The current theme of this blog is an examination of Elsie J. Oxenham’s 39-book Abbey Girls series plus some Connectors, in reading order, focusing on the folk dance aspects they contain. With A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, we hit the richest vein of description of Cecil Sharp and his teachers. This volume was published in 1922, and EJO may well have been planning or drafting it while she attended Sharp’s Vacation School at Cheltenham in 1920—it resonates with her now passionate involvement with English folk dance and her admiration of and attachment to Sharp and two of his teachers. If you are a folk dancer and can only read one Abbey Girl book (or wish to only read one!), this is the one to pick up. The book is dedicated thus: “To Helen Kennedy North and D.C. Daking with thanks for all they have given to me.” Helen Kennedy North (sister of Douglas Kennedy, who ran the EFDS after Sharp’s death) is found herein as “Madam” and Daisie Daking as “the Pixie.” [Read more…]
We’ve finished the Retrospective Titles and are about to plunge into the mother lode of Elsie J. Oxenham’s depiction of folk dance with next week’s title, A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, but before we attend Cecil Sharp’s Vacation School in Cheltenham, we’re going to make a detour to the Swiss Alps for a “Connector” tale: The Two Form Captains. Both of these books were published in 1921. Oxenham attended the four-week school in 1920 and may well have been planning or writing both books then.
The Two Form Captains was EJO’s 21st book, and it is the introduction to the five books known as the “Swiss Set.” It is not in the Abbey series but it introduces two characters whom the Abbey Girls meet in A11. They are also referred to in other books and one shows up later, as an adult dance teacher, in A31_An Abbey Champion. The Swiss Set also intersects with the “Sussex Set” and the “Woody Dean Set.” This wandering of characters in and out of each other’s books is one of the charms of EJO’s world, just as real people connect, fade away, and reconnect. It is also one of the fun aspects for the reader—can you figure out these relationships? [Read more…]
You might be reading this post in an unprecedented state of lockdown or at least of social isolation. But contagious diseases have been around as long as people have. Measles and, to a lesser extent, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, and chicken pox are an important backdrop in Elsie J. Oxenham’s world and appear frequently. These highly infectious diseases are a Very Useful Plot Device for a novelist! They are more useful than, say, a heavy snowfall or a flood as these latter situations can usually be resolved relatively quickly: roads are opened and floodwaters recede. Instead, contagious diseases can uproot or close a school for a lengthy period of time; they can separate characters or cause them to have to go into quarantine and miss school. A character’s reaction to a disease can also tell us something about her. Elsie J. Oxenham’s approach to contagion and quarantine seems quaint and almost benign in our world of the Covid-19 pandemic. [Read more…]
Appearing in 1957 and the third-to-the-last book to be published prior to Elsie J. Oxenham’s death, A10_Tomboys at the Abbey is, mercifully, the last of the Retrospective Titles. With one important exception, it is a weak installment: repetitive and unconvincing. There is nothing in it for folk dancers, so if that is your principal interest in this blog, you can stop reading right now!
The exception, however, is an extremely interesting one that is not addressed in any of EJO’s other works, as far as I know; in Tomboys, characters successfully advocate for a girl to be able to pursue her career even after marriage. [Read more…]
Published in 1952, A09_Selma at the Abbey takes place from September 1918 through May 1919 in Abbey Time. It starts two months after the activities of Strangers at the Abbey, and is a much better story, with a nice romance and a happy ending. It is also one that first introduces to the Abbey world a Swedish sea captain. Elsie J. Oxenham had a weird fascination with both Sweden and with sea captains—Stella Waring and Sheila Ray note that she had an elevated and inaccurate view of the social standing of the latter! Selma’s father was a Swedish sea captain—a double benefit! In a future post [Read more…]
This installment runs from May through August 1918, “Abbey Time” (which is calculated based on the characters’ ages and which May Queen is ruling), but it contains physical elements, such as transatlantic commercial air travel and ballet, more suitable to 1951, which is when the book was published. I didn’t notice this uneasy interpolation when I read Strangers at the Abbey out of order, but when we return to the installments published in the 1920s, we will return to a world where motor cars were open, where phones in houses were known but rare, and where women automatically gave up their jobs upon marriage. Strangers is also an installment in which the Abbey Girls and their seventy-one-year old creator wax eloquent [Read more…]
Twenty-Four Country Dances for the Year 2020
For most of the 18th century and a few decades into the 19th, English country dances were published in books of 12 or 24 pages. These books had titles such as “Astor’s Twenty four Country Dances for the Year 1803 with proper Tunes and Directions to each dance as they are performed at Court, Bath and all Public Assemblies.” These collections were promising the buyer that the tunes contained within were the latest and greatest hits in the fashionable world. In the late 18th century dances were not “called” as they are today–instead the honored topmost lady would announce the tune of her choice and then she and her partner would start dancing with the couples below them–a lot of pressure! But the books of dances helped relieve the pressure.
These books are usually about 6 inches high and 12 inches wide, with a paper cover on the front (sometimes on the back as well), a frontispiece, and 24 interior pages, one dance per page. On occasion, a “24” book will consist of 12 pages, with 2 dances per page. Books of only 12 dances were also published. Below is a facsimile of two pages from Thompson’s 24 Country Dances for the Year 1803 (Ralph Vaughan Williams Library, EFDSS).
Most small books were not stitched in the fold as one might for a bound book (that is, opened to the 12-13 center pages and sewn along the crease of the folded sheets to create the cluster of pages known as a “signature”) but rather were just stabbed through from the top sheet with a single stitch of linen thread, so the cover didn’t have to be more than a single sheet. Sometimes the cover has a back sheet that wrapped the whole. The left-hand margin is generous because, when the purchaser had enough booklets lying on the pianoforte, she could send them off to be bound permanently together in the cover of her choice.
The reason for the size of the books and the numbers 12 or 24 rather than 7 or 18 or 25 or anything else was all about the publishing process: printers used very large pieces of paper, printing multiple pages on both sides of a sheet. These sheets were then cut and folded. It is easy and fun to make such a book yourself.