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‘The Pixie’ - Hilary Clare

[This is a revised and enlarged version of an article that first appeared in Abbey Chronicle No. 7, in January 1991. Copyright remains with the Author and with the Editor of the Abbey Chronicle, who assert their rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act, 1988]
We know far more about ‘the Pixie’ than we do about ‘Madam’, both in EJO terms and in real life, yet what we do know is only an incomplete and therefore tantalising picture.

‘The Pixie’ was introduced in The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922) and plays mentor to the Abbey Girls (mostly Joy and Jen) in the four following books: New AG (1923), AG Again (1924), AG In Town (1925) and Queen of AG (1926). She just gets a mention in AG Win Through (1928) but after that is dropped completely. Nancy Rowney largely takes her place in AG Win Through (1928) and after that the Abbey Girls themselves (mostly Jen) have to take on her advisory role to others. By 1931 and AG On Trial Rosamund has acquired a loom and has taken over supplying the others with hand-woven dresses, not to mention artistic bric-a-brac from The Rose and Squirrel. It does look very much as though the Pixie rebelled against being depicted by EJO, and that their friendship lapsed. No doubt all Abbey Chronicle readers are familiar with the ‘fictional’ Pixie (‘fictional’ because EJO seems to have drawn her very true to life), so I won't waste space by going over the details. What I have been able to discover of her ‘real’ life will, however, I think be of interest.

She was born on 23rd August 1884 at 108, Bramford Road, Ipswich, the daughter of Frederick Daking, a solicitor’s clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ashby. Her given names were Daisy Caroline, and it not quite clear what she was normally called. In a fragment of journal (of which more below) she refers to herself as ‘D’, suggesting that she was then known as Daisy, but later on she was receiving letters as Caroline and her death certificate called her ‘Caroline Daisy otherwise Daisy Caroline’. EJO dedicated The Abbey Girls Go Back to School jointly to her and Madam, but where Madam is Helen Kennedy North the Pixie is simply D. C. Daking. (EJO would of course have known her originally as ‘Miss Daking’ when she first met her in 1920, even though she was four years her senior; when I first went to college, nearly 50 years later, my contemporaries and I were introduced to each other as ‘Miss So-and-so’ - not that that lasted long!) Whether D. C. Daking was really called ‘the Pixie’ is debatable, but as the nickname was first given her not by any of EJO’s own characters but by ‘Miss Newcastle’ it is not impossible that some of her acquaintances did call her so.

Very little is known of the Pixie’s early life or education, but some family details are now known. She had one sister, Mary Olive (Molly), born on 28 June 1886, so not quite two years her junior. Although she was born in Ipswich she was brought up in Barnet, but tragically both parents died in 1888 within three months of each other, of TB - the Pixie was not quite four, her sister not quite two. The two little girls were brought up by their grandparents and by family friends, perhaps in Hadley Green, near Barnet, as the Pixie refers to it as home in the journal fragment mentioned.

What sort of schooling she had is unknown. In a negative way, as later on her jobs were not professional or demanding any particular qualification, we can deduce that she didn't have any further education; school of some sort seems likely, but we have no clue as to what or where. Nor, curiously, do we have any indication of where or when she learnt to dance! But by the summer of 1914, and probably for some time before that, she was teaching folk-dancing in Oxford under the aegis of the local branch of the English Folk-Dance Society, formed on 1st May 1912 under the leadership of Mrs Arthur Sidgwick, a don’s wife. In 1930 a reminiscence of that time recalled her as ‘London born, deadly efficient, three-feet high, with classes so huge she had to mount a high chair to conduct them. Professors and biologists vied for her instruction; rowing blues sat on her doorstep enquiring whether their left foot back shuffle was really coming on. The folk-dancers became a club, and gave moonlight picnics up the Cherwell.’
About this date her sister Molly married, but in another family tragedy died a fortnight after giving birth to a son in February 1914. The baby’s father emigrated to Canada, leaving the child in care; the Pixie had to take responsibility for him, but does not seem ever to have been able to have him living with her. This nephew continued to live in Oxford, but died some years ago; however his daughter has kindly given much information to EJO enthusiasts and enabled us to round out the Pixie’s story.

Her job in Oxford apparently finished at the end of the summer term 1914, and before going off to the North-East in September to start teaching there, she and a friend took an idyllic trip in a horse-drawn caravan from Oxford to Stratford-upon-Avon to join the EF-DS summer school, leaving on 27th July and arriving on 1st August. The poignancy of the journal - ‘The Log of the Fine Companion’ - is almost unbearable with its innocent pleasure in the English countryside, in friendship, and in folk dancing and music.

War or no war, however, the Pixie did go to Northumberland and Durham in Sep. 1914 and was still there the following May, based on Newcastle. We know that one of her pupils was ‘Miss Newcastle’, alias ‘The Advanced Certificate’ - known to be Catherine Ord, of Newcastle , who was granted her Elementary Certificate in 1919 - there is no record of her Advanced Certificate. Her opinion of the Pixie as a teacher is confirmed by the Branch Report in April 1915: ‘As to Miss Daking’s success, that may be attested by the compliment paid by one of her pupils: “Well, you'd never know she was from the South”, and that, in a North-country mouth, means much.’
What happened after Newcastle is not clear - or whether, indeed, she simply stayed there - but early in 1917 she was off to France as one of the Lena Ashwell Concert Parties to teach folk-dancing to the troops behind the lines. (Her address in March 1917 was the Hyde Institute, Barnet, Herts., but with no indication of why.) All official reports of her doings in France tally completely with EJO’s, so I won’t repeat the story now.

After the war and after being with the Army of Occupation, she was back in England, apparently flitting round the country teaching. From 1918 to 1926 she was on the Committee of the EF-DS. In 1919 her address was Oxford; in October 1920 she was teaching in Mansfield and in March 1921 (according to my calculations) she had to miss Joan’s wedding because she had a big party in Nottingham. It must have been about this time that she shared the flat in a street off Theobald’s Row (New AG) and was teaching at Plaistow, because soon afterwards her address is given as Highgate (even if it was the Hornsey end). By the middle of 1921 she was working in the shop in the West End making the famous hand-woven frocks without which no Abbey Girl’s wardrobe was complete (AG Again). She stayed in the same area, moving once, until 1928 when she was in Hampstead Garden Suburb, but in 1930 she was back in Bloomsbury. There is a gap then until 1935 when she was in Whitstable, but in 1936 she was in Euston Road and in 1937-8 in Argyle Square, just south of King’s Cross. In 1940 she was in Hyde Park Gate, but in 1942, at the time of her death, she was living in Oxford again as a ‘hostel's superintendent’. She seems to have taken whatever job she could get, sometimes as a cook, but apparently no longer as a dancing instructress. She became interested in another young boy, whom she virtually adopted - which led to understandable friction with her nephew - but he seems to have turned out a disappointment.

Clearly she had no settled home (the addresses above, incidentally, are mostly taken from the Journal of the EF-DS), and one must sadly deduce that her plans for her van (Queen of A Girls) did not materialise. The village where the van came to rest is Abinger Hammer, near Guildford; the van no longer exists, but a modern house may perhaps occupy its site.
Queen of A Girls also mentions relations - ‘Uncle and Aunt’ ; these seem to have been family friends, of the name of Maxwell, who adopted the Pixie and her sister when they were left orphans. It is not known what happened to them, but it seems probable, given their presumed age, that they died before the Second World War.

Sadly, the Pixie’s end was quite out of the character which EJO depicts and which tallies with the tone of her journal. On 10th May 1942 she died in Charing Cross Hospital of Lysol poisoning, self-inflicted, reputedly in the ladies’ lavatory in Charing Cross Station. It seems so unlike the Pixie we know to have given way to despair that there is clearly some major factor unknown to us. Had she lost some relative or close friend in the War? Was enduring a second World War simply too much for her, particularly as her offers to repeat her exploits of the Great War had been kindly but firmly rejected? We shall probably never know the answer as the Westminster Coroner’s inquest papers for that period have been destroyed and the newspaper report of the proceedings is very terse. There is some suggestion that she was depressed at the failure of a book she had written to find a publisher; she had already published two, on psychiatric subjects which I am not qualified to judge.
Let me conclude by giving you the obituary by Douglas Kennedy (‘Joshua’) in the Journal of the EF-DS:
‘The news of Miss Daking’s death will come as a great shock to her friends in the EF-DS. Although her appearances at meetings and parties were rare events in recent years, she always created a stir. She was such a caution. In the last war she performed prodigies of valour, cutting through red tape and brushing aside brass hats to get the troops folk dancing. At Oxford her twinkling diminutive person overcame the shy scruples of don, undergraduate and policeman alike. They all had to dance to her tune.
‘Now she has become an EF-DS tradition and her memory will be preserved.’