The Writings of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham
by Barbara Robertson
A New Zealand Perspective. Issued March 2006
In writing this paper, I am conscious of being an amateur both in writing on literary topics and also in my knowledge of the particular subject. People in the United Kingdom have researched extensively, and written at length and with considerable detail, on Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and her works. In particular Monica Godfrey, whose The world of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and her books was published in 2003 by Girls Gone By Publishers; Marjorie Morris whose Aspects of the life and works of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, author of some 80 stories for girls was submitted for the Degree of Master of Arts in Children’s Literature in 1989 and copies later made available to interested private individuals or groups; and Stella Waring and Sheila Ray whose EJO: her work was begun as a labour of love in 1981, completed in 1985 and revised in 1997 when modern technology enabled copies to be made available to interested people. (This latter work is shortly to be published as a book by Girls Gone By Publishers with the title Island to Abbey, the books of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham 1907 – 1959.)
I have read and assimilated these writings over an extended period, as well as articles in the various magazines of the Elsie Jeanette Oxenham Appreciation Societies. Except where indicated, I have not knowingly quoted from the work of other people, and hope they will forgive me if their words have so imprinted themselves on my brain that I may have unconsciously reproduced them here.
The purpose of this paper is to inform those who are not already fans of the books of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, and to give a New Zealand viewpoint to the interest in her writings. Should further information be required readers are referred to Monica Godfrey’s book. Throughout this paper when referring to Elsie Jeanette Oxenham by name, the abbreviation “EJO” is used, since she is commonly referred to as such in the children’s book collecting world.
Elsie Jeanette Dunkerley was born in Southport, Lancashire, on 25 November 1880, the eldest child of a family of 4 girls and 2 boys. Her father was William Arthur Dunkerley who, as John Oxenham, wrote many books of prose and poetry, some with a religious theme. The most well-known of his books are The hidden years, about the life of Christ, and Bees in amber, a small book of poems carried by many soldiers during World War I. He is also remembered for the words of the hymn In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north. Both Elsie and her sister Erica adopted the name Oxenham as they in their turn became writers.
Elsie grew up in Ealing, West London, and in the 1920s the family moved to Worthing. After her brothers were married and her parents died, Elsie and her next eldest sister Maida lived together, while the 2 younger sisters also set up house together. Elsie died in a Nursing Home in Worthing on 9 January 1960.
EJO was greatly influenced by her parents to whom she dedicated 22 of her 89 published books. The following poem from Bees in amber points to the same choice which the girls of the Hamlet Club considered when they chose their motto in the book of the same name, and this is one of the themes which runs through many of Elsie’s books.
To every man there openeth
A Way, and Ways, and a Way.
And the High Soul climbs the High Way,
And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
And in between, on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth
A High Way and a Low.
And every man decideth
The Way his soul shall go.
There are very few photos of Elsie, but people who knew her describe her as a slight woman with thick glasses, reddish hair, and with a shy manner. Some suggest that the description of Karen Wilson in The two form captains fits Elsie also. “She was slight and not tall, thin-faced, with a long heavy plait of brown hair; and if her eyes had any beauty, it was hidden by the big round spectacles whose thickness proclaimed that she must be very short-sighted.” And it is Karen’s ability to understand people and to see beyond the face they show to the world that also inspires the comparison with her creator.
Another character who is likened to Elsie is Jean in her first book, Goblin Island. Here the “Author’s daughter” is explaining her literary ambitions. ” Being an author’s daughter, of course I tried to write stories too. I knew all about father’s books and helped with many of them, and I always longed to write a book of my own.” Before embarking on her own literary career, Elsie had acted as her father’s secretary.
Many of the things that Elsie wrote about she had experienced herself, and she had visited the places which she used as settings for her stories. She was a Camp Fire Guardian and included this movement in many of her books, sometimes drawing on the differences between the Camp Fire Movement and the Girl Guides. She was also a keen member of the English Folk Dance Society founded by Cecil Sharp in 1911, and this featured strongly in many of the books.
From Goblin Island in 1907 to Two Queens at the Abbey in 1959, EJO wrote 90 books of which 87 were published in her lifetime. In 1991 her niece Elspeth Dunkerley discovered 3 unpublished manuscripts, and two of these were published in 1992. There are also 24 known short stories plus several which were excerpts from previously published books. Some short stories were later combined and published as books under a different title.
While many of the books could be called school stories, especially those set in Switzerland and Yorkshire, most were not stories about school life, but did involve school age girls as well as those who had recently left school. EJO’s books were very popular
in their day, and remain eagerly sought after, both by those who read them as a child and by those who meet them first in adult life.
Some of the early books were first published in serial form in magazines for children. The Girls of the Abbey School first appeared in Little Folks (1921) under the title Secret of the Abbey. [The Dorothy Neal White Collection has this.] Patience Joan, outsider appeared in Little Folks (1922). Peggy and the Brotherhood and Patch and a pawn were first published in The Girls Own Paper (Annuals volumes 57 and 60 respectively), where they had many more illustrations than appeared in the books. In November 1928 a new schoolgirl paper appeared called Schooldays, and the first 12 issues contained a serial called St Margaret’s by Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, which was later published as Deb at School. Tickles and the talking cave appeared in the British (and New Zealand and Australian) Girls Annual 1922, and was published as a book in 1924 as Tickles, or the school that was different.
The Dorothy Neal White Collection has 37 EJO titles, including one story in Little Folks Annual as mentioned above, and Tickles and the talking cave in the New Zealand Girls Annual 1922. There are also some short stories in Annuals.
The most well-known series is the collection of 39 books sometimes referred to as The Abbey School Series. Abbey School is really a misnomer, as the school (Miss Macey’s school) where the series began was at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, though in one book (The girls of the Abbey School), the school was evacuated to the Hall, next door to the Abbey of Gracedieu in Oxfordshire. The two main heroines, Joan and Joy Shirley, were the original Abbey girls, so called because they lived in the ruins of the Abbey of Gracedieu with Joan’s mother who is also Joy’s aunt. In The Abbey girls, some girls from Miss Macey’s school visit the Abbey when out hiking, and so meet Joan and Joy. At the end of that book, the old man who owns the Abbey and the adjacent Abinger Hall, and who turns out to be Joy’s grandfather, dies leaving the Hall to Joy and the Abbey to Joan. Later in the series, other girls come to live with Joy in the Hall next door to the Abbey and they become The new Abbey girls. The 26 titles which were published by Collins and frequently reprinted are reasonably readily available in the secondhand market, but others published elsewhere (and which are crucial to the development of the saga) are hard to find.
One problem of a long series of books is that if the central characters are to be realistically portrayed as growing up and becoming more mature, leading to marriage and their own children, then the author has gone beyond her original target readership. EJO got over this problem (one suspects at the instigation or insistence of Collins, her main publisher) by writing a group of 7 retrospective books set during the time when the central characters of the Abbey series were still schoolgirls. The flyleaf of Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey explains this situation.
Readers of Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey School series will enjoy hearing about their favourite Abbey Girl, Jen, as a schoolgirl once more. In recent ‘Abbey’ books, ‘Jenny-Wren’ has appeared as a completely grown-up character with babies of her own! But now Miss Oxenham gives us a glimpse into the past and shows us Jen as a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, spending an exciting holiday at the Hall, with Joan and Jandy Mac; helping in the discoveries which they make in the Abbey ruins and assisting, too, in their plans for those two helpless ‘babes in the woods’ – old Uncle Bonny and Little Vinny Miles – so eager to get to America, but so afraid to make the voyage!”
Many consider these retrospectives do not have as much depth in them as the earlier books, while other readers prefer them because there is more action and exciting discovery, and less contemplation and soul-searching.
Then there are a group of 18 books termed “Connectors”, where the action is centred away from the original Abbey girls, but in which some of the characters who appear in the Abbey series in a minor role are given more detailed lives, or some of the main Abbey characters appear in a minor role. The third group of books – the “Others” – consists of 32 titles, often in groups of 3, 4 or 5 to form a mini series. Here again there is some overlapping of characters from one series to another. In fact there are only 7 books which do not have any connection with any other book. EJO must have had an excellent memory or data base of her characters and their lives, as there are no obvious inconsistencies discovered (unlike Elinor Brent-Dyer whose numerous mistakes are fondly referred to as “EBDisms” by her large and generally adoring readership).
A number of different publishers were responsible for enabling EJO’s books to see the light of day. Collins published most of the Abbey series, and were the most prolific in reprinting titles. Some of the rarer titles were put out by Chambers and by Muller. Girls Own Paper / Lutterworth Press and Frederick Warne also produced a small number of titles, while Harrap, Nelson and Partridge were among those who had one or two titles only. Besides reprinting long runs of the Abbey series (there were 12 titles in the “Fat Oranges” edition, and 20 in the “Seagulls” edition), Collins also published 3 abridged Rocklands books by dividing up Jen of the Abbey School and adding the text of a short story, and 2 others (The call of the Abbey School and The girls of Squirrel House) by taking chapters from Queen of the Abbey School and Abbey girls on trial respectively.
During the last few years, Girls Gone By Publishers in the UK (a publishing venture run by Clarissa Cridland and Ann Mackie-Hunter with the aim to “re-publish some of the most popular girls’ fiction from the twentieth century” “to make these books available at affordable prices, and to make ownership possible not only for existing collectors but also for new collectors so that the survival of the books is continued”) have secured the copyright of a number of EJO’s books, and are reprinting them, concentrating on those titles which are most sought after and yet are not readily available in the secondhand market.
One of the reasons for the continued popularity of these books, despite their being out of print since the 1960s, could be that in the Abbey series the main characters grow from schoolgirls to young women to mothers and even to grandmothers. During this development new characters are introduced, some for only one book, while others stay around for several and become important in the series. The large number of titles available by a favourite author and featuring the same characters is also a strong factor in fostering popularity.
This discussion could also be applied to other authors who wrote series of books, such as Elinor Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Arthur Ransome, Antonia Forest, Malcolm Saville, Monica Edwards, each of whom have their own loyal following of readers. The next section considers the main themes which run through EJO’s books, to try and show some of the reasons why her work has remained popular for so long, even when the books have been out of print.
Themes in the books
In her books, EJO creates worlds in which girls and women dominate, and control, and are responsible for their own lives. Men are at the periphery of the stories. Parents are either deceased, elderly (and by implication, infirm), or absent overseas. Two examples will serve to illustrate the treatment of parents. Both Joy and Joan Shirley’s fathers and Joy’s mother have died before we meet the girls in The Abbey girls.
In that same book Joy and Joan are 15, so Joan’s mother, Mrs Shirley, would be less than 40, but 8 years later in The Abbey girls at home she is elderly, frail and often confined to bed. In Girls of the Hamlet Club, Cicely Hobart’s father is returning to Ceylon (her mother having died giving birth to Cicely) and so leaves her to board with an old family servant.
Possibly the main themes that run throughout EJO’s body of work can be seen to be influenced by two quotations.
- The Latin inscription on the Gatehouse of Cleeve Abbey, which reads PORTA PATE[N]S ESTO/ [N]ULLI CLAUDAR[IS] HON[E]ST[O], and is generally interpreted as “Gate be open, shut to no honest person”, or more loosely “Gate Open Be, to All Men Free”.
- The motto of the Hamlet Club in the book of the same name: “To be, or not to be”. The members of the Hamlet Club were scholarship girls from the outlying villages and hamlets who were looked down on by the original pupils of Miss Macey’s school and were prevented from joining the school clubs. So the Hamlet Club was formed with its motto, which could be interpreted as a clever pun referring to its members’ exclusion from the school clubs, but which had a more important meaning, as Miriam, the first May Queen, explained: “The question all have to decide sooner or later, whether they’ll just have a good time and please themselves and get all they can and care for nothing else, or whether they’ll put more important things first, and – and care about other people, and try to do great things in the world.”
[Girls of the Hamlet Club.]
The Abbey Spirit of caring for others, carrying on the Cistercian monks’ spirit of offering hospitality and succour to any who needed it is very strong, especially in the Abbey series. As Rosamund explained to Maidlin: “Something there has always been about this place [the Abbey]; a spirit of welcome – and helpfulness – and kindness.”[Maidlin bears the torch.]
Another theme is that of “Noblesse Oblige”. Especially throughout the main Abbey series of 39 books, there is the feeling that those who have much in life, whether of wealth, position or talent, have a duty to share this with others who are less fortunate. This attitude, which has come to be known as the “Abbey Spirit” is strong in the books, and is also what binds together the members of the EJO Appreciation Societies (who call themselves “Abbey Girls”) throughout the world.
Especially in the earlier books, which depict a slower way of life where people have time to think about and discuss their feelings and behaviour, EJO shows a sensitive handling of teenage relationships, and again the theme of considering the feelings of others comes through.
A dominant theme, particularly in the earlier books, was that of the revival of the folk dance movement in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Associated with this were the May Queen ceremonies derived from those at Whiteland College, London, instituted by John Ruskin in 1881.
The Abbey girls go back to school featured real-life people involved in the Folk dancing movement, where they are given nicknames, like “The Prophet” for Cecil Sharp, “Madam” for Helen Kennedy-North, and “The Pixie” for small, lively Daisy Daking. EJO continued to write about this close relationship, featuring especially “Madam” and “The Pixie”, until it is suggested that they objected to this or perhaps she realised that folk dancing was becoming obsessive. By The Abbey girls at home the main characters are realising that there is more to life than folk dancing, and while later books do include folk dancing, members of the E.F.D.S. no longer appear. At least 4 books were dedicated to leading members of the folk dance movement.
The theme of dancing taking one out of oneself and developing healthy bodies as well as wholesome minds, was emphasised in the early Abbey series books and again later when the second generation of girls were the leading players.
Another real life person who featured in her books was Reginald Willis Wilson, known to his family as Ribbie, and Wriggles to the readers of EJO’s books. He was a small boy who through illness was forced to lie on his back all day. Elsie heard about him and wrote to him in 1916 at the start of what was to become almost two years of correspondence, in which she entertained him with make believe stories involving his toys and his nurse (Violet Ellis or “Bear”) with herself as “The Witch”. She visited him and taught him how to do bead weaving, which must have been a difficult occupation while lying flat on his back, but he succeeded in this as well as in other handcraft occupations. The main book in which he featured is A go-ahead Schoolgirl though there are references in other books set in Yorkshire.
Love of the English countryside is a further theme that comes through strongly. In many of the books there is a real sense of place, and clear descriptions, which enable the reader to identify the setting. Most books are set in a recognisable place in England, Scotland, Wales or Switzerland, even if the name may be changed. Most of the action in the main Abbey series takes place around the border of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with Cleeve Abbey – the original inspiration for the setting – having been fictionally transported from Somerset to Oxfordshire and renamed Gracedieu.
A love and appreciation of beauty and colour is shown in many places. In The Abbey girls in town Mary explains to her cousin Ruth “Jen gave me a fearful rowing about the duty, as well as the joy, of wearing and surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and colours.” In Queen of the Abbey girls, Joy has carefully decorated rooms for Mary which were a contrast to her bare, dull flat in London. “It was as homey as that room had been, but with a beauty of colour and arrangement which had not been possible there. Here were green-tinted walls, deep green curtains and cushions, which were to be ‘the background for every kind of flowers’, the ideal of Mary’s dreams; at the moment there were white and purple flowers everywhere – lilac in the vases and bowls on table and mantelpiece.” Another example which is vividly remembered by readers is the reaction of Jen‘s friends to the jumper which the invalid Rose from the working class ‘Tin Town’ near Jen’s home in Yorkshire has knitted for Jen in Jen of the Abbey School. . . displayed a jumper, knitted in the crudest of purples, with border, collar, cuffs, and stripes of vividest yellow – colours that were actually painful; how the hideous thing would hurt Jen, with her sensitive, beauty-loving nature, they could imagine.”
This episode in Jen of the Abbey School also illustrates another feature of some of the books, which often grates on New Zealand readers – a patronising attitude towards those of the lower classes. In Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey the attitudes of Joan and Jen to Vinnie Miles and her great-uncle Boniface Browning, while granting them sanctuary in the Abbey and later arranging for them to travel to relatives in Canada, can be seen as looking after the lower classes because they can not be expected to manage alone. Stella Waring and Sheila Ray acknowledge, “In fact the whole tone of this book is, to a modern reader, thoroughly condescending and patronising. To the enthusiast for EJO it is only saved because the characters are Joan, Jandy Mac and Jen.” [EJO: Her Work.]
Associated with the love of beauty and colour is an appreciation of the beauty and up-lifting effect of flowers. The Abbey Girls, living in the country where flowers are plentiful, often take, or send, abundant bunches of fresh flowers to those city dwellers who are deprived of this source of natural beauty. A love and appreciation of music is another theme which runs through many of the stories, ranging from classical orchestral music and opera singing, to folk music and tunes played on a penny-whistle.
Both the Camp Fire Movement and the Girl Guides organization appear in a number of books. Camp Fire was a movement begun in America, which appealed more to the creative, thoughtful side of girls than the more practical Girl Guides. Elsie was a Camp Fire Guardian while living in Ealing, greatly loved by the members of her Camp Fire. Many of her books (like The school of ups and downs, Patience Joan, Outsider, Peggy and the Brotherhood, andCrisis in Camp Keema) involve a conflict between Camp Fire and Guides, where the differing merits of each movement are discussed. In the main Abbey series, Joy takes on the Rangers and Betty McLean is Guide Captain, while the more introverted Maidlin makes an excellent Camp Fire Guardian.
Throughout her books, EJO shows a fascination with names – not only given names, but also nicknames. Those girls who have been May Queens are often referred to by their Queen’s flower or colour, while those who are Camp Fire members are addressed by their Camp Fire Indian name. All this can appear confusing, especially to a reader who has not begun at the chronological beginning. A few examples may serve to illustrate this point. Janet Robins, called Jen is also referred to as Jenny Wren, Brownie, Mrs Brown, and Mrs Wren. Joy Shirley is also called Traveller’s Joy (from her habit of walking the hills alone), the Cat who walked by herself, Wild Cat, and Abbey-Girl. Patience Joan Ordway will answer to Pat, Patty-John, P-J, Imp, cousin Patsy and Noonatomen (meaning ‘rejoicing’). Margery Woodburn (nee Paine) can be Polly, Polly Paine, Marchpaine, or the Little Paine. Gulielma Pennyfold is variously addressed as Guly, Elma or Billy (Gulielma is the female form of William).
Besides this habit of giving characters more than one name, EJO also used a great variety of what to us now are seemingly old-fashioned but still lovely names. Abigail, Benedicta, Robertina, Cicely and Cecily, Gwyneth, Teesa, Andrena, Doranne, Madalena, Damaris, Myfanwy, Atalanta, Araminta, Euphemia, Hermione, not forgetting the Quaker names of Patience, Mercy and Guilelma. Her male characters generally managed with plain names like Michael, Andrew, Ken, Tony, Donald and Jock, though Rennie, Rufus and Boniface do creep in. Here again the class distinction appears as the lower class are recognised by names like Gladys, Susie, Agatha, Agnes, Daisy, Archie, Dolly, Edith, Dick and Della.
Another fascination that EJO appeared to have was the phenomenon of twins and large families. The two original Abbey Girls, Joan and Joy were cousins, but were so alike with their red hair that they were often mistaken for twins. After marriage, Joan produced three girls and two boys (all with names starting with J); while Joy had twin girls, followed by two boys and a girl. Jen, who always said she wanted to have a “Morris side”, produced four single boys, three girls and then twin boys. Rosamund however won the twins race, producing one set of twin girls, followed nine months later by a second set of twin girls, then later two single boys. However none of EJO’s heroines came up to the record set by Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Joey Maynard of the Chalet books, who had eleven children, including one set of triplets and two sets of twins, while being a successful writer of schoolgirl books and continuing to have a part in the life of the Chalet School!
Overall in EJO’s books, there is an attitude of serving others, of wholesome activity and occupations, close friendships, careers for girls, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, a love of life, and a desire to enjoy it.
As anyone who has ever looked at children’s books of the early 20th century will know or appreciate, it is the old-style illustrations that set the atmosphere. I well remember that my mother owned four old annuals of the 1920s which I was allowed to read if home sick from school. Girls always seemed to have curly hair, usually long, wore gym frocks or elegant dresses and had shoes with pointy toes and high heels.
In most cases EJO was better served by her illustrators, who generally portrayed realistic-looking girls. In later editions by Collins the illustrations were confined to the dustwrapper and a frontispiece, and were updated to keep up with modern styles of dress. However it is the older illustrations that are most valued, and P.B. Hickling, Harold Earnshaw, Rene Cloke, Elsie Anna Wood and Nina K. Brisley are amongst the best. Those stories that first appeared in annuals like Little Folks, The Girls Own Annual and New Zealand Girls’ Annual have many more illustrations than were reproduced in the later published books.
An illustrator with a tenuous connection to New Zealand is the Australian artist, Margaret Horder, who also illustrated one of Claire Mallory’s books – the British edition of Juliet overseas. Margaret Horder always appears to have read the books which she illustrates, and besides full page pictures, she frequently has little vignettes at the beginnings or ends of chapters which illustrate, often with a touch of humour, a small point in the chapter.
Margaret Horder illustrated six of the seven books of EJO which were published by Muller, both of those published by Oxford University Press, and two of the Collins titles.
Some samples are scattered throughout this paper.
Why read the works of EJO?
(Much of this section consists of comments from members of the New Zealand EJO Appreciation Society.)
Reading EJO as an adult reveals a social history of the 1930s and brings back memories of a bygone era. The many descriptions of domestic life give a clear picture of middle to upper class life between the Wars. For instance, train trips across Europe with a hired chaperone. There are other things which may seem unusual to us now, but which were part of the accepted way of life in the 1920s and 1930s. Converted railway carriages used as homes; CSSM beach missions in summer; revival of Folk Dance movement in UK; copying the May Queen crownings which were a tradition at Whitelands College, London; girls putting their hair up as they reached a certain age; travelling without passports; having household staff.
“I have also enjoyed discovering the “real-life” settings, and making new friends, EJO style. Helped to foster love of English history and countryside. Awakens an interest in places used as settings, as these are often described in detail and some real place names used.”
It is possible to visit – go on a pilgrimage to – places where the stories are set. Members in United Kingdom have been able to research the sites and write up this information in the journals of the EJO Appreciation Societies, so that when we from New Zealand visit Britain, we know where to go to visit the settings for our favourite books.
I liked EJO as a child and still do because:
- I thought of the girls as friends and
- Some of the books discussed moral issues – to be or not to be, and God, etc.
As an adult, I appreciate:
- that the characters matured and grew up – from schoolgirls, sometimes tactless, to grandparents;
- being able to read about the social attitudes and customs of those years, including having to darn stockings – ugh!
- The growth of the appreciation societies – a whole new bunch of friends with whom I share not just the love of EJO, but of reading in general and more.”
Nostalgia, and having daughters of my own, caused me to pick up the books secondhand. So they could read, enjoy and appreciate a different “era” to their own.”
Some other comments made by members are:
Touch of drama.
Worthwhile comments about relationship problems.
Good ethical values.
Goodness of people and morals.
Religion– Christianity is acknowledged and valued.
To us now, an interesting, different life style.
A bonus of meeting very nice people who have the same interests.
I enjoy the friendships and the religious themes in EJO’s books
They are ‘good’ books with generally believable happenings and with characters who think and talk through problems, and espouse basically Christian principles though with very little overt mention of God. There is no attempt to proselytise the reader, but EJO’s Christian upbringing pervades the atmosphere of the books. Even Patience Joan, a staunch Quaker, makes no attempt to convert others to her way of thinking, but is quite happy and determined to stick to her own principles, disregarding the opinions others may have of her.
The Seagull reprints in the 1950s brought some aspects of life up to date. For instance, instead of a horse drawn carriage or a pony trap, the girls travelled in a big car, and the coachman who loved and cared for his horses became the chauffeur. References to World War I were either changed to refer to World War II or were altered completely. For instance; one of Jen’s elder brothers was originally “killed in the war”, but later was “killed in a motor smash”; “Ex-munitions girls” become “unemployed girls”; in the early version one of the few men in the stories had met the Pixie in France during World War I, but in the updated version it was his uncle who had had this experience.
Many aspects are designed to appeal to girls and young teens, but there is also much soul searching and a strong feeling of companionship, which would appeal to older readers. In fact as the Abbey series went on a greater trend to appeal to younger readers started, presumably at the instigation of the publishers who wished to focus on a younger market. The later books are shorter and include more action, especially by the second generation who are still schoolgirls, whereas the earlier books were longer and meatier as they carried the first generation Abbey Girls from schoolgirls to mothers.
What is the appeal of the books now?
Depiction of a lost life-style. A gentler life-style with a less hectic pace and when girls (and adults) had time to relate to one another, to share and discuss. A life-style where religion, though seldom spoken about openly (except for Patience Joan and her Quaker beliefs) is never-the-less a strong presence in the background. One of the more overtly religious episodes is when Jen’s father was dying (in Queen of the Abbey girls) and Jen explained to Mary, “He’s not a scrap afraid. He’s as sure as anything that he’s going to something better.” Then after he has died, Jen has a dream in which she is walking along a road and her father is on the same road but at a higher level as the road doubles back on the hillside as roads do in the Yorkshire Dales.
Some of the books were most likely written for the Sunday School prize market, or at least were frequently used for this purpose. But the appeal has always been wider than this.
The numerous interconnections between characters in different books, not only within the “Abbey series”, but also amongst many of the other books (making reading a new title become a joy of discovering old friends), make the whole body of EJO’s work into a world of people whose lives the reader can share.
The Elsie J. Oxenham Appreciation Societies
Currently there are three groups of readers worldwide that were formed with the express purpose of meeting together to share their love and appreciation of the works of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham. Long before the groups formally began, there had been correspondence between readers in various parts of the world. Here in New Zealand we date the beginning of this movement to a letter which our founding editor, Carol Grey, wrote to This England magazine in 1984, requesting any others who collected the works of EJO to get in touch with her. However, it was the Australians, led by Val Shelley, who first organised themselves into a society, held their first meeting on 9 August 1985, and issued the first edition of The Abbey Guardian on 1 November 1985. Some EJO readers from NZ joined the Australian society, and at a meeting in August 1988 were inspired to form their own society, The Abbey Girls of New Zealand. The first issue of The Abbey Gatehouse came out on 1 May 1989 – and in October 2004 we celebrated our 50th issue! The UK EJO Appreciation Society was only a few weeks behind New Zealand and the first full issue of The Abbey Chronicle, edited by Monica Godfrey, appeared in May 1989. When Polly Whibley, a founding member of the New Zealand club, returned to South Africa, she made contact with other readers there, and The Abbey Chapter had its first issue in June 1992. Unfortunately, not long after Polly left a few years later, the second editor was unable to continue and so the South Africa Chapter fell into abeyance, but recently the group has been revived and they hold meetings and receive magazines from other countries.
Besides producing magazines three or four times a year, what do the EJO Appreciation Societies do? Members correspond with each other, hold meetings at which the books and related topics are discussed, sometimes enjoy folk dancing, look for books for each other and readily pass on spare copies. The Australians organise Camps every second year at which talks are given, handcrafts are learned and practised, books are exchanged, and folk dancing and a concert are performed. They also have adopted the May Queen crowning tradition and their Queens choose a flower and wear a train embroidered with this motif, as in the crownings described in the Abbey books.
Many strong friendships have been formed through our common interests, both in our own country and internationally. Like the original Abbey Girls in EJO’s stories, their modern counterparts practise the spirit of helpfulness, hospitality, kindness, and form a mutual support network. Whenever and wherever Abbey Girls meet, they know that they will have similar interests and attitudes, and will be able to talk at length – and admire each other’s collections of books. (In practice, members have wide and catholic interests in their reading, and EJO is sometimes more a catalyst for get-togethers, rather than the focus.)
In the early days, copies of many of the books were so scarce that dedicated members in the UK typed out the stories and sent copies to the other societies. Later, photocopies of the rarer books were deposited in the libraries of the various societies so that members would be able to read them.
Now Girls Gone By Publishers are republishing many of the rarer books in paperback, having been able to purchase some of the copyrights from the original publishers. Thus the stories are easier to get hold of to read, but there is still a strong demand for the original or early editions of all the books.
The New Zealand Abbey Girls has as their motto “Gate Open Be”, taken from the inscription on the Gatehouse of Cleeve Abbey (see earlier reference); and members often sign letters to each other with “In Abbey Friendship”. The Abbey Girls of Australia have “Bound in Friendship” as their motto, emphasising the friendships that have been formed through their common love of the books of EJO. Currently the New Zealand group has around 50 New Zealand members and around 40 from overseas. The United Kingdom group has about 455 local members and 55 from overseas including 8 from New Zealand. In 2002 the Australian group had 220 local members and 35 from overseas including 11 from New Zealand. Some folk belong to all three societies, most to only their local group.
The New Zealand experience
To help put a New Zealand viewpoint in this paper, a questionnaire was circulated to the membership of The Abbey Gatehouse. There were 24 replies from New Zealand and 6 from overseas (Britain and Australia). As with most questionnaires where a response is voluntary, there was not a high rate of return. Exactly 50% of New Zealanders replied. The overseas ones were a bonus and did produce some useful information.
Most New Zealand members had read EJO books as a child, only two meeting her work first as an adult, although several others had read one or two titles as a child and then forgotten them, rediscovering their enjoyment years later as an adult. The average age of first reading EJO was ten and a half years with a range of from seven to sixteen.
When asked how they obtained the books to read, some gave more than one answer. The results were as follows. Received as a gift, 10; bought by self (new or secondhand), 5; borrowed from library, 4; owned by mother or aunt, 4; owned by sister, 3; borrowed from friend, 1. One teenager borrowed the books from her local bookseller/stationer’s library.
A subsequent question asked about Abbey books that were owned (as distinct from just being read), and here two people mentioned Sunday School prizes, while the majority had been either received as gifts or bought by self, all appearing to have been bought in New Zealand. The books were available new here especially in large shops like Whitcombe and Tombs. But many people, even as children, bought them in secondhand bookshops. Smith’s in Mercer St in Wellington was mentioned by one 70 year old, who found a copy of Fiddler (a scarce title) in December 1950. One other person mentioned buying them from Whitcombe and Tombs in the 1960s and 1970s when she started working. Seagull reprints were available in shops in the mid 1950s.
I had wondered whether there might have been some sent out as gifts direct from the UK, but this did not appear to be the case. Apparently at about the time when many of our current members were children, a high proportion of UK publishers’ general stock was exported to the colonies (e.g. New Zealand, Australia, Rhodesia, South Africa). One overseas member recalls a figure of about 60% being mentioned at Library School. To mention one example, the 1950s reprint of Rosamund’s Tuckshop is reasonably easy to find in New Zealand, but in the United Kingdom that title in any edition is considered rare.
Of the two members who had not met EJO as a child, one was 30 when she was introduced to the Girls Gone By Publishers reprints of EJO through her collecting of the Chalet books by Elinor Brent-Dyer; while the other had seen Abbey books while browsing in secondhand bookshops with a book-collector husband. However, it was not until reading Barbara at school (the member’s name and occupation)by Josephine Elder and enjoying it, that she tried The Abbey girls go back to school, and became an avid EJO collector, finding them just as satisfying to read as the works of many a modern author writing for adults.
Of those who had met the books because their mother (or aunt) owned them, there did not seem to be any great difference in how this earlier generation acquired the books; bought in New Zealand, gifts from relatives and one Sunday School prize were mentioned. One respondent introduced the books to her mother after she (the mother) had visited England.
The average age of those who replied was about 60, with the youngest being in the 30-40 years age group and the oldest in the 70-80 years age group.
There does not appear to have been a great difference in the experiences of NZ members compared with those from UK or Australia. One overseas comment could apply to a large majority of our members: ” read a few titles as a child, but became more serious about collecting as an adult.” An Australian member wrote several letters to EJO when a child, and still has the replies she received.
The following comment illustrates the connection between the works of EJO and those of other authors writing for children at about the same time. Elinor Brent Dyer’s Chalet books have never been out of print, as they are constantly being reprinted in paperback. ” I started collecting EJO books in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I was going to book (dealer) fairs looking for Chalet School books, and started picking up EJO ones at the same time. Best buy, pricewise, was Twins of Castle Charming. At the time I didn’t know it was a rare title, I’d never heard of it, so obviously before I joined The Abbey Chronicle. Most impressive find was Crisis at Camp Keema, with inscription ‘From EJO to EBD’ – two of my favourite children’s authors.”
Two other comments illustrate how small beginnings can lead to large obsessions.
“I was 13 and loved school stories, so my mother would have bought The Abbey girls go back to school as a gift for me because it had school in the title.”
“I knowingly started reading them in my early 30’s. I was living in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and had a holiday with my family in England when my sister organised an ‘Abbey Crawl’ in Yorkshire. In one day we visited Fountains, Rievaulx, Mount Grace and Ripon Cathedral, and I was hooked! I saw a book called The Abbey girls, and picked it up . . .”
Appendix. The books of Elsie J. Oxenham
|The girls of the Hamlet Club||1914||Chambers||Abbey|
|The Abbey girls||1920||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The girls of the Abbey School||1921||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The Abbey girls go back to school||1922||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The new Abbey girls||1923||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The Abbey girls again||1924||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Abbey girls in town||1925||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Queen of the Abbey girls||1926||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Jen of the Abbey School||1927||Collins||Abbey|
|The Abbey girls win through||1928||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The Abbey girls at home||1929||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The Abbey girls play up||1930||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The Abbey girls on trial||1931||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Maidlin to the rescue||1934||Chambers||Abbey|
|Joy’s new adventure||1935||Chambers||Abbey|
|Rosamund’s tuckshop||1937||Girls Own Paper||Abbey||Yes|
|Maidlin bears the torch||1937||Girls Own Paper||Abbey||Yes|
|Schooldays at the Abbey||1938||Collins||Abbey|
|Rosamund’s castle||1938||Girls Own Paper||Abbey|
|Secrets of the Abbey||1939||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Stowaways in the Abbey||1940||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Jandy Mac comes back||1941||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Maid of the Abbey||1943||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Two Joans at the Abbey||1945||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|An Abbey champion||1946||Muller||Abbey|
|Robins in the Abbey||1947||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|A fiddler for the Abbey||1948||Muller||Abbey|
|Guardians of the Abbey||1950||Muller||Abbey|
|Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey||1950||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Strangers at the Abbey||1951||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Rachel in the Abbey||1951||Muller||Abbey|
|Selma at the Abbey||1952||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|A dancer from the Abbey||1953||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The song of the Abbey||1954||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|Tomboys at the Abbey||1957||Collins||Abbey|
|Two queens at the Abbey||1959||Collins||Abbey||Yes|
|The girl who wouldn’t make friends||1909||Nelson||Connector|
|A go-ahead schoolgirl||1919||Chambers||Connector|
|Patience Joan, outsider||1922||Cassell||Connector|
|Tickles, or the school that was different||1924||Partridge||Connector||Yes|
|Ven at Gregory’s||1925||Chambers||Connector|
|The troubles of Tazy||1926||Chambers||Connector|
|Patience and her problems||1927||Chambers||Connector|
|The crisis in Camp Keema||1928||Chambers||Connector|
|The camp mystery||1932||Collins||Connector|
|Damaris at Dorothy’s||1937||Sheldon Press||Connector|
|Patch and a pawn||1940||Warne||Connector||Yes|
|Adventure for two||1941||Oxford||Connector||Yes|
|Elsa puts things right||1944||Muller||Connector|
|The Secrets of Vairy||1947||Muller||Connector|
|Margery meets the Roses||1947||Lutterworth||Connector||Yes|
|New girls at Woodend||1957||Frederick Books||Connector|
|Princess in tatters||1908||Collins||Other||Yes|
|The conquest of Christina||1909||Collins||Other|
|A holiday queen||1910||Collins||Other||Yes|
|Rosaly’s new school||1913||Chambers||Other|
|Schoolgirls and scouts||1914||Collins||Other||Yes|
|At school with the Roundheads||1915||Chambers||Other|
|The tuck-shop girl||1916||Chambers||Other|
|Finding her family||1916||S.P.C.K.||Other||Yes|
|A school camp-fire||1917||Chambers||Other|
|The school of ups and downs||1918||Chambers||Other|
|Expelled from school||1919||Collins||Other||Yes|
|The school torment||1920||Chambers||Other|
|The twins of Castle Charming||1920||Swarthmore Press||Other|
|Two form captains||1921||Chambers||Other||Yes|
|The captain of the fifth||1922||Chambers||Other|
|The junior captain||1923||Chambers||Other|
|The school without a name||1924||Chambers||Other|
|The Girls of Gwynfa||1924||Warne||Other|
|The testing of the torment||1925||Cassell||Other||Yes|
|A camp fire torment||1926||Chambers||Other|
|Peggy makes good||1927||Partridge||Other|
|Deb at school||1929||Chambers||Other|
|Deb of Sea House||1931||Chambers||Other|
|The reformation of Jinty||1933||Chambers||Other|
|Peggy and the brotherhood||1936||Girls Own Paper||Other|
|Sylvia of Sarn||1937||Warne||Other|
|Deb leads the dormitory||1992||Woodfield||Other|
|A divided patrol||1992||Woodfield||Other|