Joy Shirley – Earth Mother or Principal Boy?

I have only now – after thirty years! – got the unabridged version of The New Abbey Girls. I had just finished rejoicing in it,  when my eye  was drawn to a recent review of Joanna Trollope’s latest novel. In  it, Emma Tristram reports that Trollope has  put  a self-imposed constraint, or censorship, on what she shows us of her  characters’ private lives, and goes on to say that Trollope

“… is rejecting a colourful part of the spectrum of possibilities now available to writers – a part which can help connect the emotional journeys of their characters to the physical world.”

I was much struck by how this criticism appears to sum up the destruction of the original NAG by the editors of the Children’s Press edition. Tristram is reminding Trollope of the freedoms given to contemporary writers who no longer have to consider questions of ‘impropriety’. Paradoxically, the excisions in the CP edition of NAG, are largely chunks of the intensely emotional interaction both verbal and physical between the girls, especially Joy and Maidlin.

In the nineteen-sixties, such exchanges would have been thought mawkish and possibly even unseemly by the knowing schoolgirls of the day. In other words, in the second half of the 20th. century there was less resource available to a writer concerned with her characters’ Soul-Adventure, rather than more. Actually, the whole psychological ambience of the original simply reminds me of L. T. Meade’s. But that is to trace a literary influence, rather than to say that social mores, have undergone any world-shaking change – though manners certainly had, by  the sixties, to take one instance a reluctance to invade another’s personal space. The pendulum is gradually swinging back ….

One of L. T. Meade’s persistent themes is the mothering of younger girls by their schoolgirl seniors, and even on one occasion, the mothering of a small boy, he of “the little brown hand”, Ralph in The Little School Mothers. This happens in EJO too. Those of us who have read the whole Abbey canon know that mothering is what always passes between Joy and Maidie and underpins their relationship from start to finish. EJO says of Joy:

“If responsibility had been wakened in her on the day when she believed Jen lay dying through her carelessness, the mother-instinct to protect and help woke when Maidlin lay sobbing in her arms.”

All of that is missed out in the CP edition, together with a good deal of self-insight on Maidie’s part, which she articulates at length to Joy (and us!). Eventually, in the chapter “Ros and Maidie” EJO gives us:

“Joy lay long that night, thinking of Maidlin, with new and growing respect for her clear-sighted little brain, the logical powers she showed, and the courage and decision with which she had uttered and acted on her conclusions.”

This valuable commentary, together with extensive sections of philosophical debate on the ethics of social responsibility, are ruthlessly excised by the CP.

I can well understand how the editors might consider so much philosophising to be tedious for schoolgirls who could possibly be expected to latch on to these ethics from the action, from plot itself – but the short comment (short enough to leave in, surely?) on Maidlin’s complex character, above, saves us from concluding that she is merely a picturesque hysteric with a nice voice. Clearly, it was important to EJO that we don’t go away from the book with that false impression. Joy has to learn as much from Maidlin as Maidlin learns from Joy.

One theme runs through the whole series very strongly – that of styles of clothing and how those not only change our appearance –  obviously –  for better or worse,  but change how we feel, who we are even, not only for the duration of our wearing them, but perhaps to a certain extent for the rest of our lives. Gym slips transmogrify grown women into schoolgirls again, Queens’ ceremonial dresses transform (sometimes awkward) adolescents into something dignified rare and exquisite. Maidlin starts to blossom when Jen and Joy persuade her to choose exciting colours when she is kitted out for her new life. Some of this is touched on in the abridged CP, but when we note that the chapter “The Pixie and the Club” was cut down from fourteen pages to four, it is obvious that a large number of the points made originally by EJO must have been simply thrown away. This perhaps wouldn’t have mattered  if the ideas left had gained strength, through pruning, but this is by no means the case.

In fact, the person who is most bereft of her strength is Joy. At various significant times in the story, Joy appears en travestie (it is a marvel to me that Aunty lets her get away with it). In ‘The Novelette Girl” she returns from driving Madam down to Wycombe in Belinda’s sidecar. This is how she makes her entrance:

“Joy tossed her motoring cap into the sidecar with her big gloves, and came stalking in in her leather coat and breeches. ‘ Come and undress me, Jenny-Wren!”‘

In the CP edition all we get of that is: “Joy came stalking in in her leather coat and breeches.” Well, at least we still have her “stalking”, much as the divine Garbo does in “Queen Christina” . .. .

Next, in “Consulting the Pixie”, Jen and Joy go to London in the new acquisition, a little open-topped car, as they have masses of flowers to accommodate. “Jen was warm-and picturesque in a round fur cap and big coat.. . .” (then there is a  description of the sleety weather).

“Joy, in her leather chauffeur’s suit, cared nothing for any kind of weather; she would have gone through the storm gaily on Belinda’s exposed saddle. She, too, had a big coat over the leather jacket and breeches she always wore on her cycle, and with a cap fastened under her chin could face any gale.”

None of this survives the abridgement, not even the allusion to Jen’s charm. We can imagine these girls as dowdy as we like, bent on their Good Works. Surprisingly, though, the editors retain Jen’s admiration of “Joy’s strong hands gripping the wheel.” Perhaps these CP people weren’t quite so sophisticated as they thought they were.

When the girls go to spend an evening with Jacky-boy, again Joy is wearing her big leather coat, and again her CP editors ruthlessly divest her of it, even though it saves only seven words! It is at this point that even the most inattentive reader might wonder – ‘why change it? ‘

In “The Heiress in the Pulpit” Joy decides to have Maidlin to stay after all.

“As soon as lunch was over, and Joy had changed from her leather suit to more usual costume – a pretty brown house-frock to be correct – she slipped on her coat and went bareheaded through the garden to the abbey, to have her talk with Ann.”

Again, the CP see fit to deprive us of a flash of the androgynous Joy. They change this to:

“As soon as lunch was over, and Joy had changed. she slipped on her coat and went bareheaded through the garden to the abbey, to have her talk with Ann.”

To be fair (though it goes against the grain) to the CP editors, a brown “house-frock” wouldn’t have meant much to nineteen-sixties youngsters, but that clause in parenthesis could just have been left out. Why did the biking gear have to go as well?

It is even more interesting (since Joy has an admiring and impressionable audience on this occasion) that when Joy goes to pick up Rosamund at the school, she isn’t allowed by CP to wear her chauffeur’s leather suit and cap.” This is changed to “wearing her suit and no hat,” thereby in terms of concision, saving only one word! However, this is probably the most symbolic change of Joy’s garments by CP yet. A sixties suit was a very respectable, distinctly dull, everyday part of one’s wardrobe – we couldn’t even yet wear trousers or a mini-skirt with it without bringing the wrath of our elders upon us! The only concession to walking on the wild side that is given to Joy here by CP is dispensing with a hat. Yes, this a conventional Lady of the Manor would have worn to go into town – or perhaps a headscarf tied under her chin to keep her hair tidy. Anyway, she has been rendered much less of an eyeful for Rosamund’s envious friends – and above all, for EJO herself. And us, of course.

“A Morris Pipe and a Pixie” is another drastically  cut chapter –  from twelve pages to three. A great deal of discussion about the value of the YMCA and the “great men” who gifted the Settlement Club to the slum dwellers  is left out –  no loss to me, all that! Also, a good deal of the technical lore of folk dancing is removed, and although I am no dancer, this seems regrettable in view of its being a major theme. But most of all I miss the following vibrant passage:

“The boys were eyeing Joy’s leather suit. One, a true Londoner, quite untroubled by shyness. asked in a tone of respect, ‘Drive a car, miss?’  Joy  gave him a swift radiant smile. ‘Yes just a little one. But she goes very well.”‘

The rest of the passage is fascinating, in terms of the gallantry offered by one of the young men, to which Joy doesn’t respond with the aloof resentment that one might have expected of her. And I don’t remember anyone else receiving a radiant smile from Joy, either, anywhere else in the canon …

The last two chapters of NAG are packed with descriptions of clothes – mostly the dance dresses, and how gender is registered through the mere donning and doffing of plain white caps. A great deal of this is jettisoned by CP of course. But the main purpose of these chapters is to provide a backdrop for a vital turn in the Abbey drama- that of Andrew Marchwood’s desire for Joy. Joy says:

“She’ll [Lady Marchwood will] think I’m always dodging about in weird garments, considering she saw me first in my tunic and then the other day on Belinda, in my helmet and goggles and gaiters! But perhaps she didn’t recognise me that time; the man did, though! I saw his look.”

It is his “look” that irks her to the point of rudeness. In savage panic, the Wild Cat knows she is going to be corralled.  Up till  now,  in her own small society,  she  has always been Principal Boy. Let’ s hope that when the great explorer carried her off to Kenya,   she  was   allowed   to  wear   breeches.  I  think   probably,   yes,  as  he always seemed a very fitting mate for Traveller’s Joy. I wonder why EJO set her free again so quickly?

Dorothy Devlin