Monday, 25 November 2013

Books to Read Again: The Abbey Girls series by Elsie J Oxenham

I'm really not sure exactly why I reread the books in this series again and again. It's a bit of a mystery.

The first book in the series Girls of the Hamlet Club was printed in 1914, but the series really got going when Joan and Joy Shirley were introduced in The Abbey Girls (1920). I don't know what edition my copy is, but here is the frontispiece. Here we see Joan for the first time; at this stage our heroines were too poor to go to school (obviously the village school would not do) and lived in a ruined abbey where Joan's mother was caretaker. Only later did they come into money, either by inheriting a fortune from a long lost grandfather or by marrying well.

Joan is offered a scholarship to go to Miss Macey's school with the girls in the picture but she gives up the opportunity in favour of her cousin Joy who "needs" school. Joan gets to go to school too in the end.

Joan is much too nice. Quite early in the series she is married off to nice and handsome but shy Captain Raymond and goes to Sussex (I think) to have a flock of children: Jansy, John, Jennifer, Jim and Jillian. She stays so much in the background that sometimes it's hard to remember she is still around. But she inherits the abbey from Joy's grandfather Sir Anthony Abinger and thus remains an important character even though thrust firmly into the background.

Joy; annoying, selfish, shallow Joy whose tendency to hold a grudge and upset her friends really annoys me, becomes the focus of the series and lives at Abinger Hall (inherited from her grandfather). She takes in several schoolgirls over the years Jen, Rosamund and Maidlin, and all become firm friends and have many adventures. Though it's hard sometimes to work out what happens when as so many of the stories were written retrospectively.

Joy gets engaged to the boy next door at the end of The Abbey Girls in Town (1925) only next door is Marchwood Manor and the boy is Sir Andrew Marchwood a famous explorer or big game hunter, and as soon as they are married they leave for Africa. After the honeymoon Joy comes home leaving Sir Andrew to lead a safari and he is killed with all his party. Joy immediately gives birth to twin girls Elizabeth Joy and Margaret Joan. Joy looks beautiful in mourning but she spoils the twins quite dreadfully. They grow up quite out of control and amazingly irritating. Joy admits the twins behave very badly but she never does anything about it and later this causes all sorts of problems.

Jen then marries Joy's brother-in-law Sir Kenneth Marchwood and has a load of children. Of course she does. Andrew, Anthony, Rosemary Jane, Michael, Katherine, Christopher and Bernard (I think) and maybe even Simon. Alone of all our heroines Jen prefers boys and determines to give birth to "a morris six'. Despite all her wealth and her happy marriage Jen's life is beset with troubles. Her children constantly have dreadful accidents, ghastly illnesses or dangerous operations. And eventually Ken has a terrible smash (old-fashioned speak for a car crash) and takes a long time to recover before being prescribed a year travelling around the world (how awful) in order to get fully better. In fact he only makes it as far as Kenya where he feels so well he is allowed to go home.

Meanwhile, Rosamund also has a tough time; in The Abbey Girls on Trial (1931) her father who lives in India cuts off her allowance as he has decided at the grand old age of 60 to marry Eleanor, a "beautiful girl", of Rosamund's own age. Having lived at Abinger Hall for years, Rosamund starts a craft shop in a tiny cottage next door to her new aunts' tea rooms. Her father dies at once and his new wife comes home to England, producing a son Roderic Geoffrey en route.

In Rosamund's Victory (1933) our heroine battles to adopt her half brother (always described as a step-brother) because Eleanor is deemed far too silly and selfish to care for him herself not to mention she is determined to travel back to India (where she soon remarries and is never heard from again). One of Rosamund's aunts (Audrey) and two gardener girls (Drena and Lizabel) are allowed to get engaged in this book, and Rosamund herself meets her distant cousin Geoffrey who is described as a cripple and an invalid who will never marry. We don't know precisely what Rosamund does with Geoffrey except that she takes him to some doctors in London who obviously help him a lot. He stops being a cripple and is much less invalidish. He remains delicate but they marry and produce Geoffrey-Hugh, Rosabel Joy and Rosalin Cicely (twins), Rosanna and Rosilda (also twins), and two more boys called Geoffrey John and Peter Geoffrey. Yes, really. Oh yes, and Geoffrey becomes Earl of Kentisbury so lucky Ros becomes a Countess and goes to live in Kentisbury Castle.

Some of these books are very highly sought after and difficult to find. My copy of Rosamund's Victory was bought by my mother in the early 1990s and she paid £165 for it. It's not even a first edition although the cover is in nice condition. Originally it cost 2/-. That's 10p. Most of my books cost £2 or £3 but the more scarce the book the higher the price. My mother had a copy of Biddy's Secret (1932) when she was at school but was unable to replace it as the only copy she could track down was offered at £500.

This story is almost unobtainable now and I'm certainly not going to spend anything like £500 on a book so lucky for me the Elsie J Oxenham Society have recently published it in paperback.

The lovely cover shows Ruth, a minor character who marries a wealthy business man and is shipped off to live in Paris, with Joy's twins Elizabeth and Margaret.

Poor old Maidlin has been struggling to grow up but silly Joy won't let her. Quite by chance Maidlin has to save Biddy Devine, another minor character from a regrettable (and secret) marriage to a very unsuitable Frenchman. Luckily he sees the marriage won't work almost at once and runs away to South America where he soon dies. Anyway, poor old Biddy (unbelievably calling herself Madame Bidet) has a baby daughter but can't bring herself to confess all to her sister Mary-Dorothy or Joy or Jen or any of the usual suspects. Maidlin forces her to grow up and come home and in the process grows up herself. In due course she meets and marries a well-known musician Dr Jock Robertson and produces twin girls Marjory and Dorothy, and subsequently several boys. But obviously girl babies are better. And I mustn't forget she develops a wonderful voice and makes a name for herself singing in oratorio. (Biddy is later allowed to marry another Frenchman and have a proper marriage. And, naturally, another daughter.)

Meanwhile again, Joy is allowed to remarry at last and chooses the famous conductor Sir Ivor Quellyn. He's nearly as annoying a character as she is so they make a good match. She quickly has several more children, David and Richard. And I think another child.

My copy of Robins in the Abbey (1947) is from the Collins Seagull Library. I've never been quite sure why the Seagull reprints are so despised by fans; I imagine they must be much abridged. But I'd sooner have a poor reprint than no copy at all.

This is the book where Rosamund has her two sets of twins, Maidlin has her twins, and uncountable characters have more daughters all seemingly named after either Joy or Rosamund.

I think it's the weird obsession with having children and naming them all after each other that makes these books so fascinating. I know my mother, who obviously introduced me to the Abbey Girls, thought this was very funny. She used to roar with laughter at the thought of producing two sets of twins in one year!

And the names, which start out fairly normal just get stranger and stranger. Eventually Jandy Mac (Janice MacDonald), who named her first daughter after Joan but always called her Littlejan, has a third daughter and names her Jantyjoy. Seriously? Jantyjoy? What was Elsie J Oxenham thinking?

The Testing of the Torment (1926) signed by Elsie J Oxhenham
I've left out the very important folk dancing element which threatens to overwhelm several of the books to the exclusion of anything else. And then there's the Guiding, the Camp Fire, the music and, especially in the early books, the helping crippled children from London. There's a bit too much hand woven fabric and hand made pottery for my taste too. And of course there's all the exploration of the Abbey. Particularly in the retrospective books characters fall into underground wells and out of windows or are trapped in tunnels all the time. I really do wonder why anyone is ever allowed into the Abbey grounds again. It's an extraordinarily dangerous place.

Obviously there are many many more characters than I have mentioned. At times it's hard to remember who is who. But I think Elsie J Oxenham must have kept very good records because unlike other authors she doesn't muddle her characters. Or if she does, I've not noticed. The books may be wildly improbable but the characters never act out of character, their many children don't suddenly develop a different name or change sex. It's quite an impressive feat.

In addition to the all important folk dancing there's the May Queen ceremony. All our really important characters get to be May Queen and much time is given to describing their costumes which are all based on flowers. So when Maidlin becomes Queen she chooses primroses as her flower and confusingly becomes known as Primrose. Jen chooses beech leaves and little yellow flowers that dance and becomes Brownie even though she is always described as very fair. Littlejan chooses Marigolds and therefore is known as Marigold. As her name is really Joan she is also known as Joan-Two to distinguish her from the original Joan. It's all rather like a Russian novel where all the characters have six names each.

Probably from Elsie J Oxenham's point of view the most important part of these books is about growing up and helping people. All the characters advise and help one another but Mary-Dorothy Devine becomes the chief family advisor and helper. She is one of the characters thought too old to get married (or as a friend pointed out to me, unlikely to find a husband in the wake of the disastrous WWI) so she becomes a writer of books for school girls, and dispenser of good advice. So practical help or sensible advice is lavishly handed out to people in trouble, like Robertina Brent in Robins in the Abbey (her father is badly injured in a plane crash), or anyone less lucky than our heroines. New characters are invited to the Abbey, to stay at the Hall or in the village and whether they like it or not their lives are turned around. The lucky ones start new careers and find wealthy husbands (no point in a poor one obviously) and have children, and those less likely to marry become successful authors. Well, why not?

Having written all this it's still a mystery why I have read and reread these books so often. Perhaps it's because they are set in a perpetual 1920s/1930s where rich people lead charmed lives and help those less fortunate than they are and the sun always shines. Although the early books hark back to WWI it seems that WWII never impinges on our heroines' lives. But for all their fur coats and large houses and chauffeur driven cars our heroines have plenty of disasters to deal with. And they usually do manage to triumph over disaster in the end. Perhaps that's the thing?

Who knows? The fact remains that I've read them so often I know great wodges of plot off by heart!


  1. LOL! I don't know if I'd have tried to sum up the entire series in one post, as you have!!! I think it would take someone who knows and loves the books, as I do, to make sense of it - because when it's condensed like this, they really do sound ridiculous, don't they?
    If you try and critique them as literature, then by today's standards, they're certainly not going to stand up well. The names, at the very least, are so very fanciful, let alone the plot lines and lack of active men in the stories. I think those of us who collect and love them probably keep reading them because, like many children's books, they're safe, and gentle. I know that's one of the things I like about them. There are times when I don't want to break my head, or emotions, with a challenging read - having just read Hannah Kent's new book, and Naomi Ragen's, I'm now reading my new first editions of Abbey books for that very reason. I need a rest and something gentle while I process the other two. And they DO make for excellent discussions - there's a whole wave of feminist academic discourse that has grown around this and other series of the period.

    1. I think you're right. The gentleness of most of the stories does rest your mind after reading a more challenging book, or if you are in bed with flu or something. Also I have a job that works my brain really hard and going back to the Abbey girls again and again (or other what you might call "light fiction") is truly relaxing - and like seeing a dear friend after a long break. Yes, some of the plot lines may be a bit silly but most of these women make something of their lives through their own endeavours even if they end up marrying wealthy/titled/successful men. And even Joy who is continually portrayed as selfish puts quite a lot of effort into philanthropy.
      if anyone out there likes 1930s fiction or schoolgirl fiction I really do recommend they try the Abbey Girls. Great fun and you could say they document a way of life that disappeared forever with the advent of WWII. Although as I said, that never features in the books.