huskyteer had a great find at the weekend and presented me with a copy of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Make Friends, one of the harder to find books by Elsie J. I was keen to read it to get the back story of Robinetta (Robin) Brent. EJO had a habit of mixing characters from different series and Robin appears in several later books. I don’t have most of those so followed up with the end of Robin’s story in Robins in the Abbey. Robin is twelve in the first book, published in 1909 and twenty when she meets the Abbey crowd in 1947; her transition from Edwardian schoolgirl to post-war young woman is seamless, if ridiculous. Reading these two books back to back was an excellent idea as it demonstrated perfectly why EJO’s early books are so enjoyable while her late ones make you want to scream.
Robin Brent lives with her mother and two brothers while their father is abroad. One day, she receives a solicitor’s letter telling her that she has inherited the estate of Plas Quellyn in North Wales. It turns out that the late owner, the artist Robert Quellyn, had once been in love with Mrs Brent, had made the will in favour of her daughter and never changed it. When the family travel to Wales to visit the estate they find a delightful spot but trouble in the form of young Gwyneth. She had been unofficially adopted by Robert Quellyn and his wife and is now left with nothing. As a result, she refuses all overtures of friendship from the Brents and hides herself away. Gwyneth is a good example of EJO’s tendency to excuse inexcusable behaviour. Theft? Attempted murder? Gwyneth is guilty of both but is just silly and naughty, apparently. All ends well, as you’d expect, and the book is very enjoyable apart from a ludicrous set-to with some would-be burglars. EJO excelled at writing about place and the descriptions of Wales are really beautiful. She was also very good at writing about boys. Robin’s brothers Cuthbert and Dicky are believable and there’s a lot of lively dialogue. It’s a pity she stopped writing this sort of family story and limited herself to writing about girls.
Little ‘Abbey books for dummies’ here. Once upon a time there were two girls called Joy and Joan Shirley. They were cousins but so alike they were taken for sisters. They lived with Joan’s mother, acting caretaker at the Abbey, and were poor. One day an elderly gentleman named Sir Anthony Abinger spotted them dancing together and was very taken by the picture they made. When he died, he left the Abbey to Joan and the Hall to Joy. This is all told in The Abbey Girls. The girls lived in the Hall until Joan’s marriage. Joy was soon joined there by Jen Robins (Jenny Wren), Rosamund and Maidlin. These four are the core Abbey Girls, whose adventures, loves and eventual children (providing the next generation of girls) fill a long series. What happened to Joan? The trouble with Joan is that she’s nice; clever, kind, generous. Joy, on the other hand, is nasty; selfish, arrogant, manipulative. EJO preferred to write about the nasty girl, so poor Joan was banished, although she turns up every now and then. Folk dancing is central to the stories and acres of print are taken up with the election each year of the Queen of the Hamlet Club, her clothes, colours, flowers etc.
By the time of Robins all four girls are married, Joy for the second time, and competing with each other to see who can have the most children (yes, really). The start of the book shows Joy at her nastiest. She is returning from New York with her husband, Sir Ivor Quellyn (aha!) when her children’s governess befriends Robin. Joy refuses even to meet her, because she thinks Ivor should have had Plas Quellyn so that their sons could inherit it. Then, when Robin hears that her father has been badly injured in a plane crash and that her mother is flying out to him, Joy turns all lady bountiful, inviting her to stay and organising travel for her. That’s how she goes on, making people want her to like them, so that they become worshippers along with the rest.
So poor Robin visits the Abbey. Instead of getting a polite welcome, a feed and a bed, she finds herself thrown at once into a babel of girls, babies, queens, colours and constant references to people she’s never heard of. This happens to everyone who arrives at the Abbey. Instead of saying, ‘who are these madwomen?’ and demanding a car to the station so they can dash back to the real world, they get drawn in and become part of the ever-expanding Abbey community. Now Robin’s life becomes complicated because yet another previously unheard of Quellyn has travelled back with Joy and Ivor. Rob Quellyn is gifted as both a musician and an artist and trying to decide which career to concentrate on. The two Robins are immediately attracted to each other but refuse to acknowledge it. The main plot concerns Rob’s overcoming his fear that people will say he married to get the old family estate back. The rest is padding with interminable descriptions of births, babies, dancing, queens and so on and so on for another six books. It’s absolutely astonishing that EJO managed to spin out this one idea for so long. Even more astonishing that people read the books; but we do.