Set in May through July of 1927, three years after the last installment, and published in 1930, A19_The Abbey Girls Play Up is light in tone but discusses serious issues of duty and responsibility. Our heroines have uttered the phrases “play the game” and “play up” in the series before but we haven’t paid much attention to the words—perhaps we haven’t understood them and are wondering what game is being referred to. But here the phrase “play up” takes on titular importance. It is a reference to the famous poem by Sir Henry John Newbolt titled “Vitaḯ Lampada,” meaning “the torch of life.” The poem tells how a schoolboy, a future soldier, learns selfless commitment to duty in cricket matches in the famous Close at Clifton College. The poem was written in 1892 and refers to the Battle of Abu Klea in Sudan in January 1885 during the unsuccessful expedition to rescue General Gordon. Here’s Newbolt’s poem:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling‘s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The poem was widely admired at first, but during and after World War I was satirized. The phrase play up and play the game appears in many fictional works, including Stalky & Co. (published in 1899 in book form after having been previously serialized) by Rudyard Kipling and numerous works by P.G. Wodehouse, who started his career writing short stories for boys’ magazines. I think it is likely that Elsie Oxenham, whose father John Oxenham was a successful inspirational and religious writer, had met Newbolt, as London literary circles were small. John Oxenham wrote several of the poems that Camp Fire leaders used when lighting the fire or engaging in other ritual activities. And, of course, to create a new Camp Fire circle (consisting of a Guardian and at least six girls), Maribel passes the torch to the new leader, Maidlin.
In The Abbey Girls Play Up, several of the inner circle are faced with challenges and must play up and rise to the occasion. While feeling inadequate, unprepared, or unsuited for the challenge, they consciously take on new duties. They say that because they have so much—referring to money, but also to joy in dancing and beauty—they feel that they must share it with those who have less. Shy Mary Devine is asked to lead a Sunday School class for girls and, though she is very uncertain about her ability to do so, agrees. Jen Marchwood is shown as bustling about as Lady of the Manor, opening fêtes and hospitals and doing all the public work that the villages around ask of her. Jen also forces Joy, in her third year of widowhood, to take on duties and not be a shirker—Joy eventually takes on the leadership of a Ranger group (the older girl Guides). Maidlin thinks that she ought to lead on a Guide group because there is a need for a new village activity but hates the thought of Guiding—she eventually starts a Camp Fire for the younger girls of the village. And Rosamund provides the happy ending. That the Abbey Girls “play up” mean that they face and take on responsibilities, act with honor and courage, and contribute to life and the world around them.
In the previous installment we were shocked to hear that Joy, a recent widow, Jen, expecting her first baby, and Mary-Dorothy, newly serious about her writing, all felt that dancing wasn’t as important to them as it had been; that it was a pleasant activity, but not the most important thing in life. Either readers complained or Elsie Oxenham realized that she could not let the folk dancing aspect of her series vanish, so A19_The Abbey Girls Play Up returns Jen, Mary, and Joan to folk dancing.
The illustration shows Maribel (blonde plaits) passing the torch to Maidlin as a new Camp Fire is created. The younger girls have not yet made their gowns or begun earning honors.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The story opens with fifteen-year-old Cecily Brown in despair because she has been told by Sarah, the caregiver with whom she boards, that she is not allowed to go folk-dancing that night: Sarah thinks that Cecily was rude to Joan Raymond, the teacher, at the last session. Sarah, who is a lower-class villager (see below), doesn’t understand Cecily who is very emotional and gets worked up by the dancing. Cecily is a fifteen-year-old orphan who first appeared two years earlier in A Camp Mystery (1932) as a spy for the bad guys. Known as Cécile Le Brun, she is part-English by birth but was kidnapped at the age of three or four by the bad guys who put her in a French convent until they needed her for their nefarious deeds. (A Camp Mystery is EJO’s worst book and the plot is pretty unintelligible, suffice it to say that it is set in Switzerland.) There she met Girl Guide leaders Maribel Ritchie and Rosalind Firth, who eventually took her under their wing and “adopted” her. Cecily has brown eyes and unusual, dark red hair with bangs cut straight across her forehead. Maribel and Rosalind have sent her to England to study and get acclimated to English life.
The debacle happened in the dance Mage on a Cree. Cecily tells the dancers how to do it better (more detail below). The other adults think that Cecily was rude to Joan, but Joan understands Cecily’s passion for dancing. Sarah is firm that Cecily can’t dance until her guardian Maribel has ok’d it. Jen, now Lady Marchwood, came to the class Cecily missed and played her tin whistle. Deeply unhappy at missing this treat, Cecily buys one and tries to play: she has a good ear and soon picks out the tunes of We won’t go home till morning, Rufty Tufty, The Butterfly, and The Old Mole.
Maribel and Rosalind, both in their Guide uniforms, show up and discuss Cecily’s future–they can’t provide more education for her: she must become a typist or a cook. They hear Cecily ‘s playing and are impressed. Sarah tells them that she can’t do anything with Cecily on folk dance nights as she gets so worked up. Cecily explains that she just couldn’t bear to see the pattern of the dance messed up. The girls decide to go and see Mrs. Raymond, who lives at Rayley Hall, about 30 miles from our usual locations of Abinger Hall and Marchwood Manor. Cecily’s guardians realize that school hasn’t been enough for Cecily—the country dancing is fulfilling something deep inside her, and that she needs music in her life. They also meet her friend, Mrs. Sandy Alexander, a young widowed violinist. Sandy tells Cecily her life story and we appreciate that she has also “played the game,” abandoning her dreams of music school to care for her ill mother.
Maribel, Rosalind, and Cecily are absorbed into the Abbey Girls clan, meeting the Dowager Lady Marchwood (Joy Shirley) and Lady Marchwood (Jen Robbins), known informally and incorrectly as Lady Joy and Lady Jen. Both ladies have two babies. Jen invites the three girls to stay at the Manor one weekend where Maribel meets Mike Marchwood, Sir Kenneth’s cousin. Mike is a Boy Scout leader supervising a camp nearby. Much is made of the two Guides and Scout Mike “saluting” each other’s uniforms. Maidlin confesses to Maribel and Rosalind that she feels that she should lead a Guide group but that she hates the thought of it—they tell her she shouldn’t do it if she doesn’t love it. They tell her about the American Camp Fire movement.
—I’ll go into this more in future posts, but a simplified way to think about Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and Camp Fire in the early days of the movements is that the Scouts and the Guides were almost para-military, or more accurately, pre-military groups, while Camp Fire was romantic. Guides/Scouts wore “smart” uniforms, even in the street, saluted when they met or parted, earned titles such as “Captain” and “Colonel,” carried the flag of their unit or company as well as the nation’s flag, and learned, among other things, “wig-wag” (semaphore) and Morse code. Camp Fire girls learned songs and poetry, made and embroidered their own gowns and headbands (which they did not wear in the street), and took on Native American-style names. Camp Fire “ranks” are symbolic: from Wood-Gatherer to Fire-Lighter to Torch-Bearer. Both groups engaged in hiking, camping, and other healthful activities, and earned badges (Guides/Scouts) or honors/beads (Camp Fire), for learning skills or passing tests of discipline. Elsie Oxenham was both a Guardian and a Guide leader. It is clear that her sympathies lean towards the more spiritual Camp Fire, but that she recognized that more English girls would have access to or interest in the Guiding movement. In the Abbey Girls series, the more masterful Joy is active in the Guides, while intense and romantic Maidlin, Camp Fire. In non-Abbey Girl books, Camp Fire tends to be more frequently represented. In Maribel’s back-story books, the Camp Keema series, the differences between the two movements threatened to divide the school and actually do divide friends.—
Mary Devine, Lady Jen, Joan Raymond, and Maidlin are all presented as having (unpaid) jobs such as teaching dancing. Mary agonizes over taking on the challenge of teaching a village girls’ Sunday school class; Maidlin agonizes over taking on leading a Girl Guide group. Lady Jen is busy representing “The Manor” while opening bazaars, fêtes and hospitals. Only Lady Joy, still wearing black and mourning her husband after three years, does nothing much for anyone, yet there is a need in the village for a leader of a group of older Girl Guides, known as Rangers.
Lady Jen tackles Joy’s problem head-on by reminding her that her twin girls will soon notice that their mother does nothing compared to all the “Aunties,” and that soon they will be out dancing and doing things and Joy will left to sit at home alone. She urges Joy not simply to give money, which is easy for her, but to give of herself. In this discussion, Jen does not refer to the concept of “playing-up,” but it is clearly implied. Joy visits Sandy Alexander and realizes that here is another young widow who is doing more than she is. Joy is struck by this and agrees to be the Ranger leader.
On a second visit to the Marchwoods, Maribel takes her Camp Fire gown and beads. Wearing them—and with her hair down!—and thinking that none of the gentlemen are at home, she goes down to the drawing room to show Maidlin—and there is Scout Mike, in his Scout shorts! Pretty soon he is looking at her with Hungry Eyes, and we all know what that means! Maribel is presented as Kataga or “the Stormy Waves” of Camp Keema, the Camp that faces the Wind. Though she had not yet officially joined the group, Rosalind was to take on the name of Senhalonee, the Builder. It is clear that the names reflect their characters and/or aspirations.
Maribel passes the torch of the new Camp Fire to Maidlin, who will be its Guardian. The Camp is Waditaka, the Adventurous Camp, the Camp of Brave People. Maidlin takes on the name of Nawadaha, the Singer, and Cecily that of Wopida, Gratitude. Jen takes a photo of the event, which she sends to Rosamund Kane, who is in Switzerland visiting friends at the Platz, the sanatorium in the Alps. There is a long description of the village Whit-Monday day celebration with all, regardless of age or rank, dancing together. Maribel teaches Mike to dance and he enjoys it thoroughly.
Lady Joy discovers Cecily’s musical talents and offers her a place in her music school. Maribel and Mike are matched up. Rosamund suddenly provides a happy ending: when she saw the photo of the Camp Fire, she instantly recognized that one girl must be the daughter of a patient—she also has distinctive red hair with bangs cut straight across the forehead, proving that haircuts are hereditary. The woman, Mrs. Perowne, is a musician whose husband died, and whose baby was kidnapped. Rosamund comes to England to make sure and of course it is Cecily. In the true Abbey fashion of helpfulness, Rosamund escorts Cecily to Switzerland and Lady Joy offers Sandy Alexander a place in the music school.
The story concludes with Rosamund Kane telling Maidlin that she herself feels useless just living at the Hall. While everyone is kind to her, she needs a purpose in life that is more than teaching country-dancing. She wants to be out and doing something, a theme that will be further explored in the next few episodes.
For Folk Dancers
As mentioned previously, EJO had a conflicted approach to class and folk dance, and this installment shows both of her approaches. There is an idyllic set piece of everyone—Hall and village—dancing on Whit Monday. One of tall Lady Jen’s partners is a little girl who sent a note to the Manor to ask Jen to dance with her, and Jen, when telling her friends about it, refers to the girl as “only” village. While the little girl and Jen are charming together, it is a bit of a nails-on-the-blackboard moment. At other points in the story, Cecily and Joan note that the Women’s Institute dancers are generally “heavy” and graceless, and they don’t focus well on the details of the complicated Playford-style set dances that Joan teaches. They enjoy the dancing, but they just don’t “get it” the way Cecily, who comes from a middle-class background, does.
Craving music, Cecily has sought comfort from “Little” Sandy Alexander, the violinist. She attended one class and played The Old Mole with such spirit that Cecily danced better than before. She begs Joan to have Sandy play for all the classes, but Joan can’t just chuck the faithful pianist, even though she plays very heavily. Joan gives the pianist hints like “‘Play it like music! Phrase it more! Don’t be so particular to accent the beat!’”
Cecily’s trouble came from bad dancing in the three-couple dance Mage on a Cree, another complicated Playford-style dance.
“They [the Women’s Institute] would turn the wrong way, backwards, to make the ring, and it’s hideous. I said it ought to be on, not back; a turn and a half, like you do in ‘Old Mole.’ It’s ugly; it spoils the pattern; and they would do it. Mrs. Raymond [Joan] kept shouting ‘Right turn! Back turn!’ but they wouldn’t listen. I was frantic; I was a woman, so I didn’t have to do it. It drove me wild to see them messing it up; and—and I dashed at them and shoved them round the other way, and Mrs. Green says I yelled: ‘That way, idiots!’ I’m certain I never did. But they didn’t like it; they were mad. And—and Mrs. Raymond said I’d better leave the teaching to her, as I was so much the youngest in the class. She laughed, when she said it; she wasn’t a scrap upset. But I was all worked up, and I said something back to her. I’m sure I only said: ‘But you can’t do it all. You can’t see four sets at once. And they don’t listen to you!’”
This excerpt puzzles me and I feel that Cecily and her creator are making two uncharacteristic errors. The first is that there is no back-circle in The Old Mole. The second is that when the men form the back-circle, they do not do “a turn and a half”—they simply dance in, pull their right shoulders back for a half-turn, join hands and slip to their right, once around. The Women’s Institute dancers are moving in and pulling their left shoulders back to form the circle. Objectively there is little difference and they achieve the same goal. But Sharp’s interpretations are all right-footed or right-turned, and, remember, it was his way or the highway.
Mage on a Cree was first published in Playford’s The English Dancing Master in 1651. In The Playford Ball, Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer write that even at the time, English people may not have known what it meant. They suggest that it came from the Irish. Later editions tried to make sense of the word “mage,” suggesting that it meant “magpie.” Here is an early twentieth-century recording of the tune by Stanford Robinson and the National Military Band. If the technicians got the ratio correct between the original LP record and the modern equipment—and one assumes that they did—this gives you an excellent sense of the speed of dancing in the early years.
The big dance scene is on Whit-Monday. Whit-Sunday is Pentecost, which in the Catholic and Anglican faith takes place seven weeks after the Resurrection and is the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples. In the medieval world the entire week of Whitsun was a holiday. Many of the Hamlet Club show up for the annual dance including Miriam, the first May Queen, accompanied by her seven-year-old daughter—the first of the next generation to dance.
The whole village seemed to be dancing, and there was no keeping to friendly sets. Guides, Scouts, members of the Women’s Institute, and of nothing at all, danced in rings with the visitors [Maribel and Rosalind and the Hamlet Club] and made up their longways sets. Maribel offers to play the fiddle while Margia Lane, the usual fiddler, dances. And, finally, Scout Mike appears and implores Maribel to teach him to dance.
Usually EJO does not usually describe the process of learning to dance. There are many set pieces in her works where visitors stare “wonderingly” at the colorful, changing patterns of dances like Newcastle for four couples, that goes from “rings” to stars, to arches, to lines, and more. But here we actually see a neophyte learning. At first Sir Kenneth, the M.C., tells Mike to grab couples and form them into sets of no more than seven couples, making the maypole in the center of the village green “the top.” Mike has no idea what this means, and he slips away to find Maribel. We then see Maribel coaching him through Flowers of Edinburgh as a second couple, teaching him to swing and give weight, and to skip (one foot in front of the other) not slip (the same foot always leading). He is dismayed when they reach the top of the set and become Ones and even suggests leaving the set, which of course Maribel nixes. Later she teaches him the Helston Furry step for the processional and the longways dance Christchurch Bells, which has a hand-clapping sequence that Mike enjoys teasing his “Princess” with by never being consistent in whether he is going to slap or merely tap her hands. The whole event is one of Oxenham’s most charming and evocative dance episodes and is unique in being experienced in part through Mike’s eyes. Joan’s and Jen’s husbands do dance, but not much, so this is the rare scene that might convince boys and men that dancing could be fun, if only to be able to hold hands with the girl they are sweet on. Mike and Maribel’s playful dancing and courtship suggest that they will have a successful marriage in which each gives equal weight.