The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Her Books by Monica Godfrey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This isn’t a subtle biography by any means. It’s written from a very particular standpoint; one that I do accept, occasionally understand, but can’t ever describe as high literature. Godfrey is a fan, The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham is a fannish text, and Oxenham can do no wrong. And I am the first to point out where Girl’s Literature Of This Period was awesome and ground-breaking but I’m also, I hope, able to recognise when it’s the very definition of ridiculous….
In a series of chapters themed around topics (so not in the sense of a traditionally sequential biography), Godfrey explores issues such as Cleeve Abbey, Real People, and Publishing History; essentially, it’s a series of short essays grouped together in one volume. Which is fine! But! Oxenham! Is! Not! The! Second! Coming!
There are further problems, particularly in the chapter where Godfrey defends the books against common criticisms, and steadfastly ignores or denies all of them. She highlights how the books are often said to ‘hint at lesbianism’ (I’d say ‘reference it with the subtlety of a brick’ but perhaps that’s just my approach), writing that: “Does anyone really think that in the early part of the last century, an unmarried woman living in a very Christian home, surrounded by unmarried sisters, would have known what lesbianism was or meant?”. It’s a hell of a sentence and one that slides substantially away from any sort of objectivity. It also seems to stand at odds with my experience of EJO; that is to say somebody who embraces the power, strength and love to be found in women by women. Though it may never be labelled explicitly as ‘lesbianism’, I think it’s a reach to say that it’s totally absent from the texts. And a reach, I think, is me being super polite.
(Also, so what? Love is love and honestly, who cares? Read what you want into a book, it doesn’t impact my relationship with a text nor should it. I am here for you to read, and I want you to read, and the conclusions you come up – the readings that you have – are perfectly valid for you. Live and let live! Enough with being precious over texts! Enough with ringfencing meaning! Enough!)
However, I digress…
This is a knowledgeable text that, despite its flaws, clearly knows its topic. I learnt a lot about EJO here, and a lot that I honestly could do without. But it is a book written by a fan, and for fans, and it’s a rather fascinating thing. I don’t think it’s great but I do think it’s interesting. I also think it’s beyond time for a comparative biography of Brent-Dyer, Blyton, Oxenham, Brazil and Fairlie-Bruce.
*looks directly at camera*
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2 thoughts on “The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and her Books by Monica Godfrey”
It wasn’t bad, but I found it a bit naïve. IIRC, she went on about how it wasn’t very “Camp Firey” to charge high prices for rare EJO books, and how EJO wouldn’t have liked it. Maybe she wouldn’t, but booksellers have got to earn a living, same as everyone else, and things cost what people in a free market are prepared to pay for them! And I can’t believe that someone involved in the world of books hadn’t heard of The Well of Loneliness, even if she might not have been fully aware of same sex relationships before that – it was such a well-known book in the 1920s!
I think you’re right with that point about it being naive. It’s a very, very innocent biography and one which suffers from that. And yes re The Well !!