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Saturday, 13 July 2013

The 'Abbey' books - Elsie J. Oxenham

There are times that comfort reading is an absolute must - when life gets too hectic, when you need nurturing, when you don't want to think, and when you're ill. The last few months, I've been dealing with the latter of these and my previous busy, very highly thought provoking reading hit a huge nose-dive because due to the nature of the illness, and the drugs I'm now adjusting to taking, I've just not had the mental focus to deal with anything that requires too much energy. So, a recent orgy of vintage English girl's literature - deliberately gendered, given it comes from a period when kid's literature was largely gendered.
Elsie Jeanette Dunkley wrote under the pen name of Elsie J. Oxenham - borrowing the surname from her father, who wrote as John Oxenham. She was born in 1880 and lived most of the first half of her life in West London, moving later to Sussex. In London, she got involved with the revival of English folk dancing, one of many taking part in official classes and holiday schools that happened as the movement gained momentum and became more formally organised. She was also involved in Camp Fire - a girl's movement that shared some commonalities with Girl Guides, but which had slightly different base values and utilised much more pageantry than guiding.

The Abbey series - almost 40 of her 87 published books - follow a group of girls from their mid teens until their daughters are about the same ages. Set 'between the wars' - WWI gets light mentions in a few of the early books, but isn't really a presence - in mostly country England, the stories centre around the Shirley girls, Joan and Joy, who we first meet in The Abbey Girls, which is actually the second of the series - the first being Girls of the Hamlet Club. Joan and Joy, with Joan's mother, are living in the little rooms in what is mostly ruins of an old Cistercian Abbey in the Buckinghamshire country house - modeled on Cleeve Abbey in Somerset. The girls' fathers were twins and are both dead, as is Joy's mother. They meet the girls of the Hamlet Club from the big school in Wycombe, the nearest sizeable town, when the Hamlet Club girls visit the Abbey one weekend on an excursion.

Cicely and Miriam, the two leaders of the Hamlets, the former being the president - a title that stays with her throughout the series despite other presidents coming and going - are surprised to be guided by Joan, a girl their age, having expected an adult guide. Bit by bit over the course of the story, Joan and Joy's background is revealed, including joy's relationship with the owner of the Abbey and the nearby 'big house'. By the end of the book, they and Joan's mother are resident in the house, old Mr Abinger - Joy's grandfather - having left his house to Joy and the Abbey to Joan. Meanwhile, through the Hamlet Club, first Joy and then Joan are able to start going to Miss Macey's school at Wycombe with Cicely and Miriam, and join the Hamlet Club.
From 'The Abbey Girls'
The Club, with its foundation in social equity - formed in the first book to counteract a social division in the school between the town girls and those who live in the surrounding hamlets, with its motto borrowed from Shakespeare, 'To be or not to be', forms the core of the narrative across all the books. It is the Hamlets that start folk dancing at the school, and the annual crowning of a May Queen - and in that first year of Joy's at the school, she is crowned Queen; as the new girl, she can't be expected to have any strong allegiances to the divided school. Later Joan, too, is crowned, leading a long line of Queens to come from the Abbey as the series goes on.

Oxenham introduces herself via several characters - the 'Writing Person', who we meet in London in a few of the 'town' based books, and later in the character of Mary-Dorothy Devine who we first meet in the London books, but who becomes a fixture at Abinger Hall when Joy, as an adult, needs a private secretary. Other characters are based on real people Oxenham got to know through folk dancing - 'Madam' and 'the Pixie' were based on people within the official organisation. The much loved figure of 'Jenny-Wren', AKA Jen (Janet) Robins, who comes to the Wycome school from Yorkshire, and is adopted by the Abbey girls, becoming Joan's maid of honour when Joan is crowned, and later, Joy's sister in law when they marry, is based on another friend of Oxenham's.

Oxenham was a Protestant, her family being Congregationalists (for Aussie readers, one of the three Protestant groups who merged to form the Uniting Church, the others being Methodist and Presbyterian), and this informs many of the values that run through the books. While essentially being books for young girls, there is a moral imperative in Oxenham's writing, and various characters, when faced with difficult choices or life experiences, end up puzzling their way through the greater mysteries of life and faith in various one on one conversations. Mary-Dorothy comes into many of these. She's an interesting character - discovered by Jen at age 30, working in an office, and fast losing control of her bright and frustrated much younger 15 year old sister, Biddy. Jen drags her into dancing and gently bullies her into participating into living again...thrusting her into teaching a class of children, carting her, with Biddy, off to the Abbey for visits - showing her that life has many more possibilities than she thought, and encouraging her to grasp it and follow her dream of writing. Coming to this richness later in life, Mary finds herself questioning many things, and her responses to what she experiences are a marked contrast to those of the younger girls.
I do love these books. I have about half of the series - a few precious early Collins editions, lots of later more modern Collins reprints, and a couple of more recently re-published paperbacks (the latter by a publishing company in the UK - Girls Gone By - who have been working on re-publishing many of these vintage writers who have long been out of print). They are exactly what they set out to be - wholesome stories about girls and their concerns of the time - modern teens might find them laughable, but I'm old enough to remember my great aunts (I never knew my grandmothers). These are their books, and they are portraits of that era...
Interestingly, there are societies all around the world based on this particular series - I belonged to the South Australian chapter of the Abbey Girls of Australia. I never join groups - ever.... The online community I'm creating via this blog is the closest thing I've come to a group in ages! I did join the Abbeys in Adelaide - amazing group of women. Monthly meetings were spent eating lunch/extended afternoon tea (the egg sandwiches, with many variations, were legendary), discussing the books - sometimes as a structured discussion with a particular theme, sometimes less formally. All of us collected the Abbey books, and then there were the rest of our collections. Then there were the reasons that people collect - which I found endlessly fascinating. I'm sure there's a post-grad sociology thesis in there somewhere, if it's not been done already. There were people who collected because they'd become obsessed with collecting - and they collected anything and everything that was vintage and kid's lit. Others collected as many editions of the same books as they could lay their hands on. Then there was one woman who collected them for the dust jackets - she wouldn't buy a book without a dust jacket. I became very close with a woman who had a collection that was most like mine - she'd been a school librarian forever so she, like me, also had a large collection of more contemporary kid's lit - well, contemporary to my generation and that of my boys'! She obtained for me - she was also a dealer - the copy of The Far Distant Oxus, which I wrote about in this post. She also, like me, had a huge number of books by authors who were part of a golden era of Australian kid's lit - like Eleanor Spence and H.E. Brinsmeade.

I read, as regular followers of this blog know well, a highly eclectic range of things. Basically, if it has print, I'll read it - once at least! There are some things that I come back to for particular reasons. I love Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey books because they're safe. They speak of a bygone era when things were simpler; of a time when our roles as men and women were more clearly defined. They have been the subject, along with other books in this genre, of enormous amounts of feminist research - people have written PhD theses just on these books!! They do provide much fodder for academics.

However, during these past few weeks, they've given me succour, and for that, I'm eternally grateful to these writers. I can't remember the last time I actually read them in order - I don't try and do it often, because then I become all too aware of where I have gaps in the series. I've been dodging around with favourites. I'm just about at the end of this lot...so, perhaps, stay tuned for a similar post on Dorita Fairlie Bruce, because that's where I usually head after Oxenham.

16 comments:

  1. Hello, my dear old friend. I'm very sorry to hear you're under a cloud, but pleased that you have these good friends to keep you company. I, too, have comfort reads I go to when my health is taking a vacation, and while these girly books are not my cup of tea, I dearly loved a movie adapted from a girly book when I was 14 years old. It was Summer Magic, adapted from Mother Carey's Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggins. Like every boy of anywhere close to my age, I had an absolutely painful crush on Haley Mills, and she shone in this one. Some of my guttersnipe friends were a little suspicious of my interest, but seriously, I'd have paid the dollar to watch her sleep for two hours!

    On the home page of writing.com is the following quote of no less a personage than Baron de Montesquieu: "I have never known any distress that an hour's reading did not relieve."

    Maybe not completely, but there is never much to compare with visiting another world. Take care of yourself, and do what your sawbones says; once in a while, one of them guesses right. You never know if this will be the time...

    ~ Jack

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    1. Ah, dear Jack - as always you make me smile!

      Hayley Mills was a most gorgeous woman...I don't blame you one bit for the crush! There's a delightful adaptation of Swallows and Amazons (I have it on DVD I think...) where she played the Swallows' mother - even then, still gorgeous.

      Seriously, these books take no effort and they're the bread an butter pudding books of my collection I think - if that makes sense!

      I'd have to agree with that quote...sensible man!

      Thanks for dropping by.
      K

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    2. It was the accent... and all those cute little mannerisms... and the accent... and she could be such a tomboy with those big blonde curls, and it would just come suddenly out of nowhere... and did I mention the accent...?

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    3. Something about the way she spoke then? Is that what you're trying to tell me Jack?

      Funny man!!

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    4. Must have been. Unlike today's "actresses," she never exposed anything but face and fingers...

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  2. Well, that was fun. Now, I'm just making the rounds to tell my friends (that it applies to) that I've linked your site on my story site, http://steampunkjack.weebly.com/ ~ Blogs that I'm fond of will be linked as long as they have fresh content within the last week, so you stand to be a pretty regular resident on that list.

    And why do I need a story site? See my latest Pokin' the Crab post at WdC for a discussion of the epiphany I've had, and the Hobson's Choice it's forced on me.

    And take care of yourself at all times... Don't make me come over there!

    ~ J

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    1. I have been to inspect... Looking good Jack!

      K

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  3. Thank you for this lovely blog, which I have just chanced upon. I have a large collection of Abbey books, and an obsession which began with my first one, a gift given to me when I was 11. I also reread them periodically, and am currently reading my way through some. I picked one up randomly a week ago, and have moved onto two more. I have just finished Jandy Mac Comes Back, where little Lord Verriton is kidnapped! These books move me as much now as they did when I was a young girl, 50 years ago! The characters are like old friends and I love to revisit them now and again. I never grow tired of these beautiful stories!

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    1. Hi Ros - I was thinking just today that this poor blog has been sadly neglected while I build up my other one...and then I get your comment on a very old post... Spooky!
      I'm about to hit my Abbey books again I think - having just had a few difficult events that have left me feeling a tad fragile. Time for some good wholesome stuff!
      I can't remember when I had my first Abbey book, or where it came from - it MAY have been one of Mum's old books... I do remember a period of adding to them when I was first at university, then it was many years later when I found the club and added a lot more. I don't see them around much in the second hand shops any more, and haven't found a new one in a very long time. Jandy Mac Comes Back is one that pops up - there seem to have been quite a few editions of that one printed so it's easier to get. I'm down to the more difficult and rare ones now, so whether I'll ever have a full set or not is yet to be seen!
      Thanks for stopping by - I really must doing something about this blog and bring it back up to date!

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  4. You're amazing writer, keep up working and you'll achieve your aim!
    australian essay writing service

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  5. I just stumbled across this post. I love the Abbey books. I was introduced to them as a girl through my cousins, second cousins and aunts. I've been trying to collect them all. We have a big charity book fair twice a year and I've picked up quite a few over the years but they're getting harder and harder to find. I actually went today but all I could find was one that I already had, but with a dust jacket, so I bought it. Lovely memories from the days when life was simpler! Angela

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    1. Hi Angela, thanks for dropping by. As I said to someone else who commented, it's been ages since I've seen an Abbey book in a shop anywhere - and I look EVERYWHERE. I think, at this stage, I'd be prepared to pay real money if I could find some of the ones I don't have. But when I do see them, they tend to be those cheaper Collins editions of the more common volumes... It is that simplicity that makes them such lovely reading now, I think.

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  6. Hi, I also just stumbled on your post as I was reflecting on a memory of reading the abbey books when young and did a search! I was wondering about the place of this series in our lives in comparison to my granddaughter, who now at a similar age, is devouring Lauren Child's Ruby Red and also the Girls Online series. An interesting generational comparison!

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    1. Hi! I'm so glad you decided to comment after finding this post. I'm amazed that of all the posts on my blog, this is one that is so very popular... I know I've written about many more 'important' books, but there you go!
      Honestly, there doesn't seem - to me - to be anything even remotely like these books in current kid's lit. I trawl through the children's and YA sections of bookstores constantly, and I find the preponderance of vampires and fantasy a bit depressing. I wonder if there is any room for stories about 'real' characters for the current generation of readers the age the Abbey books would have been directed at (AWFUL sentence...goodness me!). I'm re-reading them again at the moment, and really enjoying that 'safe' rice pudding thing, in between more challenging books. You'd think, with the things written in articles about the current concerns of our young people that they'd be looking for reading with that comfort factor - personally, I can't see how all the vampire stuff could possibly do that!
      I've yet to have the grandchildren experience, and having had sons, I didn't have a chance to push these books on my children's generation - which I'd have done as a bit of an experiment. Having said that, my boys DID get given books from my bookcase as they were growing up, and the classics always seemed to be able to weave their timeless spell. I don't know that the Abbey books can really be termed 'timeless' though, as they're so very rooted in their era in so many ways, so perhaps they wouldn't really work in the same way. I'd be interested to know if your granddaughter has tried them...

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    2. I expect my granddaughter would find the Abbey books a little tiresome. But having said that she seeks out stories that address today's social, emotional and political perspectives which I dare say we did in our or do in our reading as well. She certainly hasn't ventured into vampires but the Narnia series and The Secret Garden were top of list for awhile. This year I would say August Pullman stole her heart with his marvellous book Wonder! I find the discussion fascinating and curious! We are all seeking answers to the same questions whatever generation - who we are and why and how we can contribute to the world!

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