Book name: The Abbey Girls at Home
Author: Elsie J Oxenham
Genre: School stories, vintage children’s fiction
Publication Date: 1946
Star Rating: 4/5
A stalwart of girls’ stories from the years that saw Angela Brazil and Elinor Brent-Dyer produce an array of boarding-school fiction, Elsie J Oxenham was best known for the Abbey Girls series, which produced 38 books in all.
The Abbey Girls at Home was published in 1929, although my edition is the 1947 reprint from Collins complete with dust jacket.
Betty McLean has felt lost and lonely since leaving school and enduring the death of her twin sister. She feels like half of her is just missing.
Her married sister Chris is determined to take Betty out of herself, so she offers a car to take Betty to visit her own friend Jenny Robins, who everyone calls Jenny Wren.
Betty is reticent about going to visit a house in mourning because Jenny is staying with the Marchwoods, and young Lord Marchwood has recently died. However, her sister insists.
As Betty is leaving the Marchwood home after a successful visit, the car swerves to avoid two girls on bicycles who have already met with an accident. The car thankfully avoids the girls, but Betty is seriously injured.
The opening to The Abbey Girls at Home was bleak indeed, with the doctor worried for Betty’s life and the poor girl undergoing surgery to relieve pressure on her organs that may jeopardise her recovery.
We are used to seeing boarding-school fiction build up to many a cliffhanging danger, but less accustomed to seeing a story begin with serious threat to life. Elsie J Oxenham hits us with it almost rightaway.
The initial response from the young married women at Marchwood Abbey is one of utter horror, as well it might be. Jen is recently married to the new heir, Ken.
Joy is still recovering from the death of her husband, Andrew, Ken’s brother, and from giving birth to twin daughters.
She also has the welfare of her adopted daughters, Ros and Maidie, to consider. Both feel overwhelmed by the additional calls on their resilience represented by nursing Betty.
Notwithstanding the dangerous start and the genuine threat to Betty’s life, The Abbey Girls at Home is less of an action story but more of a psychological exploration about how two young married women rise to the challenge of caring for others and maintaining their own resilience in the face of constant demands upon them physically and emotionally.
I was fascinated by Elsie J Oxenham’s presentation of the inner life of women old enough to have left school and married, but still young and inexperienced.
The household is entirely female: Andrew has died and Ken is out in Africa setting matters right there for the family before returning to Marchwood to be with Jen.
The Abbey Girls at Home wasn’t really a school story in that only Ros and Maidie are of school age, they are day pupils and their school experiences are described but not seen directly in the most part. Instead, the story is an extension of boarding-school fiction into home life.
The all-female environment feels very familiar and comfortable from boarding-school stories, as is the determination of the young women to step up and not be found wanting. The psychological focus, rather than one on physical action, did feel very different but I really enjoyed The Abbey Girls at Home.
There was a perfectly well constructed development of the boarding-school story into domestic life, and the absence of older women and men was very carefully established.
Jen is a thoroughly likeable character, and Joy a source of inspiration with her developing resilience and determination to remain strong and put others first. Betty grows as a person, too, though the main focus is on the sisters in law, Jen and Joy.
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