Elsie Jeanette Dunkerley, was an English girls’ story writer, who took the name Oxenham as her pseudonym when her first book, Goblin Island, was published in 1907. Her Abbey Series of 38 titles are her best-known and best-loved books.
Oxenham is considered by collectors of British Girls’ Fiction to be one of the ‘Big Three’; the other two being Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. Although Angela Brazil is the first name to come to mind for non-specialists, she did not create long series as the other three did, and in terms of collecting and interest Brazil is less popular than they are.
Oxenham was not the most prolific of these three, as she had 87 titles published during her lifetime (and a further two were published by her niece, who discovered the manuscripts among Oxenham’s papers in the 1990s) whereas Brent-Dyer published 100 books of various kinds. Nearly forty of Oxenham’s books comprise the main Abbey Series, with another thirty or so in several connecting series and the remaining twenty – some in small series of their own, and some isolated titles – having no connection with the Abbey books at all. During the 1920s to the 1950s she had several short stories, and some longer serialised ones, published in Annuals such as the Girl’s Own Annual, British Girl’s Annual, Little Folks and Hulton’s Girls’ Stories. Some of these stories were connected to the books – ie dealt with characters from one of her books or series – others became books, or sections of books, that were published a year or two later.
Oxenham is best known for her Abbey Series which chart the lives of the main characters from their mid-teens until their daughters reach a similar age. The Hamlet Club, formed in the first book in the series, Girls of the Hamlet Club, was set up to combat snobbery in the school. Underlying the club’s overt activities of folk-dancing and rambles was its motto ‘To be or not to be’, and its badge, the Whiteleaf Cross. These were both symbols of deeper meanings. The motto, deliberately using a quote from the Shakespeare play Hamlet is taken to mean to make the right choice, usually duty above self-interest, when it arises. Throughout the Abbey Series the various main characters come up against this choice and its consequences, and are shown growing and maturing through making difficult decisions. The badge, taken from a landmark local to the area in which the series is set, is also symbolic—as is any cross—of sacrifice.
The Abbey of the series is almost a character in itself. Based on Cleeve Abbey in Somerset, it first appears as a romantic ruin in the second of the series The Abbey Girls. By the end of this book, the cousins Joan and Joy Shirley are living in Abinger Hall, in the gardens of which the Abbey is situated. Joy has been discovered to be the granddaughter of the late owner, Sir Antony Abinger, and the Hall is left to her, but Joan, who was not related to Sir Antony, has been left the Abbey “Because of [her] love for it, and because [her] knowledge of it was so thorough.” The Abbey and its influence pervades the whole series. Characters try to live up to the precepts of the early Cistercian monks who lived there, and even when facing difficult situations abroad, find that the Abbey ethos helps them find the way through to the right decision.
Oxenham depicted herself directly and indirectly in several places within the Abbey Series. As “The Writing Person” she is depicting herself as she was in the early 1920s, over 40 years of age and going to the folk dance classes run by the English Folk Dance Society in London. Once Mary-Dorothy Devine, first introduced in The Abbey Girls Again becomes a writer, statements she makes about the writing experience must logically be those of Oxenham herself. She talks of “finding” the books, and of “listening in to [her own] private wireless”. Some fifteen years later according to the internal chronology of the series, and nearly thirty years later in real time, Mary-Dorothy advises Rachel Ellerton, a younger writer who has been trying to get her adult fiction published, to try writing for children:
“…my books are for girls, not for grown-ups, but I’ve felt it worth while to write them … I’ve never dared to think I could help grown-ups; I doubt if I could even amuse or interest them. But it has seemed worth while to try to influence girls and children for good, by amusing them and catching their interest. Girls are the grown-ups of the future. They may keep something of what is put into them while they are fresh and receptive. I’ve believed it was more worth while to write for them than to try to write novels.”
This statement, from near the end of Oxenham’s writing career, seems to convey Oxenham’s own writing credo. It is quoted in its entirety as one of the few insights Oxenham gives into her own reasons for writing. In her very first book, Goblin Island, published nearly fifty years earlier, and written in the first person, Jean, the narrator, says,
“Being an author’s daughter, of course I tried to write stories too. I knew all about father’s books and helped with many of them, and I always longed to write a book of my own. When I met the Colquhouns I was writing a novel, but it was a secret even from father, for I was very shy about it. But before long my interest in the children … grew so strong that I left the novel alone. I watched the story of Peggy Colquhoun and Somebody Else to the very end, and it seemed to me that instead of trying to write a novel I might make a story out of the things I had seen really happening.”
This would indicate that her own start in writing was similar; it is certainly known that she typed up the writings of her father, John Oxenham a task later taken on by her sister Erica Dunkerley, who also used the pseudonym Oxenham for her published writings.