a quiet one to start with, and then working up the excitement in the middle and at the end.’” Nanta Rose, whose sister Virginia is also an excellent teacher, is pleased at this exhibition of Jansy’s knowledge and her ability to explain why she wants the dancers to follow her style suggestions commands.
But here’s the thing. There’s nothing in the original of Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651 that indicates whether anything in this dance is skipped or not; likewise, there are no tempo markings. In fact, Sharp didn’t care for the tune associated with the dance in Playford’s edition, so he set his reconstruction of Picking Up Sticks (the middle word in the title was “of” in the original) to the tune of the dance “Lavena” in the same edition. So these rules and style points that Jansy fiercely defends are Sharp’s own, rather than based in historical documentation, and this is an insight that seems to have been opaque to Oxenham and her generation. Further, the complicated mid-eighteenth century set dances like Picking Up Sticks had never been dances “of the people”—meaning the common people or “folk,” which is such a complicated word!—they were dances of the upper-middle and upper classes and had even for them long fallen out of favor, so that there was no “folk process” going on, at least not within the last 200 years.
Don’t get me wrong—I like Sharp’s interpretations and am happy to be an acolyte. And his approach and his standardization of the dances is an enormous part of why and how he succeeded and triumphed over his competitors. I will have more to say about that topic in the future. But for now, while the characters’ references to the “folk process” smoothing out awkward bits is not entirely wrong, it is not wholly right, either. It’s complicated!
Published in 1947 and taking place in August of 1933 to September of 1934, Robins in the Abbey brings back Robertina Brent who we first met in a stand-alone novel The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends, published in 1909. We encountered Robin again in parts of Rosamund’s story arc, but this is her very own Abbey story. Oxenham is brilliant in her re-use of this character; Robin is a thoughtful, serious, kind girl and it is a pleasure to encounter her again. Robins in the Abbey is a nice installment, one of the most “romantic” in the sense that the young lovers are, most unusually for an EJO story, aware of their love for each other before they declare it. And with Queen Marigold (Remember? Littlejan Fraser, Jandy Mac’s daughter) firmly on her throne, there is more dancing now than we saw in the last installments of the first-generation stories. There is nothing particularly new for folk dancers although it is rather charming to see how the younger girls introduce Lady Joy, who has been in New York City for several years, to the new dances, largely from the Apted collection, that they have learned in her absence
Robins in the Abbey overlaps with the Connector Margery Meets the Roses and the books could be read in either order without too much disruption of the characters’ story arcs. [Read more…]
Published in 1947, Margery Meets the Roses is a “Connector” book, part of the Rachel-and-Damaris/Rainbows group of eight novels, one of which is directly in the Abbey Girls series: A23 Maidlin to the Rescue (1934). Margery Paine, the principal heroine of this book that bears her name, is not an Abbey Girl, but her story introduces four sisters, one of whom goes on to become a May Queen. I enjoyed this book with its two romances when I first encountered it, not too long ago, but subsequent readings have left me a little uncomfortable or dissatisfied with it. It is, however, another important book for folk-dance readers.
(For those just joining the party, this blog’s current topics are an examination of Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girl novels plus Connectors from the point of view of a folk dancer. I have found EJO to be a reliable and informative narrator of the early days of the folk-dance revival in England, and want to explore what she has to tell us about that time. Posts generally have an initial discussion, a plot synopsis and then a dance-oriented discussion.)
For dancers, a central motif of this book is the perpetual and unresolved tension between [Read more…]
OK, folk dancers, you’ve patiently sat through all the Romances and the set-up of the Second Generation series—now you’re going to hit dancing pay-dirt with A31_An Abbey Champion, published in 1946. Ruth Allen’s chronology shows the installment as beginning in August of 1932 and ending in July of 1933, when Queen Marigold begins her reign. It is an important book for the folk-dance reader, as it shows the expansion of the repertoire in the late Twenties and early Thirties; an expansion beyond Sharp’s exploration of the complex set dances of the early volumes of Playford’s The Dancing Master (published between 1651 and 1728) and into both late eighteenth-century dances as well as the traditional repertoire.
The cover is difficult to interpret until one has read the book, but it represents the performance of the Folk Play, with Littlejan as the Fool and the head girl, Alison, as the tall doctor behind her along with St. George and other characters from the play. The illustrator, Margaret Holder, met with Elsie Oxenham’s approval (she did not approve of all of illustrations her publishers gave her), but I don’t find this a particularly appealing image—without the inside information that the reader will have at the end of the book I can’t equate the jester that I see with the word “champion,” nor does this say to me either “folk” or even “Abbey.” [Read more…]
This week’s post looks at pre-WWII American Camp Fire series books for girls, books that could have represented competition for Elsie J. Oxenham, had her books been published in the U.S. Why are we doing this? Partly because it is fun, and partly because by looking at how other authors treated Camp Fire we can gain some insights into Elsie’s approach. The differences are night and day—it’s not just that Oxenham was, generally speaking, a better writer than these series writers (although, of those that I have read, Margaret Vandercook’s works are quite good and very readable), but also that she was a different writer—Camp Fire represented something different to her than it did to many of the series writers. While we don’t know whether other authors were personally familiar with Camp Fire—as we’ll see below, some of them seem to have just cribbed from the Handbook—we know that EJO was Guardian of Camp Watéwin (The Camp of Those Who Conquer) from 1916 to 1922, where she took the name of Wenonah, the Eldest Daughter.
(Above: the image used on this series by Vandercook. When my sisters and I canoed we called the girl in the middle the Beautiful Lady Passenger (still a family term), but we faced forward. It makes more sense to face backward as the BLP’s weight would be more in the center of the canoe. And, yes, that is a swastika on the prow—this was and still is a symbol of prosperity and peace in some cultures, despite its modern connection to Nazism.)
By the way, none of the American titles I have read yet address folk dancing. As I noted in earlier posts, while dancing was an activity for which a girl could earn Honors, it did not make its way into the series books. [Read more…]
Dear Readers, this week’s post is a covid-related detour: due to an early retirement plan offered at my place of work, an option for which I missed the bar by three months, I have now taken on additional duties there and am wearing so many hats that it interferes with my blogging as well as my desire to watch all the seasons of Laurie & Fry playing Bertie and Jeeves. So, while I continue to work on two long posts on both Camp Fire mysteries and the next Abbey Girls installment, An Abbey Champion, here is a little digression on Captain of the Fifth (1922), the second in the Swiss Series and one that shows Anastasia (Tazy, or “Taisez-vous”) Kingston, teaching the Kirkby Malzeard and Flamborough sword dances to the girls at St. Mary’s School in the Swiss Alps. Most of the focus is on the first dance.
My copy of Captain of the Fifth came as a freebie with another purchase—a freebie because it arrived in a plastic bag as a pile of sheets of photocopied paper that had been painstakingly folded and then glued together page back-to-back with page and also along the back spine in a sort of DIY perfect binding. With all the copying and folding and gluing, [Read more…]
This post, the second of several on the Camp Fire movement as Elsie J. Oxenham experienced it, looks some of the details of participating in a Camp Fire. EJO was a Guardian of two successive Camp Fires and this colored her writing, most explicitly in some of the non-Abbey Girl books.
As with the real world of folk-dancing, EJO is a reliable and evocative reporter of the ceremonies: the lighting of the three candles and the fire, the call of “WoHeLo,” the approach of the girls, the adoption of names, etc. What she is silent on is the work and commitment involved in earning the honors themselves—she does not show us is a girl learning “standard dives” (Health honor), carving a totem pole (Camp Craft honor), or swatting “at least twenty-five flies a day for a month” (Patriotism honor).
Before I go further, please click on the picture above, which I love, to enlarge it. (Click on the back arrow—so appropriate to this topic!—to return to the post.) This image is unsigned and I don’t know what book it comes from, but it seems to be by the artist whose work I admired in my last post on Camp Fire. We see a lot of fun details: one girl is making a woven basket, another a clay bowl, a third is showing off her beaded headband, while the fourth holds a bow and has an arrow on her lap. All of the girls wear comfortable bloomers and middy blouses and we can see a neat tent with a mirror, trunk, and cots as well as what are probably bathing suits and a dressing gown drying on a line strung between two trees. They look happy and absorbed and there are no grown-ups in sight.
Suppose you had read a thrilling article about Camp Fire in a magazine, like the one by Mrs. Gulick to the right. (Notice the pose of the girl at the top left: this is the “sign” of the fire and it is used in many of the illustrations of the series books that I’ll address in the next post.) How would you get started? By purchasing a small, paper-backed book with a brown cover (EJO even mentions this book and the color in one of her non-AG books) which cost only twenty-five cents. (My copy cost more than that on ABE.) My copy is the fifth revised edition from 1914, and it is well-worn. It looks like the one below except that it is dirtier and there is no date in large letters.
The Guide immediately tells us that Camp Fire is an organization of girls and women “to develop the home spirit and make it dominate the entire community.”
It is a means of organizing a girl’s daily home life. It shows that romance, beauty and adventure are to be found on every hand and in wholesome ways; that the daily drudgery may be made to contribute to the beauty of living. It gives boys and girls wholesome interesting things to do together. It deliberately intends to promote happy social life.
The reference to boys is a little puzzling until one looks at some of the honors, several of which involve interacting in a “healthy” way with boys—teaching them folk dances, for instance. The Guide goes on to state that Camp Fire “is an army of girls rather than a mission to them.” It stresses that meetings are usually in the home or in the out-doors.
A minimum of six girls over the age of twelve plus their Guardian, who had to be over the age of eighteen, were required to form a Camp Fire. The Guide suggested that a group should not exceed twenty in number, but that ten to twelve was the best size for the girls to get to know each other and their Guardian. And Guardians were meant to be more than just activity leaders: they were counselors of their groups of girls, whom they would nurture for several years.
The fire-lighting ritual and all the symbols and ceremonies were central to the concept of Camp Fire.
[Camp Fire] uses beautiful ceremonies, has an appealing ritual and bases rank and honors upon personal attainment. There are attractive ceremonial costumes, honor beads, and decorations. It interprets daily things in terms of poetry, symbolism, color and imagination.
Each Camp Fire was encouraged to take on a name, activities, and symbols relevant to their own part of the country.
A Camp Fire in one of the Western states may be called the Alsea Camp Fire because it is in the Alsea Valley. . . . The symbol for this Camp Fire is two low brown triangles with bases touching, to suggest the mountains. . . . . The Sequoia Camp Fire may have a reddish brown, long trunked, pointed topped tree for its symbol because it tells of the giant redwoods. A group of girls in Butte, Montana, may name themselves the Copper City Camp Fire Girls, because of the principal industry of their home city, and they may use the pick and shovel in copper color as their symbol. The more simple the symbolic design the more effective it will be and the more varied may be its use.
Girls were encouraged to take names from Indian legends and folklore, but I have not seen any discussion of any of the languages or the differences in Native American cultures described; they are all just generically “Indian.” The Guide tells us that “‘Pakwa’ chose the frog as her symbol, for its skill in diving; ‘Kanxi’ chose the honey-bee for its sweetness. ‘Morning Star’ likes to take walks before breakfast and hopes soon to get breakfast all alone for the other members of the family. ‘Evening Star,’ her sister, is the one who puts the two younger children to bed, and she is winning her first honors in telling folk-stories and Indian legends to them.” Girls could also make up their own names: the Guide says that one girl took her name from the words “needed” and “cheerful,” as she wished to be both those things, and formed the name, “Neachee.” If a girl had chosen a name too hastily, and felt that it no longer described either her qualities or her desire, she could, after discussion with her Guardian, change it, by burning a paper with the old name on it in the ceremonial fire and saying that that name and intent were gone.
One thing that the Guide was silent on is precisely how the Guardian was to acquire the skills to instruct the girls: how did she learn to set a broken limb or tie the trucker’s hitch? Perhaps that was part of the personal growth that the founders were envisaging—that the Guardian would find experts to cover the knowledge areas with which she was unfamiliar, thus binding the Camp Fire to others in the community. This aspect of engaging others—especially mothers—with the group comes out clearly in some of the fiction about Camp Fires.
After the fire itself, the gown was an important part of the movement. Girls were encouraged to incorporate personal symbolism in their beaded headbands and in the embroideries on their gowns. This can be seen clearly in these two examples, especially the one on the left: this girl really enjoyed embroidering as you can see the flowers, the beaver, the bunny, the music notes, etc.
Not only did the gown incorporate symbols and decorations important to the individual wearer, it had a democratic, unifying influence. As the Guide states, when the Grand Council Fire was held and many groups attended
. . . girls from every station in life came together all clad alike. [The gown] was just as becoming to the poor girl as to the rich girl. Its value in bringing about a true democratic feeling between girls of all classes cannot be estimated. They are all one in this great sisterhood.
Unlike Boy Scouts, who apparently routinely went about in the street in their uniforms, Camp Fire girls reserved the fringed gowns for ceremonies. The Guide specifically requires this so that the gown should not become “common and of little significance” by being so worn. It specifically states that a girl may not wear it at any “partisan” parade such as a women’s suffrage parade (though the Guide says that girls and Guardians were entirely free to “identify themselves” as they please) but it did permit the wearing of the gown at pageants when the girls could appear in their “ceremonial dresses without sacrificing any of the delicate personal feeling which should cling to them.”
Organized activities—hikes, camping, and acquiring honors—were also central to the movement. To achieve the rank of Fire Maker (the second rank), you had to have accomplished all 14 of the required Honors, such as sleeping with open windows for at least one month, naming the chief causes of infant mortality, tying a square knot five times in succession correctly “and without hesitation,” refrain from eating candy and sweets for at least one month, and so on. In addition to these required Honors, girls also obtained Elective Honors in the following categories:
Home Craft—Flame colored honors, as fire has been the center of the home.
Health Craft—Red honors (red blood).
Camp Craft—Brown honors (woods).
Hand Craft—Green honors (creation, growing things).
Nature Lore—Blue honors (blue sky).
Business—Yellow honors (gold).
Patriotism—Red, white and blue honors.
There were 90 possible Home Craft honors to earn, showing its importance to the movement, and 32 Health, 25 Camp Craft, 41 Hand Craft, 49 Nature Lore, 25 Business, and 48 Patriotism honors. Guardians also seem to have had some leeway in being able to bestow an honor not on the official list. In addition to regular honors, a girl could earn Big Honors, which were certain multiples of individual honors: viz., to earn a Home Craft Big Honor, you would have to have earned any fifteen Home Craft Honors.
The previous owner of my well-worn copy has placed tick marks on various of these honors. For example, she seems to have known how to identify and describe fifteen trees in Summer and Winter, to have made a baby dress, to have taken seven hours of outdoor exercise every week for three months, to have known six trail blazes, and to have known the names of the Indian tribes that inhabited her state, as well as “the tribes and number of members now living there, and their economic and religious condition.” Religious condition? Hmmm.
Unlike, for example, the YMCA or the YWCA, both dating back to the mid-1850s and both with an emphasis on Christian Bible study, Camp Fire was the first non-sectarian organization for girls. While non-sectarian, however, it was very definitely spiritual as its “Law” and the various “Desires” of the different ranks show.
Elsie Oxenham’s father, John Oxenham (their real surname was Dunkerley, but both of them used Oxenham as a pen-name), contributed verses to Camp Fire, but I do not believe that we know which ones. I suspect him of writing the Fire Maker’s Desire since EJO quotes it, but we may never know.
The Fire Maker’s Desire
As fuel is brought to the fire
So I purpose to bring
My heart’s desire
And my sorrow
To the fire
For I will tend
As my fathers have tended
And my father’s fathers
Since time began
The fire that is called
The love of man for man
The love of man for God.
Symbolism was another key component of the Camp Fire movement, and Charlotte Gulick created many of the symbols, visible in the Law to the left. Note the two little dancing girls at the bottom of the page: this pictogram of one triangle on top of a larger one is the “primitive” (to quote the Guide) symbol for woman. EJO refers obliquely to these pictographs: when Elspeth Abbott sends her letter of invitation to Rosamund, Maidlin thinks that her cute drawings of girls and squirrels are very similar to what her Camp Fire girls use. I have no idea what Charlotte based her symbols upon, but in addition to using these symbols on a gown or a headband, one could sign with them, in a fashion of hand signals that real Native Americans may have used to communicate—although if they really used hand signals, I am doubtful that the Camp Fire signals matched with them.
For example, Seek Beauty, the first of the Laws, could be signed as “Seek” and “Good,” with Seek shown as the index and middle fingers of the right hand touching the eyes, then those two fingers pointed towards the front and Good shown as “Right hand, palm down, held against left breast. Move hand several times with quick motion front and right on horizontal plane.” These “air-pictures” were also developed by Charlotte Gulick, and you can read a book of her symbols and their explanations here.
While Camp Fire was originally founded as a sister organization to the Boy Scouts of America, it never officially became so. However, many of the same people were interested in or involved in the organizations at various times. My Guide lists John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. Russell Sage, S.R. Guggenheim and Grace Dodge among the financial supporters and Ernest Thompson Seton, Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), and Jane Addams among the Electors and Directors. These were all important people of the time and their involvement certainly gave an imprimatur of respectability to the movement.
By December 1913, membership in Camp Fire Girls was estimated at 60,000, which is an enormous number for this pre-internet era. Interest was fueled by word-of-mouth, by magazine articles, and by books for girls with the words Camp Fire in the title—I’ll be discussing some of these in a later post.
For Folk Dancers
While EJO’s Maidlin makes singing and dancing one of the principal activities of her Camp Fire, the former at least was a relatively small part of the official honors. (Singing was more stressed, especially “action” songs which incorporated mimetic movements.) However, dear folk-dance reader, you could earn an honor (a red, white and blue bead) in Patriotism thus:
An honor in patriotism may be given to: each member that participates in giving a party or dance in which the girls and boys are about equal in number and in which at least two of the following dances are learned and danced by all: Virginia Reel, Portland Fancy, Lady of the Lake, Howe’s (or Hull’s) Victory, Pop Goes the Weasel, Chorus Jig, Lancers, Boston Fancy, French Reel, German Hopping Dance, Varsouvienne, Furetur, Gottland’s Quadrille. This honor may be repeated four times in any one year, provided new dances are used each time.
The Virginia Reel is the old Sir Roger de Coverley and there are many variants in the U.S. The next five dances as well as Boston Fancy and French Reel are contra dances from New England—these are basically the old country dance, still in triple minor formation, set to New England fiddle tunes. The Lancers is an abbreviated version of one of the figures of the five-part Lancers Quadrille, popular in England at and after the Battle of Waterloo. The Varsouvienne is a turning couple dance from the ballroom, and I don’t have information currently on Furetur or Gottland’s Quadrille which I take from the names to be Danish dances. In 1914 there were a number of folk dance manuals from which girls could learn these dances, but Elizabeth Burchenal, the great collector, had not yet begun publishing. More on her at another time.
You could also earn a Home Craft (flame-colored) honor if you taught a boy to dance any four of those dances, and a Health Craft (red) honor if you demonstrated knowledge of any five “standard” (undefined) folk dances. Since some honors could be repeated, some of us could have earned quite impressive strings of honors!
Published in 1945 but set in July through August of 1932, A30_Two Joans at the Abbey takes us into the Second Generation titles. While it is not one of my favorite titles, it is satisfactorily constructed with a nice balance of adventure and folk dancing.
There is an enormous difference in the experience of reading the Abbey Girls series in Publication Order, which is how Stella Waring and Sheila Ray organized their Island to Abbey analysis, in Reading Order, which is how this series of posts is organized, or in Random Order, which is how I (along with, I suspect, many other readers) first encountered Oxenham’s works. We don’t really need to discuss Random Order, which was confusing and sometimes frustrating, but also fun to try to puzzle out the characters and relationships. This puzzlement was not aided by Elsie’s fondness for repeating certain names: take Cecily/Cicely/Cecilia, Rosamund/Rosalind, Marjorie/Maidlin/Maribel, Joan/Janice/Jehane/Littlejan/Joan-Two/Jansy/Jean/Jen, for instance. Who are all these people?
In Reading Order, we dealt with the seven titles that form the Retrospective Titles, A4 through A10, long, long ago—way back in July of 2020. These titles focus on the exploits of young Jen Robins and her pal Jacky and the still teenaged Joan and Joy Shirley as they uncover the many secrets of the Abbey: Lady Jehane’s jewels, the Monk’s Path, and other treasures hidden by Ambrose, the lay brother who loved Jehane and who became a saintly emblem—a Guardian as it were, and I don’t use that word carelessly—of both the secrets of the Abbey and its spiritual heritage. You’ve forgotten about them, right? I know I have. [Read more…]
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Sang we thus, my sisters and I, as under the glimmer of the Corn Moon we paddled along the silvery shores of Asquam near Lake Winne-pe-sau-kee in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (Listen to a delightful clip of the song complete with loon call and sound effects here, sung by Michael Mitchell.
This is the first of three posts on the topic of the origins and early practices of the Camp Fire movement that Elsie J. Oxenham so loved and which she incorporated in many of her books, including some of the Abbey Girls books. I should have written these earlier, back when Maidlin was shown as being more active as Guardian of her Camp Fire but, life being what it is, I didn’t. In this first post I’ll give a bird’s eye view of some of the social forces in America around 1900 that contributed to the founding of the movement. In a later post I’ll look at the activities and structure of a Camp Fire. Finally, I’ll look at some of the series books for girls that feature Camp Fire—books that to some extent EJO was competing with for readers. [Read more…]