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?

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