A27_Rosamiund’s Castle left Elsie J. Oxenham in a bit of an authorial pickle: four of the five key Abbey Girls—Joan, Joy, Jen, and Rosamund—are not only married but have set up their nurseries. You can scarcely expect them to be dancing much! In addition, their stories are essentially finished: while a few more things will happen to them, they are essentially in safe harbor. Maidlin di Ravarati, the last one left, has said that she’ll never marry until she can find someone that she cares for more than the other girls, and, although the Careful Reader with 2020 hindsight—Sorry! No more 2020!—retrospective vision can see what is being planned for her, most of us cannot. In addition, EJO’s last few titles had been shopped about among publishers; perhaps there was a sense that she was losing her younger, girl-reader with all the romances.
But where to go next? Even if Maidlin is married off, the Abbey Girls’ own children are too young to support a plot; the eldest of them, Janice (“Jansy”) Raymond, Joan’s daughter, is just ten-and-a-half, and the Marchwood twins are about two years behind her.
Sheila Ray and Stella Waring in Island to Abbey, a study of EJO’s works in publication order, point out that this is where the author brilliantly and seamlessly turned to writing what are known as the Retrospective Titles, set between the events of A03_The Girls of the Abbey School (1921) and A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922). These titles feature the younger Jen, Joy, and Joan uncovering many exciting secrets of the Abbey, and affirming strongly the spirit of sanctuary and helpfulness that the Abbey has come to represent. We’ll discuss this more next week when we re-encounter a pivotal character from that Series, but for now, let’s look at the publication timeline of the current books, in reading order as prepared by Ruth Allen of the EJO Society:
Set in Published in
A27_Rosamund’s Castle November 1931 – February 1932 1938
A28_Maid of the Abbey March – May 1932 1943
A29_Jandy Mac Comes Back June 1932 1941
Thus while A28 was published after A29, it predates it in Abbey Time, although a reader who wasn’t keeping close track of time would scarcely notice it. And between A27 and A29, EJO published five more novels: three retrospective Abbey Girls titles, one retrospective Kentisbury family novel, and one “sideways” novel, as Ray and Waring term it, that looked at characters who intersect with Rachel and Damaris Ellerton, Maidlin’s cousins.
—Here let us just remark that Elsie Oxenham published 88 titles between 1907 and 1959, and there were only six years in that fifty-three-year period in which she did not publish at all. That means that she published no fewer than one and often two, three, or even four titles in all the other years! And this was in the days when type was still set by hand and there were no spell-checkers or computers: she drafted everything in long-hand, then typed it or had it typed, corrected it, presumably doing this process repeatedly, then sent it to the publishers, then received the long sheets of galleys that had to be proofed by hand in blue pencil, then possibly saw and gave input on illustrations (often not), perhaps saw and corrected a second proof, and finally received the finished product. And all this while she corresponded with fans, wrote the next installments, oversaw her Camp Fire or Guide patrol, and did everything else that one does. Amazing! Personally, I find one long blog post a week on top of a full-time job just about enough to do me in.—
This has been a long detour before we finally turn to A28_Maid of the Abbey! Ray and Waring and others find many points that suggest that A28 was written before A29_Jandy Mac Comes Back—in fact, perhaps even in the late 1930s. Oddly though, while A28 and A29 almost overlap in Abbey Time, Maidlin does not appear in Jandy’s story, nor is the latter aware of the former’s romance.
Waring and Ray also suggest that EJO could have originally conceived of Maid of the Abbey as ending the Abbey Girls series, as it satisfyingly gives Maidlin, the youngest of the original Abbey Girls, her romance, and brings most of the former Queens together with the concluding coronation of the first Hamlet Club “grandchild”—
—this took me a while to parse: Mirry is the twelve-year-old daughter of Miriam Honor, the White Queen and the first Queen of the Hamlet Club. Surely that makes her the first “daughter” of the original group of girls to be crowned. But, although Oxenham doesn’t say this outright, I think that she thought that all club members are daughters of the Club and of the Abbey, and that therefore their own girls are the “grand-daughters.” What do you think?—
—taking the title as the “Forget-me-not” Queen in blue. There is a large procession of former Queens, most attended by one of their children or a girl that they have taken an interest in:
Miriam, the White Queen, attended by her second daughter, eight-year-old Cicely.
Cicely, the Golden Queen, attended by her nearly nine-year-old daughter, Cicely. Yes, that’s not a typo. Both Miriam and Cicely have named their eldest daughters after themselves, and Miriam her second after her friend. This is why you need to take notes.
Joy, now Lady Quellyn, the Green Queen or Traveler’s Joy, attended by her twins, Margaret and Elizabeth.
Joan, the Violet Queen, eight-months pregnant with her fourth child (this isn’t directly mentioned; we infer this from the fact that she holds a large bouquet of lilac in front of her at all times and her violet train is Wrapped Loosely around her), attended by her red-haired daughter, Jansy. This appearance so late in her pregnancy is an anomaly in EJO world, and a testimony to the ceremonial importance of the crowning of the first May Queen’s daughter.
Rosamund, Countess of Kentisbury and the Rose Queen, attended by Tansy Lillico.
Jen, Lady Marchwood, the Beech or Brown Queen with a crown of cowslips, attended by her eldest son, Andrew.
Maidlin, the Primrose Queen, attended by Belinda Bellanne.
Other Queens in the procession include the Blue Queen, the Silver Queen, Beatrice or Queen Beetle in “gaudy stripes,” Queen Barbara in cream with wild roses and more (not named).
In addition to this happy ceremony, Rosamund and Maidlin conclude their discussion of the role of torch-bearing: with her engagement, Maidlin is laying it down and the two agree that the Abbey will choose her successor. They also affirm that they will carry their own version of the Abbey spirit to their new homes, helping young people and those in need.
So, yes, the saga could have stopped here. Everything is tidily wrapped up. But it didn’t! Next week we’ll look at Jandy Mac Comes Back, which is an unconvincing and unsatisfactory episode but one that introduced (since it was already published) a key new Abbey Girl: Littlejan Fraser, the future Marigold Queen. In addition to her many excellent personal qualities—she is a thoroughly nice and thoughtful girl!—she will bridge the plot gap until Joan’s and Joy’s daughters as well as some other characters, at least one of whom hasn’t been invented yet, are old enough to be heroines themselves.
And, finally, the potential meanings of the title. Of course, one’s immediate response is that the Maid of the Abbey is Maidlin (the North Country version of Madeline or Magdalena, her real name, with its Biblical association as a follower of Christ). This is the story of her romance, after all, and for a long time other characters have affectionately nick-named her Maid or Maidie. But Lindy also acts as Maidlin’s maid-of-honor (called in the earliest books a “brides-maid,” as if the May Queen is becoming the bride of God; I find this a little uncomfortable) in the crowning that concludes the story. And, finally, perhaps the talk of carrying the torch of the Abbey refers to a ceremonial position that Rosamund and Maidlin feel that they have held although they do not employ the phrase: that they, in particular, have been “hand-maids” to the spirit of the Abbey and are now upon marriage officially relinquishing the position at the Abbey itself, though still vowing to express its spirit in their own homes and lives. Will Lindy be the new bearer of the torch? What about the Reader herself? Will you take it up? In all her works Oxenham never asks this question directly, but I think the gentle challenge is ever implicitly before the Reader.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
The story opens with orphaned, seventeen-year-old Belinda (“Lindy”) Bellanne returning from school to live in London with her sister Anne, who is eight years older than she. Anne (“with-an-E” to quote another famous orphaned heroine) has had the flu. Her friend Nelly Jones, a typist living in the same apartment building, asked Lady Jen Marchwood if Anne could be sent to the Grange, in sort of hostel in Yorkshire, as a rest cure. Lady Jen sends working girls there for holidays, and the Grange is run by Ann-without-an-E (“Nan”) Rowney. Since Anne’s health has not improved after her cold two weeks in Yorkshire, Miss Rowney has asked that Anne and her sister both be invited to stay at a similar hostel in the warmer, southern village of Whiteways, which is where the Abbey, standing in the grounds of Abinger Hall, near Marchwood Manor, are located.
Soprano Lindy is passionate about music and wants to be trained to be a singer like contralto Maidlin, whom she has heard sing, but there is no money for training—Anne had put her capital into a cake shop that failed. The day before the girls are to travel to Whiteways, they receive a letter that says there are measles in the village (as I have commented before, Whiteways is the measliest village in England)—and measles means quarantine. Maidlin di Ravarati, acting as hostess for Abinger Hall, invites the Bellannes to stay at the Hall itself. Mary-Dorothy Devine is also living there with the Marchwood twins, as their mother Joy (now Lady Quellyn) is with her husband and new baby in New York City.
Anne and Lindy arrive and get the necessary over-view of the family news from Maidlin, who is expecting other visitors as well: Dr John Robertson, the famous conductor with whom she has been working, and his neephew Donald, a nice, boyish young man. Lindy escapes from the visitors and wanders into the Abbey where she saves feckless Margaret, who has climbed a tree and can’t get down. During the rescue Lindy suffers a slight concussion and a wrenched shoulder. Anne faints. A few days later she confides to Maidlin the story of the failed cake shop, and that Lindy wants training—though she does not specify in what—and can’t have it. Anne has no job and wonders if she should go into service as a maid in a big house—but would she ever be able to regain her social standing? Maidlin suggests that she be a cook, and that this would (somehow) be a better position. More on this topic later.
Maidlin offers Lindy a summer job as a governess to the twins, and she is delighted to accept. We see her taking on her responsibilities admirably. Anne and Mary notice how often young Donald Robertson has been visiting Maid and they agree that Maidlin is not at all interested in him. They conspire to not let them be alone together so that he has no chance to propose. While Mary keeps saying that it would not be right to gossip about Maidlin, Anne is quite nebby, and manages to find out or deduce much of the plot. Perhaps EJO felt that she needed the character of Anne to telegraph the romance for the young reader.
Mary reports that the cook, Mrs. Spindle (Susie Spindle, who we met in another Retrospective title, married a cousin, who died two years ago leaving her with a baby who is boarded in the village), has gone to bed with a headache and fever. Anne suggests that it could be the measles. Susie had visited her baby two weeks earlier, right after the first case of measles in the village was discovered. The twins have spent time with her—will they measle, too? Everyone is very angry at Susie and she is sent off to the hospital. They say that Joy will never allow her to come back. (The Abbey girls are sometimes not as nice and generous as you’d think! Susie has just as much right to be worried about her baby as Joy does hers. After the crisis is over a character is able to admit this.) Anne offers to cook, and Lindy offers to stay with the twins and tells Maidlin that she cannot go into quarantine so that she can nurse them, as she is needed for Dr. Jock’s concerts. We see Maidlin thinking about Dr. Jock and his kind eyes. Donald writes requesting a private meeting with Maidlin and this startles her into knowing her own heart. Mary urges Maidlin to reject Donald so that the older man (he is only about thirty-five!) will know that he has a chance. She does.
Seeking refuge in the Abbey after her rejection of Donald’s unwelcome proposal of marriage, Maid hears Lindy’s beautiful but untrained soprano voice. She offers to send Lindy to Joy’s music school and says that they will sing together someday. The next day Dr. Jock shows up and asks Maidlin to accompany him to the Abbey, and when she agrees we all know what that means! We don’t see the proposal, but Maidlin returns changed and glowing. Jock and Maidlin think that when Donald gets over his disappointment and returns to England from South Africa perhaps he’ll marry Lindy—they are the right age for each other. They go to Kentisbury Castle and tell Rosamund, then call Joy in New York (long-distance phone calls then were very expensive and also very short). Jock buys Maid a little ring with daisies and forget-me-nots on it at the Rose and Squirrel. The twins admire the ring very much.
The next day the twins start measling. The more excitable Margaret is very ill indeed, and the adults are very worried. They cable Joy the news and she telephones (over-seas!) to say that she is going to come home for a short time as soon as she can find a berth in a ship; baby David can do without her for a while (meaning that she is no longer nursing him). Jock and Maidlin talk about where to live—this is one of the nicest of EJO’s romances, and the gentleman has more dialogue than perhaps all the other husbands put together—and Jock says they’ll build a nice house in Sussex and call it The Pallant. There is a lot of discussion as to what this old Sussex word means—EJO was very interested in local dialects and words! He also says that until it is built they will live in a little house near the sea. He reveals that he plays the viola (the alto of the violin family) and Maidlin reveals that she is Camp Fire. They visit the charming little cottage, and, because there is a deep step behind the front gate, they decide to call it “Step Down.” (The house is described in loving detail and it was clearly modelled after EJO’s own, as the book is dedicated to her sister Maida (Marjorie) “on the day we bought our little house.”
The girls recuperate, and Maidlin buys them little rings like her own (Jock has since given her a ruby engagement ring). Joy comes home. Careless Margaret has squashed her ring and Joy instantly offers to get her another one. (Joy! So impulsive and thoughtless, using her money instead of her head.) Lindy corrects her, saying that Margaret should save her own money to buy it, not just be given it. Margaret then asks Elizabeth to not wear her ring to the upcoming coronation of the May Queen and, after a brief struggle, Elizabeth agrees. Please note their characters: Elizabeth, though often the instigator of whatever madness they are up to, is the more mature and balanced girl; Margaret is immature and impulsive. Margaret’s more challenged character will come up as a key element in their final story A38_Two Queens at the Abbey.
Rosamund and Maidlin go to the Abbey for a heart-to-heart and talk about carrying the torch of welcoming people who come to the Abbey in trouble. Maidlin wonders if she is a deserter for getting married and moving away and Ros laughs at her and reassures her that it’s all right for her to lay down the torch—the Abbey will find another person to “interpret” for it. We infer that it might be Lindy for a while, given her thoughtful care of the twins.
For Folk Dancers
After the crowning, the Hamlet Club dances Newcastle, The Geud Man of Ballangigh, Chelsea Reach, Oranges and Lemons, Haste to the Wedding (Jen dances this symbolic dance with Maid, as Doc Jock is not a dancer), The Old Mole, Hey, Boys, Up Go We, the Merry, Merry Milkmaids, and finally Sellenger’s Round. All but Haste and Geud Man are the older set dances “for those who know” —not party dances or ones that are taught at the event itself. While they are undoubtedly more interesting than the longways dances for spectators like Doc Jock and the Earl to observe, they are rather exclusive. This issue will present itself towards the end of Queen Mirry’s reign, in A31_An Abbey Champion, when the older girls of the school make it clear that they are bored with the complicated pattern dances that take so long to master.