Allison Thompson’s Lighting the Fire: Elsie J. Oxenham, The Abbey  Girls, and the English Folk Dance Revival

lightfireAllison Thompson, a Pennsylvania-based writer, musician and dancer, has written a sharp little booklet that adds an interesting bit to the history of English country dance and its American cousin, contra dance.English country dance as it is known today came about as the result of a revival that began around 1900. Ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp and his followers revived the form by collecting dance information in villages around England and reintroducing them to the middle and upper classes.

In her booklet, Thompson discusses the work of Elsie J. Oxenham (1880-1960), an English novelist who wrote 40 books known as the “Abbey Girls” series which incorporated English country dance into their story lines.

Oxenham was a disciple of Sharp, and apparently greatly enjoyed folk dancing herself as long as she was physically able. Her Abbey Girls series (which was a sizable portion of the 90 books she wrote in her 80 years) was written for schoolgirls, and provides a glimpse of these girls’ lives and dance’s role in them.

Folk dancing is at least mentioned in all 40 books in the series, Thompson says, and it plays a key role in the plot of several. “In Oxenham’s descriptions, we can observe more about the kinds and styles of dances performed during the early years of the English folk dance revival. Certain novels contain a remarkable level of detail about dance style or Oxenham’s thoughts on how to teach certain dances.”

The books also touch on the personalities and politics of the folk dance revival, Thompson notes. Thinly veiled characters based on Cecil Sharp and a handful of his chief lieutenants appear in several of the books. And the action or dialog in the books frequently refers to teaching methods and other frequently controversial matters that were part of the revival.

From the excerpts offered by Thompson, it appears that Oxenham’s writing was somewhat precious and stilted in the Victorian manner. So while it offers an interesting window on the world of upper-middle class English country life, one cannot imagine many young girls of today being interested in Oxenham’s oeuvre. As such, Thompson has performed a valuable service by ferreting out the historically interesting information about the folk dance revival from this rather unlikely source.

This is a small booklet, paperbound, of 80 pages total. It includes three appendices that quote passages of Oxenham’s books, and a fairly extensive bibliography. Thompson’s writing style is clear and concise, and she presents her material in a logical manner.

This booklet would be an interesting addition to the library of any local folklore or dance group, or of any serious student or practitioner of folk dance. Copies are available from the Squirrel Hill Press.

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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