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The Abbey Girls on Trial: Elsie J. Oxenham Collins (between 1949 and 1951)

I found myself reading the first few chapters of this book with more interest than I’d expected, given the last few Abbey Girls books that I’ve read, but this one, apparently first published in 1931, felt a tad fresher. A lot happens to Rosamund in it, part of which will be mentioned in the epic introductions she makes in later books (“and this is so and so who we also call Queen X for Hamlet Club reasons and she’s Y’s ward/cousin and my adopted sister/niece” or whatever) that I don’t think I fully grasped before.

It certainly wasn’t without its faults, sometimes typical EJO thins, like characters having to discuss nearly every single action, reaction or plan in detail, and Jen or Mary-Dorothy having to explain other people’s feelings and the motivations for their behaviour to Joy, Rosamund or Maidlin. There’s also the bias of the Abbey girls’ relationships with each other being the most important ones – one character’s death is treated as an aside, even if the lack of impact is rationalised.

[From this point on, I’m going to mention events from throughout the book.]

At the heart of the book is Rosamund leaving the Hall for good and the damage her leaving home and a misunderstanding wreaks on her friendship with Maidlin. Although in this story Rosamund acquires new relations through her father’s ill-advised marriage to a woman scarcely older than Rosamund, they don’t count in the same way and I have a feeling I’ve never come across them in the later books that I own, whereas Roderick, her half-brother born towards the end of this story, does. Actually, the positive depiction of the Abbey girls’ relationship with the next generation, mainly their progeny, is interesting because most of them have dead parents they weren’t close to.

But that doesn’t explain what happens in the book properly. The story begins with a huge coincidence. Sisters Audrey and Elspeth Abbott run a charming and popular tea shop called the Squirrel House, or rather, Audrey, the eldest sister, runs it. Elspeth is still a teenager and a dreamer who doesn’t do her share. Audrey has been hoping their middle sister Eleanor will return from a trip with friends to Ceylon and help pick up the slack. Instead, Eleanor writes to inform them that she has married a man who is old enough to be her father, chiefly so that she can stay in Ceylon. He is infatuated; she is not. Her sisters are very disappointed and Elspeth realises that Audrey needs for her to buck up.

Now, on the very day that all this happened, Joan, Rosamund and Maidlin turn up at the Squirrel House to share news of Jen’s first daughter, Rosemary Jane. Maidlin makes an unfortunate remark to Elspeth and Rosamund has to make things all right, putting the Abbey girls on terms of more intimacy with the ‘squirrel girls’ than would normally be the case.

And then Rosamund receives her own letter from Ceylon, informing her that her father, three years after her mother’s death – after thirty years of marriage – has married a ‘beautiful girl’, not that much older than Rosamund herself. It is quite a shock, especially as 22 year old Rosamund has been putting her future on hold, expecting to tend to her father when he returned home, even though she wasn’t looking forward to it.

Well, of course, the obvious solution is for Rosamund to join forces with her aunts by marriage, allowing her to set up her dream shop of handicrafts made by talented people who wouldn’t otherwise have a place to sell them. Joy is horrified at the waste of Rosamund’s education and that her adopted daughter would want to leave her. There is an element of horror that Lady Bountiful’s adopted daughter would want to work in a shop! Maidlin, 21, but going on a young 17, is aghast that her greatest friend is leaving their home, but wiser heads see that Rosamund hasn’t got a pursuit or ‘job’ of her own at the Hall and needs scope for her ambition and energies.

The trial is because of Maid’s reaction, and Joy taking her side against Ros, while Jen and Mary Dororthy are away. It gets resolved, but a breach was inevitable as Rosamund was growing up and branching out, even though Maidlin wasn’t ready to see it (like Jen, I have more sympathy for Rosamund).

The new Mr and Mrs Kane are unsympathetically drawn – he has never made an effort to get to know Rosamund, whom he calls ‘Rosie’ as if she were a child still, and Mrs Kane is a shirker. When he dies, Rosamund scarcely grieves and is quite sure (with proof to back her up) that she will be best able to look after young Roderick.

There’s a brief reference to turning to God for help when takers take and take (that’s young Maidlin, and Elspeth to a lesser degree, because she isn’t an Abbey girl or a member of the Hamlet club and doesn’t count as much?) from givers like Rosamund.

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