27 December, 2009

Books 35 - 40: Six (Girls Own) Geese a-layin'.

Seasons greetings! Currently I am in an awesome mood, because a. I got some seriously awesome stuff for Christmas (although sadly few books) b. I'm on holiday until January 5, which allows for some serious reading, and c. this is the view from my deck:

Awwww yeah. I currently have no plans for New Year's, either, so I'm planning on seeing in 2010 by reading as many books as I can in one night. Dorky and socially isolating, sure, but a lot less harrowing for the liver.

Title: Robins in the Abbey (1947)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham


Title: The New Abbey Girls (1923)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham


Title: Maid of the Abbey (1943)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham

Sometimes when you begin reading a new series of books you can start anywhere and pick up what's going on and who's who. The Abbey Girls is not one such series. I started with seventh-to-last book, out of thirty-eight books, and for at least the first three chapters I had no idea what was going on. The main character, one of the titular Robins, was easy enough to grasp. She's a young heiress travelling back to Wales from New York, by ship: when she receives news that her father, also overseas, has been in an accident, she's invited home by Lady Quellyn, who lives at the Abbey.

So far so good, right? Only when she gets to the Abbey the virgin reader - ie me - is confronted with characters by the names of Joy, Jean, Joan, Jandymac and Jen, all who seem to have several pairs of twins who are all named after each other; then there's Rosamund, whose daughters are all named some variation of Rose; as well as their first names, they're all Ladies or Countesses, and Joy used to be Lady Marchwood but she's now Lady Quellyn and Jen is Lady Marchwood; oh, and then they've all got nicnames, after flowers, so they're also called Primrose or Daisy or Hyacinth or Violet and I never knew who anyone was talking about.

Even amongst all this confusion, Oxenham's strengths shone through. Of all the writer of "Girls Own" stories - a term used to describe books written exclusively for girls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - Oxenham is probably the best known, besides Enid Blyton. Her characters, although not always incredibly complex, are still human: in Robins, the female Robin is impatient and frustrated when she realises she is in love (with a man who has the same name as her) yet she can't approach him because she's a woman, and you really get a sense of how a girl in her position must have felt. Oxenham also writes beautiful, vivid descriptions of her settings, whether it's the English Abbey or Robin's home in Wales.

The New Abbey Girls cleared up a lot of my confusion. It's book 13 in the series, and although it was severely abridged I finally got a handle on who everyone was and why they were so important. Particularly of interest were the scenes where Joy - at this point, neither Lady Marchwood nor Lady Quellyn - takes her new ward, Maidlin, to various folkdancing classes. Folkdancing seems to happen in every single book - as well as the crowning of a May Queen - but here, so early in the series, it seemed a lot more interesting and was better integrated with the story. Even if I'd never heard of any of the dances, it was still fascinating to read about. Sadly, my copy of this book was severely and noticeably abridged, which made the story jump all over the place.

Maid introduces two more characters, Anne and Belinda Belanne, who also appear in Robins. A sick Anne is invited to the Abbey along with her sister, who is delighted to find her idol, the singer Maidlin, lives there. When disaster strikes the Abbey in the form of measles, Anne takes over as cook, and Belinda become a nurse-slash-governess to Joy's twin girls. Maidlin is caught up in her own romantic drama - she's being wooed by a dear friend, but she's in love with his uncle.

The books are mostly light fare, although I'm given to understand that others in the series touch on deeper subjects, such as religion, and death and illness. Fun though, and surprisingly hard to put down.

Ruey Richardson: Chaletian (1960)
Author: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Cornelia of the Chalet School (2009)
Author: Jackie Roberts

Before the Chalet School: The Bettanys of Taverton High (2008)
Author: Helen Barber

Ruey Richardson doesn't settle in easily to the Chalet School. Until recently, her and her brothers were more or less looking after themselves, and she's used to going to bed whenever she likes, doing her homework whenever she likes, and has never given much thought to the way she looks or dresses. At boarding school, things are different, and even though her idea for the school to start playing lacrosse quickly brings her new friends, she has less luck with the teachers.

This is kind of an odd book. Brent-Dyer had been writing the Chalet School series for almost forty years at the point, and she kind of makes a conscience effort to modernise her plots. Ruey and her brothers haven't just been abandoned by their father for any old reason: he's a space-mad scientist hoping to fly to the moon. I am not even kidding, it is hilarious/ridiculous. The other odd thing is the lacrosse: there is literally a chapter on lacrosse theory, and it read almost exactly like a text book on the subject. I pretty much skipped that chapter, in case you're wondering.

The other two books I read in this series were, as you can see from my handy list, not written by the original author, which is something I'm not usually super keen on. Cornelia starts off pretty badly, too - Roberts seems to be trying to ape Brent-Dyer's style, and it just feel awkward and uncomfortable to read. The writing picks up later, though, and the story becomes quite interesting - Cornelia, a former Chalet pupil, is travelling back home to America with her millionaire father, on board a ship that includes a former Nazi officer and his wife, and old school-mate of Cornelia. During the war, Brent-Dyer emphasised that just because someone was "the enemy" it didn't make them evil, and Roberts does a good job of carrying this message one. The Nazi officer openly hates Jews, but his wife confides to Cornelia that she herself would have gone to a concentration camp for helping Jewish refugees if he hadn't intervened to save her. He's undoubtedly a terrible person, and yet he is still human.

Taverton High was much more in touch with the original series as far as actual content went. It follows the school's founding family before the founding, as a poor (but not so poor they can't afford a maid!) family of siblings dealing with a lack of funds, a guardian who is kindly but out of his depths, and a very ill little sister, who is painfully close to dying. The narrative focuses both on Joey, the youngest sister who despite being constantly sick is also constantly in and out of trouble: and Madge, the eldest sister, who in the absence of her twin brother is the one who has to try and make ends meet. Among other things, it's an interesting look at English village life during the Depression that followed the World War I.

Brent-Dyer still holds a special place in my heart that Oxenham can't possibly replace, but I'm still keen to read some more of her books. I'm ridiculously close to having read every single book in the Chalet School series anyway - when I finally have, I'll have to find something else to obsess over. Oxenham may be that something!


Eni said...

Your mention of Enid Blyton reminds me of the fact that I have just published a book on the writer, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com,www.amazon.com).
Stephen Isabirye

Sadako said...

Never heard of Oxenham, even though I totally grew up on Enid Blyton...really should check her out.