When I was six I bought a book at a jumble sale. It cost a penny and influenced the rest of my life. Not a classic, not a blinding light on the road to Damascus – I was only six after all – but a quiet book for girls, published in 1920. The title? ‘The Abbey Girls’ by Elsie J Oxenham, a prolific writer for girls and young women who produced around eighty books overall, nearly forty of which were sequels to the one I bought. The series came to be known as The Abbey Girls. (My copy wasn’t as posh as this picture of the first edition)
My granny and I were great jumble sale attenders, always on the hunt for a bargain, usually a book or three, and I must have been a precocious reader because from my next birthday and for years afterwards I was given an Abbey book for birthdays and Christmas. As my birthday is Christmas Eve, this meant a double helping and an orgy of reading over the holidays.
The Abbey Girls triggered my fascination with books written in the late Victorian, Edwardian and post-WW1 period and infected me with the collecting bug. Many of the books are set in schools but all are written with the aim of influencing young girls. Some, admittedly, are heavily on the side of the Twentieth Century miss as a potential wife and mother but many others – particularly after the war – emphasise the need for a worthwhile career and the fulfilment of a single life. And of course, plenty of them argue that both are possible. Influenced by these books I’m currently playing about with a cosy mystery set in 1918 featuring three intrepid young Twentieth Century girls!
What I didn’t know was that the Abbey of the books – set in Oxfordshire in the foothills of the Chilterns – was based on a real abbey. Elsie Oxenham picked up Cleeve Abbey, in the village of Washford in Somerset, and transplanted it to suit her story and she described it in such detail that you can walk round the real West Country ruins and recognise it. Apart, that is, from the features she invented for later books – the crypt, the secret passages, etc.
Since I found out, about thirty years ago, we’ve visited Cleeve several times but I was delighted when cousins retired to the village next to the abbey, a few years ago. And even more chuffed when I was invited to talk to the local women’s group about my own books last week. They were an appreciative audience who applauded and laughed in the right places, and had no idea I was channelling the Abbey Girl who became an author herself!
Other diversions while in Somerset included being brave enough to play with the resident Rottweiler, and believe me, that’s not something I ever thought I’d say! But the dog is daft and gentle anyway. It’s not easy to make out but the dog, having allowed me to tickle her armpits, was suggesting I should tickle her nether regions – never going to happen!
I also met some adorable and inquisitive Jacob sheep. This is Little Friend who is thinking about nibbling my friend’s jacket. He was originally the skinniest triplet but now resembles a woolly coffee table on legs.
The Deadly Dames have been out and about lately: a trip to Portsmouth in April was fun and so was our May outing to Bognor Regis. I’m not keen on driving to strange places at night so it was a train ride to Portsmouth and for the Bognor gig I hitched a lift with fellow Dame, Charlie Cochrane, which was great.
We’re booked in to Hythe Library on 13th September and have plans for further appearances, so if anyone wants a lively discussion on crime novels, we’re your women. Contact me as above.
Finally, with the assistance of my daughter, Liv, I now have a Pinterest account. I knew it would be fatally fascinating and so it’s proving, but I decided I’d like a board for each book, including the three works-in-progress. If you’d like to follow me, I’d be very happy to follow you too https://uk.pinterest.com/nicola8703/