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, this 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.
Once you do an Abbey reread, you can’t stop. Though I was much more intrigued by the middle-aged spy drama happening in the background of this cover, and disappointed that it did not appear in the actual text itself, this was pleasant. Pleasant! It’s such an empty word and yet sometimes it’s full of everything that something actually is. I could not tell you what happened here, nor could I really remember who is who and what was what, but I can tell you that Mary-Dorothy is a cabbage, Joy remains a moron, the vaguest hint of something naughty (the smallest of things!) is presented as something akin to murdering a puppy, there’s an INTERMINABLE amount of dancing, and then there’s a bit more dancing, and a bit more, and then Maidie’s all I HAVE TO TALK TO JOY and Ros is all MAIDIE YOU MUSTN’T and Maidie is all BUT I HAVE TO ROS IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, and then everything is okay! We’re all friends! Let’s dance about it!
And yet, it’s really rather pleasant. There’s no other way to describe it. Pleasant!
(I am here to provide summaries of EJO’s entire oeuvre, you really only have to ask).
I have such a love-hate relationship with Elsie Oxenham. When I’m thinking about culling some books, hers are always the first that I look at and yet they’re still here. They’ve been in a bag a few times, and I’ve taken them all the way to the door on at least one occasion, but they’ve come back every time. And I think much of that staying power comes from how I’m increasingly beginning to realise that I find them a very peculiarly enjoyable form of ridiculous.
I mean, let’s take The New Abbey Girls. It’s a delight because it introduces Ros and Maidie, two of the more potent and well-rounded characters within the series. We’ll leave Ros’ adult fecundity out of the question for now. They are good characters. They work well with each other, and any book that talks about them is something that’s good in my eyes.
But then, as ever, there’s the ridiculousness. The amount of time Maidie pants in this book! “Maidline panted”; “Maidline panted” “Maidline panted.” I know she is an emotional and overwrought and Not Abbey Girl Material Just Yet at this point in time, but the panting! The actual panting! And when she’s not panting, she’s breathless and half-sobbing, or she’s gasping, and I know this is meant to convey her High Emotions, but it just makes her sound like a tool.
Oxenham’s exuberantly asthmatic speech-tags aside, this is a fairly standard Abbey book. We dance; Joy’s a muppet; we dance a bit more; Jen turns out to be the best; we have another dance; maybe a bun; everything’s cool. And it is ridiculous, but I do like it. Though it is ridiculous, there’s an odd comfort in it. The world can be solved by a bun, problems can be sorted by a dance, and the panting girl in the corner can Learn To Get A Grip. Like I said, ridiculous, but sometimes it’s nice to believe in that. Just a little. Just enough.
Delightfully nutty in the way that only turn of the century children’s literature can be, this starts as something quite typical and then escalates to quite the heights. Were I the sort of scholar to throw around labels in a willy-nilly sort of fashion, I’d label this as Mills and Boon meets Young Adult literature, but I’m not so I’ll settle for calling this dippy and loving it for that. Any book called A Girl’s Stronghold, (with six illustrations by Victor Proud no less), featuring nuns and devoted servants and brave and noble young women would never be the sort of story to mess about.
And it doesn’t. It races from Belgium to England to France; skirting around several wars, one inevitable parental death (as ever, these books do not refrain from knocking everybody off left right and centre) and at the heart of it rests our girl. She’s called Faith (who would have thought it!!!!!!!). She’s devoted to her father, but has A PAST. Honestly, I love how melodramatic these books can be. They have absolutely no shame about them, and about halfway through A Girl’s Stronghold, the plot goes absolutely off the rails. One sandwich short of a picnic. Two stops short of Dagenham. And it doesn’t care one bit. We get death, war (like – about seven? just sort of there?), a couple of beseiged cities, a case of GOSH DOESN’T THIS GIRL REMIND ME OF SOMEBODY ELSE IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER WHO, and it’s great. I thoroughly recommend it.
First published in 1885, ‘Us’ is a fairly typical piece of children’s literature for this age. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the upper classes are full of moral upstanding-ness and the lower classes (particularly gypsies) are the worst. They are prejudices of the time, and though I don’t excuse them in the slightest, it’s important to recognise that they exists and that they colour this book quite substantially. Having said that however, it’s also important to recognise that this is a ferociously well-written book. Honestly, I was surprised by how post-modern it felt at points; Mrs Molesworth engages in asides to the reader, ruminations upon the motives of the characters, and genuinely tells this story in such a fresh and dynamic manner, that it doesn’t feel like an 1885 kind of story at all.
The children, however, are tools. Forgive me, but I can’t describe them in any other manner. Everybody is besotted with their angelic ways and their fair appearance, but then the kids accidentally break a bowl, don’t confess, decide to buy a new one from the gypsies, and then get stolen by said gypsies, and really there’s nobody to blame but their own idiocy at this point. Of course there’s some social commentary at play here and some pointed moralising about how it’s best to confess to your sins otherwise you might be stolen by gypsies and sold to a circus man, but that’s all par for the course for the books of this era. They work to maintain the status quo, whether it’s right or wrong. (I was particularly amused, for example, that the Noble Gypsy Boy Who Helps Out The Tool Children gets the happy reward of being their servant).
Baby speech aside (forgive me, but if you write about “mouses” and “teef”, that will always make you lose brownie points with me), not everybody does this as well as Mrs Molesworth. Us was a real surprise and a solid, solid read.
Endlessly beautiful, in that way that only Hilary McKay can be, The Skylarks War is perfect. I thought it might be on page ninety-seven, and then when I finished it and let out a great gasping sob at that ending, I knew it was. This is rich, wild and lovely storytelling, and reading it is like reading something you have known your entire life. I wonder sometimes at how McKay can do this, and then I realise that I don’t need to wonder. I simply need to be glad that she can, and does, and that books like this are in the world.
It’s a big book as well, this, it doesn’t shy away from some hard and precise horrors in the world whether they are familial, and of individuals who do not know how to love their children or indeed, whether they can, or bigger, made of people fighting and dying in landscapes far away from home. This is World War One, and McKay does not shy away from its great and dark horrors. Some of her writing here is some of her best, I think, encompassing a curious mixture of numbness and truth and sadness and fear and honesty that makes the pages feel almost like a primary source. That they’re written from that time, from that space, from that darkness.
I am concious that I’ve not told you much about the book itself, and in a way I’m not sorry. I want you to feel the texture of it, that great depth that gives you so much in a single sentence, and does so in a way that only McKay can do. This is deep storying, and it is done in such an unafraid and simple and matter-of-fact way that makes it something else. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of family. It is a story about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world. It is a story about figuring out what the world will let you be.
But most of all, I think this is a story about love. Love for family, love for friends, love for each other, and a love of those summers where nothing is impossible. Love that brings pain and love that brings strength, love that brings hope and understanding and heartbreak and joy. Love that is love and love that is given freely, hopefully, tenderly, painfully. Love, love, love. Always love.
The Harriet of Harriet Takes The Field is Lady North and for some reason or another, she’s been lumbered with some ungrateful Guides. Inevitably she manages to turn things around, and they soon worship her in a rather Angela Brazil-esque fashion. Yet Christian manages to shy away from simplistic narratives of hero worship, and instead delivers something complex, deeply political and rather radical. It’s not often you have people discussing how women give birth in a 1940s children’s book for example. Of course the detail is skirted around, but the discussion is present. It’s such a radical, bold move.
These moments of radicalism persist throughout the book. As the war progresses about them, Harriet and her girls become increasingly present participants in a narrative of war and strife. Though much of it remains distant, Harriet herself suffers from the stress and is called up. Again, a lot of this happens off screen, but the effect of it is very much within the text. She’s moved to tears by a child confessing that he wasn’t alive during the last war; she talks to the girls about how to find security within themselves when all is lost, and the suffering of those in mainland Europe is foregrounded to a heartbreaking extent. England must survive, and everyone must do their part.
Much of this is directed towards the reader, and some of it has dated. That’s a caveat you must always apply to books of this nature, but equally you have to recognise those moments when it does something rather brilliant and rather utterly wonderful. There’s a lot of Harriet Takes The Field that slightly misses the moment, but every now and then it gets it. It really, really does. Take the below quote where Harriet muses on the teenagers that she knows:
“They’ve been fine,” she thought, “Fine, all of them. It isn’t for my generation to be proud of them. We’ve thrown our dice and lost. We had twenty years to build a wall against the floods, and we failed. Now these youngsters are fighting knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with us to save what can be saved. It isn’t for us to condescend to our peers.”