Saturday, 5 March 2011

Oxenham and Whitby and Saltburn

However, “Finding her family” (1915) is very clearly tied to real places that Elsie J. Oxenham found exciting and interesting. An Oxenham fan declared of this story that the “plot and the action go all over the place but I love it.” In fact another literary standby, familiar even nearly 100 years ago, the babies swapped at birth, provides the framework for this book with a very complicated plot. However, there is nothing like a quest with false leads and misunderstandings and dramatic revelations for putting an emotional hook into the dedicated reader. Once again the author makes many attempts at simulating a Yorkshire accent with the frequent use of “champion” to establish the dialect of the more humble and even the middle-class characters in the book. Rather patronisingly, people from the “south” are shown to find this manner of speech to be outlandish and queer and a suitable subject for mockery. However, landmarks like St. Hilda’s Abbey at Whitby and the little harbour at Sleights had clearly both captured the author’s affection and stimulated her imagination so that they became the locations for suitable scenes at crucial moments in the story line of the great search. The Whitby connection is explored again when three of the young characters organise a pageant on the beach at Saltburn, which celebrates the story of the famous abbey in order to raise money for the charitable Beach Missions.
Further details also confirm this sense of the story happening in a real place. The Allerby family live in reasonable circumstances in Amethyst Street, a suggestion of one of the many streets still named after precious jewels in Saltburn today and, again very plausibly, one of the sons goes to school in Middlesborough. There are also many railway and cart journeys round the moors near Saltburn and Whitby which members of the modern Abbey Club have attempted with some success to reproduce.
The length and longevity of her “Abbey” series which actually began to germinate around about the time Elsie J. Oxenham was penning these three Yorkshire stories owes much to regular features which are only partly suggested in these early tales. Music and Morris dancing, girls growing up and finding partners in marriage, problems with money and snobbery, difficult moral and religious questions and above all an intricate network of friends and relations, all play their part in creating the author’s continued appeal. Her drawing power, even more than 40 years after her death, should not be underestimated and it is a sobering thought that in order to obtain a first-class edition of the three books which constitute the subject of this account you would need to contemplate an outlay of at least one thousand pounds. Your money, however, would be very safe, for you would be very unlikely to find someone willing to part with them even at that extraordinary price. Such is the grip of this strange domain over those who have fallen under its spell.

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