Discovering “The Lord’s Supper”

Stanley North was aged 28 when he made an imagined medieval manuscript of part of the Book of Common Prayer, “The Lord’s Supper”, the Communion service, in 1915. Its 150-odd pages became famous, in a circuitous way, when another of his illustrated manuscripts was given honourable mention in a famous series of “Girls’ Books” by Elsie J Oxenham. More below the fold, as one might say in the world of newsprint.


Stanley North, “Order of the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion”, 1915
The above title is also a link to a PDF which will usually open in a new tab and is downloadable.

The illuminated manuscript is archived in the USA, here:
The Pitts Theology Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

Page from "The Lord's Supper"
Page from Stanley’s Lord’s Supper

Stanley’s manuscript transcribes part of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), or Common Prayer. It seems to follow the version ordained by Elizabeth I’s parliament in 1571 and aimed at settling the rows following the Reformation and her father Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England. That’s the version of Common Prayer (published by Eyre and Spottiswood for the SPCK) which was around in 1913. But that may not be the exact version of the BCP which Stanley worked from: there were several revisions, especially one in 1662.
(See Wikipedia on the Thirty-nine Articles.)

I have no clue as to the life of Stanley’s “Lord’s Supper” except that it found its present home when the Pitts Theology Library bought it on 3 October 1989 from the bookseller Brian Carter whose address was 18D Newlun Hall Street, Oxford, OX1 2DW. Brian Carter was a regular supplier to the library.

The Abbey Girls, Stanley’s manuscript and Helen Kennedy North

Knowledge of Stanley’s “The Lord’s Supper” (1915) came to me from Clare Pascoe, an Australian fan of the “Abbey Girls” series of books (1914-1959) by Elsie J Oxenham (1880-1960). Much of what she told me, and the trail to Stanley’s artwork, was a revelation to me.

At least a couple of the books refer to Stanley including The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922) but especially, The New Abbey Girls (1923).
Free download:
NB: This is a legal server, operating under Canadian copyright rules.

The New Abbey Girls appeared in the period from 1920 when Stanley North married his second wife, Helen Kennedy, a big figure in the English Folk Dance & Song Society (EFDSS). The couple became Helen Kennedy North and Stanley Kennedy North, itself a progressive move. Their names do not appear in the Abbey Girls stories, though at least one of the series was dedicated to Helen Kennedy North. HKN appears in the series fictionalised simply as “Madam” and SKN simply as “Husband” (definitely hers). He is characterised as producing illustrated manuscripts as a work of love and craftsmanship, in the monastic tradition. Stanley was in real life a dedicated fan of EFDSS work, playing the Northumbrian “small pipes”, illustrating a book of songs dedicated to Cecil Sharp, the movement’s leader, and dancing very vigorously, the last characteristic appearing in The New Abbey Girls. The couple is also depicted in TNAG as creating a unique décor for their West End London flat (in line with SKN’s known craftsmanship in furniture-making).

At some point recently, Clare pursued the link from the known Helen Kennedy North, as “Madam”, to her known husband Stanley Kennedy North (“Husband”). She then searched “Stanley North + manuscript” online and got to the 1915 manuscript in one or two clicks. It had never occurred to me to make such a search. On every count I am very grateful for this new information and not least about the novels which I didn’t know at all and have only lightly index-hopped even now.

Actually, though, Stanley did the “Lord’s Supper” manuscript several years before the work referred to in The New Abbey Girls. It is true, though, that early in his marriage to Helen, Stanley did produce the sort of manuscript referred to in The New Abbey Girls, namely an iteration of the medieval “French love poem”of the story: it is “Aucassin and Nicolette”, which was enjoying a vogue at the time. Coincidentally, Clifford Bax also did a retelling of the French story (though I don’t think that is the text SKN followed in his illustrated manuscript). I don’t know how Stanley and Clifford’s life became intertwined. But I do know that Stanley also comes to life in another work of fiction: Clifford Bax’s novel, Many A Green Isle (1927) depicting the artist’s first marriage, to Vera Rawnsley.

The Abbey Girl novels were about a group of youngsters in a boarding school and their life afterwards as young adults. We meet Cicely whose story imparts special meaning to her co-founding The Hamlet Club. There is also an important element of what we now call “positive thinking” and the club’s motto was, “To be or not to be”. It emphasises the importance of making a right choice (the self-sacrificial one) when confronted with a dilemma. But it has elements of do-or-die, as well. Its ethos is also redolent of the Campfire movement for girls, which the Oxenham family espoused. (I rather doubt that Stanley was all that good at ardent joining-in.) The fictional school was near a ruined abbey, based on Cleeve Abbey, Somerset, a Cistercian monastery until Henry VIII’s Dissolution. The idea of monastic life, including the monks’ production of illustrated manuscripts, exerts considerable influence over some of the group. As schoolgirls we see the Abbey Girls navigating peer-group pressure and snobberies which are familiar today. They go on rambles (including to the Abbey) and do country dancing to folk tunes. As thrusting young women in the post-war 1920s the group become Arts & Crafts modernists and proto-feminists, whilst nurturing careers and – some of them – finding husbands, whilst others prefer the sororiety. As the plot thickens across the series, the Abbey becomes even more important to them.

I have never seen any evidence that Stanley was religious. So I have no inkling why he undertook the considerable task of transcribing great swathes of the Common Prayer Book. It may be explained by the apparent dedication page of “The Lord’s Supper”: “GN to M [&] EN”. I have no idea what it means. “GN” bears no obvious relation to Stanley North, SN, as he was then. I can’t see any connection in what I know of SN’s life at that time to an “M” and “EN”. It is possible that SN was sponsored to do this work by a GN, and that it is GN’s connections that would give us M and EN. The clue may lie in Stanley’s relationship with the young Margaret Gardiner (in whose memoir he appears as a strong influence, affectionately remembered). But Stanley had a wide acquaintance and presumably many possible patrons. Anyway, Margaret’s account is that she couldn’t remember when she first met Stanley, except that it “must have been quite early in the war” (WW1).

It is interesting that across the 1914-1951 period of the series, not only did the fictional group of girls grow up but so did the readers who had been with them for decades. Presumably, too, the readership was augmented by a wide age-range of (mostly) female readers.



Clare Pascoe
It's been a pleasure to expand your knowledge of your grandfather, Richard, and to see your delight in the discovery of Oxenham's portrayal of his character and work. HKN (Madam) is also nicknamed "She Who Must Be Obeyed" and (after her marriage to SKN) "The Duchess"; yet despite what that says about the strength of her personality, Stanley was clearly a good match for her. I'd love to have known them. As the original Abbey Girls readers grew up, and after the death of Elsie Oxenham in 1960, there was a period when the books lost popularity and became difficult to obtain. But the forming of fan clubs in Australia and the UK, with sharing of the books and their introduction to the next generation of readers, led to enough of a resurgence of interest that Girls Gone By Publishers now exists to republish those books and others by authors of the same 'tween-wars vintage. My family never discards a book if they can help it, so my mother still had all her original copies. She introduced me to the Abbey Girls when I was around 9 or 10 years old, and I was hooked. What did I find so fascinating about them? Firstly, Oxenham draws characters well. The girls were all vibrantly real, and faced challenges with the kind of courage and integrity that seemed possible for me to emulate. Secondly, the folk dancing appealed to my musical side and my love of cultural history. Thirdly, the abbey itself had an almost-animate influence throughout the series, and I craved to walk through its peaceful cloisters; learn the differences between Norman and Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular; and see for myself the slype, aumbries, corbel beams, and other fascinatingly ancient things. In Australia - at least before the acknowledgement of Aboriginal construction marvels - "old buildings" meant, at most, a couple of hundred years old. A thousand years old was beyond my imagination! And I think it's those same elements which still appeal to newer and younger readers. Oxenham's faith shines through perhaps a shade strongly for our modern, less church-oriented society, but her matter-of-fact acceptance of lesbians, enthusiastic endorsement of young women having careers, and unhesitating portrayal of women as equal with their husbands are all remarkably contemporary. Moreover, courage, integrity, stability, and constancy never really go out of fashion; they're all good things to pass on to the next generation. In the end, music, friendship and beauty will always bind people together, just as they did Stanley and Helen.

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Publication date

08 March 2023


Mind & body; On art; On books