Maid of the Abbey : Elsie J. Oxenham

Maid of the Abbey (The Abbey Girls, #28)Maid of the Abbey by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m so intermittent with the Abbey Girls that it always takes me a moment to orientate myself and figure out where I am in the series. Is Maidlin old or young? Is Joy a muppet or vaguely appealing? Is Mary Dorothy around and just which cook called Anne is it? Has Rosamund had her ‘fifteen children within two weeks’ yet?

Having orientated my way through that period of adjustment, I then always find the Abbey books a little – saturated. I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe them, and I’m very certainly not meaning that they’re damp, so let me try to explain what I mean. Perhaps another word will show itself as I do so. My heart belongs with the raw edge of the Chalet School, that moment where it could be searing or hideous; the unfinished moment of books that teeter wildly on the edge of brilliance or fall into utter tedium. There’s not much of an in between in Brent-Dyer’s world; these books are wonderful and they are lovely or they are Althea.

The Abbey books don’t have that unfinished edge for me. They’re rounder, and glossier, but they don’t have that sense of trepidation. That nervous unknown edge of what might lie behind the corner. That’s what I mean by saturated; it’s all too bright, too colourful. It’s a world without fear, without edge. Maybe that’s because of the books I’ve read, and the way I’ve read them. Journey toward literature often means as much as the literature itself.

But then, here I am recommending a book that makes my theoretical side twitch, that makes all of that that I have spoken about come forth, here I am giving it five stars and here I am about to rave about the very things I have marked out as problems. Maid of the Abbey is lovely. It’s gorgeous. If it were a Friends episode, it would be The One Where Maidlin Gets Married Off And Everything Is Perfect. Oxenham has this great unease with letting her gifted and talented characters exist in isolation (something I wrote about, slightly rubbishly, aeons ago here). Marriage is the ultimate goal, in this world defined by women and inter-female relationships, and it makes me itch but I don’t care here, because this book is lovely.

Oxenham writes with just a wildly entrancing verve; this is a thick slice of cake and slippers by the fire sort of a book. It’s just good, comforting, warm literature. I loved it. I really did. And I think Maid Of The Abbey shows that skill at its best; Maidlin is married off, yes, and we all fawn around Joy for reasons I am yet to figure out, but we do all of this because the writing is so convinced that this is the best thing for these characters. Authorial drive. Love, really. And to go against that, to stand up against that sheer tide of certainty and rich, delicious, writing – I can’t. Not now. Not today.

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Identifying geniuses in children’s literature

Genius is one of those almost unidentifiable things. You either have it, or you don’t, and until you become able to manifest it in ways we understand and can legitimise (ie: through a Mensa Test) , it may remain a relatively hidden talent.

It’s a difficulty faced by geniuses in children’s literature and one that I’m going to explore in this post. I’m going to focus on female characters this time round and write an accompanying post when I finally get my hands on Simon Mayo’s “Itch“.

So. How do we recognise the female genius? How do we treat her in the context of the narrative? Is it as something precious – something cliched – or something resolutely Other? How do writers handle difference – difference so manifestly extreme as Genius?

Angela Brazil in a splendidly airy manner tended to give her characters a ‘certain indefinable something’ and then promptly went about describing it. It’s particularly interesting to compare and contrast her (elaborate) descriptions of Mildred Lancaster and Lottie Lowman in The Girls of St Cyprian’s.

The two class-mates who entered the room at that moment were certainly entirely unlike as regards personal appearance, and the dissimilarity went deeper. Lottie Lowman, the elder by six months, was a brisk, alert-looking girl with a fresh complexion, a rather long, pointed nose, a thin mouth, and a square, determined chin. Her forehead was broad and intelligent, her light hazel eyes were very bright and sparkling, and her brown hair held just a suggestion of chestnut in the warmth of its colouring. Lottie’s general effect was one of extreme vivacity. She loved to talk, and could say sharp things on occasion—there was hardly a girl in the Form who had not quailed before her tongue—and above all she adored popularity. To be a general favourite at once with mistresses, companions, and the Lower School was her chief aim, and she spared no trouble in the pursuit. Her flippant gaiety appealed to a large section of the Form, her humorous remarks were amusing, even though a sting lurked in them, and if her accomplishments were superficial, they made a far better show than the more-solid acquirements of others. She could do a little of everything, and had such perfect assurance that no touch of shyness ever marred her achievements. She knew absolutely how to make the best of herself, and she had a savoir faire and precocious knowledge of the world decidedly in advance of her sixteen years.

Mildred Lancaster, though only six months Lottie’s junior, seemed a baby in comparison, where mundane matters were concerned. She was slightly built and rather delicate-looking, with a pale, eager face, a pair of beautiful, expressive brown eyes, and a quantity of silky, soft, dull-gold hair, with a natural ripple in it. The far-away look in the dark eyes, and the set of the sensitive little mouth, suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor. Mildred was dreamy and unpractical to a fault, the kind of girl who in popular parlance needs to be “well shaken up” at school, and whose imagination is apt to outrun her performance. Gifted to an unusual degree in music, at which she worked by fits and starts, her lack of general confidence was a great impediment, and often a serious handicap where any public demonstration was concerned. The feeling of having an audience, which was like the elixir of life to Lottie, filled Mildred with dismay, and was apt to spoil her best efforts.

It’s a long quote and one I feel worthwhile in indulging in because there’s a lot here. There’s a certain level of nuance at play which is rather unusual in a Brazil (I love her but she’s not subtle). Lottie’s ability with music is obviously of a lesser quality than that of Mildred. Mildred possess a ‘sensitive little mouth’ whilst Lottie’s is merely ‘thin’. Mildred is ‘gifted to an unusual degree’ , Lottie doesn’t actually have any direct comment on her talent whatsoever. It goes on throughout the book and essentially suggests that giftedness manifests itself in the (repeatedly mentioned) sensitive bearing and appearance of Mildred. Basically Lottie’s got no hope for achieving ‘high’ art after that rather waspish introduction.

I’ve spoken before about how the treatment of Maidlin in the Elsie Oxenham books strikes me as hideous. In a way, she’s neutered by her marriage. Her wild, tempestuous, Italianate nature disappears and in the few post marriage books I’ve managed to find, she’s described less by her physical appearance and just as Primrose (her Queen colours). It’s narratorial consumption. Now admittedly this is a fate that befalls a lot of the Abbey girls (womanhood? Nope, not for you petal), but it always strikes me as awful with Maidlin, the vivacious child tempered and subdued by adulthood.

From a more modern perspective, one of the key female geniuses in children’s literature has been Hermione Granger. Although Hermione faces a suppression of her academic ability in the early parts of Philosophers Stone, her skills and intelligence rapidly become lifesaving. She’s a vital part of the trio. Debuting with ‘a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth’, this changes later on in the books due to a variety of factors:

It was Hermione. But it didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow–or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling–rather nervously, it was true–but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.

It always struck me as painful (and yes, this is over-identification, what of it?) that by removing the manifestation of her skills (ie: the books), she achieved beauty. There’s a sense of the resolutely academic brilliance of the early Hermione softening as she becomes more rounded and integrated into Hogwarts society. Yes, she is brilliant, and remains so, but it’s not the first thing we identify about her (or at least, it wasn’t for me).

So is it even possible to identify the genius and the gifted in children’s literature or is the entirety of this post based on a conceptual fallacy? It’s hard to identify genius when the author doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer backs away from labelling her darling Joey thus, negates any sense of Jacynth being a genius and ultimately affixes the label solely to Nina Rutherford. Nina, being the only genius in the Chalet School, is a rather unique achievement considering Brent-Dyer’s affinity for the concept of musical talent.

I think that , rather than distinguishing the physical characteristics of ‘actual’ genius and sliding into Angela Brazil “Oh the Lady!” style worship,  it is possibly to distinguish one of the stages of genius – the pre-integration stage. The awkward, inwardly focused stage where the character is so locked into their talent that they’re not even responding to the whims of the author let alone the reader. The stage where the character is so locked in their own narrative.

And I think that’s maybe why we can identify that stage rather than the appearance of a genius because that stage  appears in nearly every book featuring genius. Geniuses are different – regardless of their talent – and it’s the ‘management’ of that talent which then forms the rest of the story and that conflict is a necessary driver for the story. Now the question of why that management usually results in a ‘normalising’ of the talent is a question for another post..!

The Chalet School and Genius

“That’s what comes of being a genius, my dear. You be thankful you aren’t one. It makes you a sickening nuisance to your friends and relatives at times!”

Excitements at the Chalet School 

Nina is unlike any other girl to join the Chalet School community. She’s really got no choice in being so unique. Her introductory book is called A Genius at The Chalet School. It’s a technique rarely deployed by Brent-Dyer and only in situations where, perhaps, we are asked to view “new” characters through certain already established social stereotypes (viz. The New Mistress at the Chalet School and The Princess of the Chalet School as opposed to more generic, open titles such as The New Chalet School and The Chalet School Wins the Trick)

The title influences us before we have even reached the central text of the narrative.  The new girl is a Genius (capitalisation most intentional).  She is identified primarily by her function. We read her as a genius before we read her as Nina.

“We’ve got a musical genius this term. Did you know, Mrs. Maynard? She’s Nina Rutherford. I heard her practising in Hall last night and I was simply stunned. I never heard any other girl play like that. It was marvellous! I felt as if my efforts were just a schoolkid’s strumming beside that.A Genius at the Chalet School

What is fascinating however, is how her genius is treated within the Chalet School world. Brent-Dyer takes several opportunities to expound upon the concept of genius and, through the mouthpiece of authorial-favourite Joey Maynard, begins to elaborate upon the inherent difficulties that those “afflicted” with genius will experience in a boarding school context. The following extract is taken from the first prefects meeting in the term:

“…you always have to pay heavily for a very valuable thing and the geniuses of this world pay very heavily for their gifts … it’s like a lever, propelling you along one straight path and it won’t let you side-track – or not for long, at any rate. Sooner or later, you have to come back to it, and no one and nothing can ever really come between it and you. That’s why so many geniuses make unhappy marriages. They’re so absorbed in their art and it means so much to them that they have very little time for anything else. You see it’s an obsession and obsessed people are never quite – well – sane … they’re lopsided. And the ordinary happinesses [sic] of life can never be theirs.”A Genius at the Chalet School

Poor Nina. She’s screwed before she’s even begun. This is the moment where a Genius at the Chalet School becomes really interesting for me. This is big stuff. The parallels between genius and madness are palpable. The ‘narrow focus’ of genius propels the bearer towards a less than fulfilling existence. And, it cannot be escaped, that this fulfilled existence conceptualised by Joey does include love and therefore, marriage.

Through using Joey to provide the dominant ideological point of view regarding genius, Brent-Dyer is imbuing her with an authority that is very much absent from any other character in the series. Joey plays a specific and unique role in the Chalet School series. From acting as the school’s first pupil, she never quite releases her ties with the school and ultimately acts as an embodiment of the Chalet School both physically and psychologically. What Joey says is accepted as truth. It is the nearest we get to direct authorial intervention in the text.

But then, what do we make of musical Margia Stevens? Bright, bold and brilliant Margia who remains, as far as I can tell, a musician and single and not particularly lopsided? Are there levels of genius in the Chalet School and are Margia and Jacynth Hardy (sad shy Jacynth!) fated to never achieve the greatness of Nina? It’s interesting to note that both of these other musical virtuoso’s are very deliberately never presented as geniuses. Margia, commonly accepted as one of the more brilliant of Brent-Dyer’s creations, remained a highly-talented individual and yet distinctly removed from genius. She has a “mania”, a “passion”. But she does not have overt Genius (and if she does, it’s been cut out of the pb texts which are my primary references).

Jacynth Hardy is however extremely gifted and one of the few characters who come close to playing a similar role to that of Nina. Matron, another voice of authority both internally and externally to the narrative, is the one to bring it to light: “…if Jacynth is a genius – or near-genius – as Mr Manders implies…”  Gay Lambert at the Chalet School 

And yet, and this always strikes me as such a sad moment, the affirmation of Jacynth’s talent is immediately negated. Matron, a woman of practical skills and hard fact, seems to doubt her authority in assessing this intangible quality of genius.  Matron defines Jacynth as a genius and then, near-instantly, retracts her statement. Jacynth is not viewed as a genius because she is not accepted universally as such. Her genius and talent is not socially recognised in the Chalet School and therefore comes across as being of distinctly less importance than the ability of Nina. This is confirmed, again, by Joey Maynard:

“Jacynth was very highly gifted, but from what I can gather, Nina is even more so. And all her previous training has helped to deepen her idea that her art must come first and foremost and I doubt if there can be very much done about it now” A Genius at the Chalet School

 It’s perhaps notable that Nina, in a cast of eventual-thousands, is unique in her extreme creativity. The school story does not react well to difference. The Chalet School in particular takes overt pleasure in creating ‘the Real Chalet School Girl’ model of behaviour and, as a direct consequence of this, ‘genius’ cannot easily thrive in such a context. It’s perhaps why we see so few many of the Chalet Girls engage in extreme creativity, despite a lot of them having obvious proclivities towards such an aim (Amy and her poetry, Samaris and her flute etc).

And it’s why, despite being one of the perhaps most overtly linear books to read (new girl comes to school, gets a grip, turns into good egg), I find A Genius at the Chalet School really rather remarkable.

Elsie Oxenham, the Abbey Girls and talent vs marriage

Elsie Oxenham (EJO) and the Abbey books is one of those series I fell towards following my love-affair with Brent-Dyer. EJO is an odd writer; one who’s dated greatly and then, in some queer little moments, not at all.

I’m reading my Abbey books at present with a view towards gaining research for my dissertation – Representations of Gifted and Talented Children in Children’s Literature. Unfortunately I don’t have many EJO and those that I do need a roadmap in between them to figure out what’s happening. What with Joy and Joan and Jen to start off with and then there’s Rosamund, Rosalin, Rosabel and then there’s adults and babies and marriages and deaths and it’s a bit of hard work to figure out what’s going on at times!

But there’s a curious charm in these books and a very feminine feel to them. The few men that do appear either die or disappear swiftly, leaving the Abbey girls to form their supportive sisterhood without them. And it is a sisterhood. It’s a fascinating – and quite beautiful – example of how women support women and also – when Joy puts her foot in it – how women can bring each other down and then build each other up. The books, at their heart, are about love and how it can sustain a community through thick and thin.

And yet, EJO doesn’t hesitate to marry off her characters. Marriage is the natural evolution for them. Mary Damayris, a powerful and beautiful ballet dancer, leaves the stage for love in A Dancer from the Abbey. It’s interesting how clearly this is presented throughout the book. It’s a natural evolution for her. She leaves and her dancing becomes better because of her love. There’s a pull between the stage and her husband-to-be, explored briefly and then dispelled as the cast accept that love will make her dancing better and stronger. It’s clear though that she’s now a wife first and a dancer second.

A similar thing happens with Maidlin. Again, this is based on limited exposure to the books, she is a tempestuousItalianate artistic child with a beautiful singing voice and then she turns into just another run of the mill adult. I can’t tell you how much this made me wince upon first reading – the appealingly complex and frankly unusual child falls into a clichéd mother and adult. I’m looking at getting a copy of a few more EJO titles in the near future and will be deeply intrigued to learn if this is just a misconception of mine or whether my feelings of disappointment continue.

So is this it in the Abbey series? Is talent a childish thing? Is a gift given up when a husband appears on the scene? Is a gift a gift and never your own talent? Do you have to give it back when marriage calls? Does marriage conquer all?