|Triangulating the Abbey
||[Feb. 18th, 2016|09:43 pm]
Berrydin Books of Berwick seems to have a source of Elsie J. Oxenham titles; it's the only secondhand bookshop where I ever find them, and reasonably priced, too - which is odd, because although it's a shop I enjoy visiting, I rarely buy anything else there. Last summer's haul was three volumes, bought because they were the ones on offer, and I am currently binge-reading them. Between them they stake out the territory of the series very neatly. They all have the magic word 'abbey' in the title, but only one is actually concerned with the Abbey itself. Jen of the Abbey School allows the Abbey series to intersect with the Rocklands School series, The Abbey Girls Win Through is concerned with "the Abbey Girls" as they grow up, and its heart is at the Hall as much as at the Abbey. Only Secrets of the Abbey is as I remembered the books from my childhood reading, with thrilling discoveries to be made at the Abbey itself: how significant is it that this is one of the 'retrospective titles', in which Oxenham returned to the adventures when younger of charaters whose lives she has already mapped beyond this point?
When I first posted about the "Abbey School" books, I remarked that one of the things I had misremembered from those childhood readings was that name: that there was an Abbey and there was a school, but they were not adjacent and there was no "Abbey School". Here is a book with "Abbey School" in the title, but taking that paradox still further, it is even less than the others an "Abbey School" book: it does not take place at the Abbey, and Jen Robins is the only one of the regular cast to make an appearance.
The title serves to identify that yes, this is that Jen, Jenny-Wren1 of the Abbey books, but the action centres on Rocklands School, subject of a short sequence of Elsie J. Oxenham books. The school is based in Sheffield, but decamps in the summer months to one wing of a private house on the moors nearby. This places it not in Derbyshire but in South Yorkshire, in the proximity of Jen's parental home at The Grange. The story is told from the point of view of the Rocklands girls, and their teachers: Jen plays a large part in it, but she functions as a thing that happens to the school, the catalyst which brings about the school's consequent engagement in folk dancing, and related adventures. These provide a structure for the development of such familiar character-types as the outspoken junior Tekla2 (known as Tickles, and the title character of a previous Rocklands story) and self-satisfied Teesa2, spoiled and brimming with a sense of entitlement. The opening is pure Chalet School:
'I don't like the look of that sky!' said Miss Dean3, with a worried glance at the clouds creeping up. 'We're a long way from home. I wonder if we could find shelter in the village over there?' But although the Rocklands girls do get caught in a downpour, there is never any sense that they are in danger (it is emphasised that their circuitous route has kept a landmark in sight at all times). The consequence, though, is not the fever and lectures from Matron which would surely have followed at the Chalet School, but that they take shelter in a cowshed and see two village boys practicing the morris steps which Jen has been teaching them.
Folk dancing seems to be in the air: it would have reached Rocklands sooner or later, even without this encounter. Miss Deane knows what she is seeing in the cowshed, and even recognises the dance ('Country Gardens'). She has already urged the headmistress to introduce dancing at the school, and the head now agrees not to delay any longer. Then new girl Rhoda arrives, with a new source of information: she has learned dancing through the Camp Fire movement, and has seen "the very best people there are - real folk dancers, who do nothing but teach and show the dances", and attended classes and demonstrations in London. She is therefore in a position to point out that Jen's teaching is full of mistakes. Thereafter it is Rhoda's expertise which enables Rocklands School to develop its own dance teams, and to compete as equals with Jen's trainees in the Stonecliffe Festival with which the book culminates. But Jen's position is not undermined: it is through her activities that dancing is first introduced to the narrative, and although she learns from Rhoda about the mistakes she has been making, she would have found out in any case, as she is already at this point booked to attend an EFDS Summer School in Cheltenham.
Folk dancing might have reached Rocklands through any of these enthusiasts, but whoever brought it to the school would have learned it, directly or indirectly, from books or in person, from the collectors and experts of the EFDS (English Folk Dance Society). There is no hint that it might have been learned from folk practitioners. Jen is amazed at Archie's gift to her of his grandfather's pipe, an almost holy relic of that quasi-mythical creature "a real morris man" - "This link with the past seemed almost incredible" Yet there is, Jen knows, a living tradition not far away: "...they still have morris in Derbyshire," that is, just over the border in the neighbouring county, signposted from the milestone near the church. Cecil Sharp visited Derbyshire, and collected five dances there, in 1908, but by the time of Jen of the Abbey School (set in 1920) there is no desire to visit, or to see this original morris for oneself, no sense that there would be more authenticity in connecting with a local tradition than in importing the dances of the Cotswolds. Reading Girls of the Hamlet Club I was surprised at the attitude, also discussed in The Imagined Village, that it is the revivalists who are the true heirs of the folk tradition. Jen of the Abbey School is an even more striking illustration of this. Jen says, more than once, that "It's folk - everybody's; for everybody, not for yourself alone;" but she means not that the tradition comes from everybody but that it must be shared with everybody. It is the universality of the missionary, not of the democrat. The dances must be performed correctly, without variation, and more, the dancers must be moved by the spirit, must have a sense of the dances as a whole... The religious analogy is unavoidable, not just in the formalities and hierarchies but also in the influence of the dancing on the girls' characters.
Although the narrative is dominated by country dancing, it finds room for other excitements, too, including a snowstorm, a missing heir, a cave, and a cameo appearance by Rena and Lisabel, who play a larger part in other Rocklands books. Rena, who is training as a gardener, seeks Jen's opinion of her dancing. She is described as "a tall, sunny-faced girl in khaki tunic and big boots," - but her hair is "a bunch of curls" and the masculine costume is simply "her gardening outfit" (which is "neat and useful, and suited her"). Rena knows how this looks: "Rex Courtney always calls me Tommy, but then Rex is rude"4. There's no suggestion that Jen is being rude when she, too, addresses Rena as 'Tommy', or greets Lisabel as "'Another Tommy!" and there is nothing negative in Jen's use of the term. If anything, she sees an advantage in Rena's masculine qualities. Jen of the Abbey School doesn't express the deep ambivalence about women dancing morris which runs through The Abbey Girls in Town, but Jen's approval of Rena's dancing is the other side of that coin: "I like your dancing! ... It's like a man's, and that's the real thing. It's sturdy and solid and businesslike..." Rena accepts this praise as it is given, and is particularly enthusiastic about 'the dances with sticks' "they're real sport!"5
It's hard for a modern reader to know how to react to these 'couples', who appear again and again throughout the 'Abbey' books. The Abbey Girls Win Through opens with another pair, this time not identified as tomboys, but explicitly husband and wife:
Norah and Connie ... were a recognised couple. Con, who sold gloves in a big West End establishment, was the wife and homemaker; Norah, the typist, was the husband, who planned little pleasure trips and kept the accounts and took Con to the pictures. They are travelling by train in the company of Norah's colleague Ann Rowney and an as yet unidentified fourth woman, on their way to a country holiday, offered to them on a philanthropic basis through the agency of Mary Devine, who used to work in the office where Norah and Ann now work. Con has been included because the invitation was to bring a friend; Ann remarks that this may be because Miss Devine "remembers that girls often live in twos"6 and that they "don't like to go and leave their other half alone," There is nothing here that can't be explained away as a combination of friendship and convenience, but the use of language constantly hints that it is more.
After this intriguing beginning, Norah and Con play very little part in the story which follows. It is Ann who takes centre stage, who provides the fresh eye with which we observe the experiences of our old friends, and it is Ann who brings about transformations in their lives - in their inner lives, for this is a very introspective book. It contains major events - births, marriage, deaths, not to mention a serious quarrel between schoolgirls, and through them all Ann is present to provide moral support. 'Moral support' is a cliché, but it is the expression that best expresses what Ann offers, and though I've been trying to find other words, nothing fits quite as well. She gives comfort, but it is a comfort which drives them back to their religious beliefs, and enables them to find strength within themselves. This, of course, assumes that whatever the details of a person's faith, the broad outlines can be taken for granted. Ann's first intervention comes when Jen learns of her mother's sudden, unexpected death:
Of course you'll see her again! Don't you believe anything, Jen Robins? And aren't you glad for her? She's gone to be with your father; she's only had to do without him a few months. Now they're together again. Can't you be glad for them? Again and again, Ann knows what to say. Her words have an immediate effect on the person to whom they are addressed: but they also have an effect on Mary Devine, hitherto the comforter of choice of the younger women. Mary thought that her friendship with Joy had shaken her out of her daydreams: The Abbey Girls Win Through is set shortly after publication of her first book, and the entire household is working on the proofs of the second. Ann's example shows her that she is still dreaming when she should be thinking (and thinking may mean praying), and the discovery is a turning point for her.
Ann's interventions are presented as entirely beneficial, and the reader is shown enough of her viewpoint to believe that she is entirely sincere in what she says: but we are also shown that there is something she is not saying. The fact that Ann has a secret is revealed very early, but the secret itself is long withheld. Finally she admits that though she was indeed working as a typist when she was offered this holiday, she is by profession a journalist, and accepted the invitation in the hope of finding 'copy'. As soon as her confession is made, the narrative sets to work to exculpate her: she was genuinely in need of a holiday, which she could not afford; it was her 'employer' at the office who suggested she apply, she realised as soon as she arrived that she could not go through with the plan, and settled down to enjoy her holiday, she never intended a hostile exposé but rather a piece in praise of the charitable nature of the holiday scheme, which might cause others to copy it - "But I did come intending to turn you all into copy; and as soon as you began to be friendly I felt bad about it, and I've felt bad ever since."
Rosamund doesn't see what the problem is; Mary - who has, in the past, published articles herself about Joy's charitable work with the children of the East End of London - does, but also sees how the problem can be overcome, by gaining the consent of all concerned. The proposed solution is that Ann can become part of the charitable mechanism, by writing pieces promoting the work of the village's craft potters and weavers. Meanwhile, Ann has become part of the mechanism of the Hall itself, stepping in to act as cook when Cook departs in a hurry to be with her mother, who has been taken ill. Like Anne Bellane after her, in doing this she acquires an anomalous status. Cook is a servant but Ann remains a friend if not, yet, part of the family: it is a joke to address her as 'Cookie'. She cooks because she likes to cook, but does so much better than Cook herself. It would be neat to see her demotion to a menial rôle as penance for her journalistic deception, but the text doesn't justify it.
The ground is prepared for Ann's revelation well in advance. Ann's wish to meet Mary Devine is fulfilled on the first evening of her stay "which was usual with Ann's wishes, for she saw to it that they should be fulfilled whenever possible." Alongside this - this what? resoucefulness? determination? ruthlessness? - she has a quick eye, and her observations are often to the point. She soon begins to think of the absent Joy as 'My Lady' which is perfectly correct, but suggests a cool appraisal of Lady Marchwood. Is her sheer fluency, her ability to say the right thing off the cuff, also a sign of journalistic expertise with words?
Unusually, though, although The Abbey Girls Win Through contains recollections of Joy's past misdeeds, it does not add to the catalogue. Since Joy learns that she is a widow and gives birth to twins7 within a few pages of each other, she is entitled to gentle treatment. Her husband has been killed in Africa8, and her friends seem to feel that one baby would not have been enough to take her mind off this, but that twins will probably do the trick.
Joy does, however, rouse herself enough to interfere in Jen's wedding plans, and for once she gets away with this. Jen wants to marry before her fiancé sets out for Africa to find out what has happened to his brother, Joy's husband. This is short notice9; but in any case, since Jen's parents both died very recently, and Ken may also have lost his brother, she intends it to be the quietest of weddings, at the village church. Effectively, she will invite the households of the Manor (the groom's mother) and the Hall: Rosamund, Maidlin, Nancy, Mrs Shirley - and Mary Dorothy, who will give her away, since Joy cannot leave the babies. Joy immediately proposes that Cicely should be included, as President of the Hamlet Club, and Jen concedes that she would like to invite her 'husband' of her schooldays, Jacky-boy (whose consent to this new marriage she has already obtained). In the end, of course, word is sent to the entire Hamlet Club, and much of the school (the headmistress, Miss Macey, is there) "and many other friends". A church wedding is legally public, so in theory anyone - or anyone who knows about it - can attend; Joy has overruled the brides expressed wish, but Jen acknowledges implicitly that she would have regretted the absence of the Club. Joy's intervention allows her - or perhaps her readers - to have it both ways, to observe the constraints of her mourning, but still have a Club wedding. The Manor - or rather, the Abbey - provides Jen with a family which blots out the existence of her surviving actual family: the possibility might at least have been envisaged that her brother should give her away (he lives in Glasgow, so this might have been difficult) but he is not mentioned. The result is a very female wedding: no named guest is male, and the groom has no best man. He and the vicar seem to be the only men present.
Finally, with Secrets of the Abbey, I reach a book which matches my recollections of the series: an actual school story, with added Abbey. Its events immediately precede those of Stowaways at the Abbey, which I have written about already.
As the book opens, Jen is accepting Joan's invitation to take over as her Maid of Honour, in her rôle as May Queen of the Hamlet Club: Joan is the retiring Queen, and Muriel, who has been her Maid of Honour throughout the year, has been chosen as Queen for the coming year. It can't be unprecedented for the choice of a new queen to deprive a past queen of her maid, for succession seems to run along bonds of friendship. Come to think of it, the whole importance attatched to queens, past queens, coronations, floral emblems and who is whose maid, not just for a day's celebration in May but down the generations - it's all more than a bit odd.
This honour fixes the choice Jen has made in electing to belong to the Hamlet Club and dance, rather than to play cricket and be in the junior team, for the school rule is that only seniors can be members of both the Sports Club and the Hamlet Club. You might expect younger girls to try both - and it is explained that there is a degree of flexibility, with open events at which outsiders are invited to dance, and everyone must play games to some extent. It is the seniors, as the text points out, who are usually too busy with their studies for more than one major interest. Moreover, this opposition of Hamlet Club and Sports Club is all too reminiscent of the division of the school which provoked the foundation of the Hamlet Club, and as a result was recognised as a bad thing. So the rule really doesn't make sense: you might almost suspect that it exists purely to confront Jen with a difficult choice, when the cricket team loses a key player, and requires her unique skills for the sake of the school. Indeed, the Head sees that there would be no point in enforcing the rule, and offers to make an exception in Jen's case - but Jen does not wish to have exceptions made for her. So far, so classic achool story.
Meanwhile, at the Abbey, Jandy Mac is visiting, bringing with her two sketched plans of the Abbey, which she has found among the papers she inherited from 'Uncle Tony'10. With the help of these, the girls explore a neglected corner of the crypt11, and discover a hidden passage leading to a little room, apparently containing nothing but a stone chest and a bag of six golden guineas. But the stone chest conceals a genuinely secret passage which leads to the gatehouse, via further adventures, people being trapped in the underground passage, rescue by a reading party12 who are conveniently visiting the Abbey and more treasures, this time the miscellaneous loot of a highwayman including the monogrammed purse which Jen declares, on no evidence but the monogram, belonged to Kitty Marchwood (an identification which drives the plot of Stowaways at the Abbey).
Closer examination of the chamber with the chest reveals not only a grave slab incribed 'Hic iacet Ambrosius' but a box containing a book - Ambrose's account of his later years - and a ring. The Abbey Girls are inclined to regard all these treasures as their personal property. Dick Thwaites persuades them that they ought to consult a magistrate about the ownership of the 'Highwayman's Hoard' since it is stolen property, and they consult Cicely's grandfather, who, unsurprisingly, tells them to keep it. Ambrose's book and ring may more legitimately be claimed by Joan as owner of the Abbey - and because she and Jen are so deeply possessed by the story. But ownership aside, these are items of some historical interest, and they show no inclination to share this, to give outsiders access to the 'secrets of the abbey'. What need to consult experts about this early seventeenth century manuscript, which Jen reads with such ease?
I had remembered Ambrose as a medieval monk, but now that he finally comes into view I see that he is a lay brother, living at the end of the abbey's monastic life, and through the dissolution. Driven from the abbey, he suggests to Jehane that he should seek release from his vows so that they could marry, but she is too devout to accept this, promising that she will never marry anyone else. This feat of self denial accomplished, there is nothing left for her to do but die of smallpox. Ambrose bears this with fortitude - it means, after all, that she can never be forced to marry anyone else: "Now I have her in my heart, and she is mine forever." Oh, dear. There is so much wrong with this. I liked Ambrose better as a mysterious presence, but the more I learn about him, the more I wish I hadn't.
1 I don't know how old the nickname 'Jenny-Wren' is, for people called Jenny / Jennifer;, or where it originates. But it is widely used, and relates to the name, not to any personal characteristic. Jen Robins is tall, well-built and blond. Unlike the wren, she is not diminutive and brown, and if I tend to think of her that way, that's my problem.
2 These names are set down without comment alongside the more mundane Betty and Barbara. There is no indication that they are regarded as in any way out of the ordinary.
3 The name may also have made me think about the Chalet School's Rosalie Dene.
4 I think she later marries Rex, but don't quote me on that. She and Lisabel marry brothers called Courtney, it seems.
5Jen's dance for the invalid is presented as the dance of a fairy, and Joan refers to Jen's lightness, which Rena lacks. But Jen dismisses this idea: "...all that talk about fairies is silly when you're speaking of morris! ... Morris was danced by village men, in boots..." Jen's height and strength of build, her general athleticism (Secrets of the Abbey revolves around her divided loyalties to cricket and dancing) and common sense: she is not herself presented as a tomboy, but she does share many qualities which make her acceptable as a morris dancer.
6Miss Devine herself, while wotking in the office, lived with her younger sister. Did Biddy accompany her when she moved to the Hall? My chronology is a bit tangled up...
7Are these the first of the Abbey's many twins? Or is Joan ahead of Joy here?
8He was lion hunting, and the narrative doesn't present this as a worthwhile occupation, but excuses Andrew because it was not his own pleasure jaunt, but one he had promised to someone else. And to make it absolutely clear that his death was not hid fault, he was not killed by a lion but by "a handful of very wild natives".
9It is very short notice, more than a week, perhaps, but not two. Doesn't this create legal difficulties about publishing the banns (on three successive Sundays)? Nothing is said about this.
10Clearly I am supposed to know who Uncle Tony is/was, but I don't. Sorry.
11Since Joan as proprietor of the Abbey adores every last inch of it, there must be a reason why this corner of the crypt has been neglected. It's a perfectly good reason, and it is explained in great detail, and then swept aside, so as not to hinder exploration.
12Consisting of - among others - a Yorkshireman called Thwaites, who is the leader of the group, a diminutive Welshman called Evan Evans and an artist whose origins are not given, let alone stereotyped, but whose name is Tommy Armstrong, which makes him a North Easterner until proved otherwise.