Guest Post: An Outsider Reads Elsie Dinsmore, Part III

A Guest Post by Tracey

So, most of the cat is out of the bag; Elsie nearly dies before the book wraps up. The last piece of the story involves Elsie’s extreme reluctance to do anything of a secular nature on the sabbath. Her only acceptable Sunday diversions are reading the bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress (a religious allegory). So, of course, when Horace asks Elsie to read him secular story on Sunday, she refuses, saying its against God’s law. Remember that Elsie has already run into problems with this, such as the time she would not play a secular song on the sabbath in the first book. Anyway, this time Horace works himself into extreme sickness, then after his recovery he punishes her until she is so distraught she falls into illness—all because he has this bizarre desire to see her submit to him in all things, no matter how small.

Over the course of six chapters Horace takes away all of Elsie’s freedoms including her correspondence with Miss Rose (remember the Christian friend she met in the beginning of book 1?), her travel privileges, even her Mammy, and then he threatens to sent her away to boarding school. He finally even leaves the house so as not to accidentally cave in and give her any sense of victory whatsoever. He promises to relent only when Elsie agrees to give up her obsession with placing God first, which she’s never gonna do.

Hilariously, the detail that sends Elsie over the edge into actual sickness is the mention of being sent to a Catholic boarding school. Elsie freaks out, saying, “They will try to make me go to mass and pray to the Virgin, and when I refuse they will put me in a dungeon and torture me!” Aunt Adelaide and even the author herself do very little to dispel the reader’s bad image of Catholicism, calling the religion “superstition”. I was raised a Catholic and this part just made me laugh.

The morning after the “Catholic scare,” Elsie is found feverish and weak, causing some family members to worry for her very life. And they are correct. She declines so far that she is actually pronounced dead at one point, until they figure out her heart still beats, barely. This crisis produces the long expected change of heart Horace needed. He decides to no longer make Elsie obey when it goes against her conscience. Great. She still has to unquestioningly obey all the other times of course.

The rest of the book is basically about how inseparable Horace and Elsie are now that they are both true Christians. Oh, did I mention Horace had a mini-conversion from whatever lackadaisical Christian he was originally? This book makes it clear there are right kinds of Christians and wrong kinds. Presbyterians get all the good adjectives, so they are obviously right. Catholics get bad adjectives, so they are wrong. The book does very little to elaborate on why this is so.

One thing that really got to me during the reading of this book was how assured the storyteller is of the themes she embeds in the story. I mean, I know I’m not sinning by reading, say, Memoirs of a Geisha on a Sunday. But to Elsie? There would be no question of the worldly, even carnal nature of my chosen entertainment. I doubt she’d approve of it for even a weekday, let alone a sabbath. Her certainty (and by extension the author’s certainty) makes me highly uncomfortable. I’m starting to realize how much I truly value honest discussion and the ability to think about things and change one’s mind. This story seems to actively encourage the opposite of that. I actually felt like I was upside-down reading some of this. It was so absolutely convinced of itself that I wondered if I’d fallen into a different reality. I literally took a break from reading for two days at one point. It was just so disheartening.

I thought the story had a lot of problems from the nitpicky (author has no sense of subtlety) to larger issues such as Elsie’s extreme emotional attachment to Horace. I had a hard time with the idea of the “true father” the books seem to endorse. There’s really nothing magical about a child having its parents’ DNA that should automatically make that child and parent “right” for one another. But Elsie seems to think there is. Otherwise why would she put so much stock in the affections of a man she knows so very little? And speaking of misplaced affection, what is Travilla’s character really after anyway? Throughout the books he repeatedly tells Elsie he wishes her to live with him. Somehow I doubt he’s really talking about adopting Elsie. I can’t think the author, with all her “true father” nonsense, is a big adoption fan. I think he’s hitting on her. This is another spoiler actually; Travilla and Elsie wind up married in a later book. That’s all kinds of weird.

Another thing about this book I’ve been kicking around inside my head is the author’s definition of love. At the beginning of book one, Elsie keeps going back to the refrain, “If only Papa would love me!” She seems to think Horace only loves her whenever he is pleased with her. I don’t treat the idea of love like that. I maintain that I still have love for a child or adult with whom I happen to be angry. To me love speaks to something deeper than pleasure, encompassing the fact that I would put myself on the line for a person I love, regardless of my current surface emotion. The books are treating love as if it is a trivial emotion akin to liking something. When Elsie thinks Papa doesn’t love her, she’s really experiencing times Papa doesn’t seem to like her. I wonder if the definition if love has changed or if humans just have trouble grasping its meaning, each of us using a different definition. The author’s definition strikes me as somewhat shallow.

Which brings me to the author. I said I’d mention what little I know about her, so here goes. Her name is Martha Finley. She was herself Presbyterian born in 1828 and lived through the Civil War. She lived in a variety of places during her life: Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. She was a teacher and also a writer, penning things for the Presbyterian Publishing Board. She wrote Elsie Dinsmore just around the time of the Civil War—it was published in 1867. The books (a single manuscript divided in two) was so well liked she was able to write many more books about Elsie (28 total) and other similar stories. She was still writing stories until within a few years of her death in 1909.

No one seems to have information about what Finley was like herself. I mean we can guess some of it based on what she was writing, but it’s not like we have interviews or a back flap description for Ms. Finley. I’ll give her this—her writing is something compelling. Some of the over-emotional scenes are weirdly fascinating. I found myself hooked, waiting to see what ridiculous thing Horace would do next and what Elsie would cry over in this chapter.

In conclusion, I’m really not a fan of these books. They make me very determined to pay attention to my (future) kids’ reading habits. I’m thinking I don’t want to teach them to avoid certain books—I want to instead teach them to think about why a books gets written, so they can feel free to disagree with the author. We could play this game after every book and talk about the story, even when they are little. It will totally be a fun bonding activity.

Before I go, I will leave you with this amusing thing I discovered. I think it’s possible Elsie is a nudist. Remember that Mammy is constantly having to dress her? She MUST be shedding clothes. And if that’s not enough evidence for you, on page 20 of Elsie’s Holidays at Roselands I found the following exchange:

“What are you going to wear to Isabel Carleton’s party tonight, Elsie?” asked Lucy at the dinner table.

“Nothing,” replied Elsie, with an arch smile.

In actuality, Horace isn’t letting Elsie attend the party—another punishment for another small offense—but that’s good because the other guests will all have dresses!

Guest Post: Alix on Civility and Confrontation
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 8: Courtship Is Not the Answer
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 5: Will You Marry Me?
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 7: I Do
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • kisarita

    Your rejection of biological parenthood is mystifying to me. A dysfunctional, bad parent is still a parent. As adults we may spend our whole life healing from the scars of bad parents and you expect Elsie a child, to somehow brush it off and decide that he really has no relationship with her (his actual presence in her life not withstanding). I do get your criticism of the author- who seems to present this as a normal, even good parent, not as a bad parent.

    • The_L1985

      Here’s the thing. Horace isn’t just dysfunctional–he has never laid eyes on his own biological daughter until the beginning of the series. Elsie has no reason to treat this complete stranger the way you or I would treat a father, because in effect, she has had no father.

      There is no reason, no reason at all, for Elsie to view Horace as more of a parent to her than she would Mammie (dear Gods I hate that horrible, racist “name”). Mammie has cared for her, advised her, taught her religion, and done everything for her that an actual mother would. Elsie seeing Mammie as family–that makes sense. For Elsie to treat Horace like a father from the get-go, instead of the complete stranger that he is (did Horace even write to her before?), makes no sense at all and is not how real children think.

      This isn’t “rejecting biological parenthood;” it’s acknowledging that a child views the people from his/her formative years as “family,” not people that he/she has never met. Contributing sperm makes you a biological father; INVOLVEMENT, even as little as writing periodic letters and the occasional visit, is necessary in order to parent.

      Mercedes Lackey’s The Gates of Sleep does an excellent job of explaining how a child would logically react about a parent or guardian one has never met. Marina has to be sent away from her parents in infancy, to protect her from an aunt who wants to kill her. She grows up, unaware of the plot on her life, with her parents’ artist friends. She gets letters and gifts from her parents–but to her, they are well-meaning strangers at best. They don’t know her interests at all; she’s never been allowed to visit the family manor (for her safety, but she doesn’t yet know this); she hasn’t set eyes on them since her own christening as an infant. The artists are her family; they’ve educated her, encouraged her talents, provided for her physical needs. She hardly thinks of her own parents at all until they die when she’s 17 and Aunt Arachne (the one who’s trying to kill her) becomes her legal guardian. Arachne is Marina’s nearest biological relative. But to Marina, she’s a stranger. Marina clearly resents being taken away from the people she knows as “family” to live with a domineering woman whom she’s never even seen before.

      • kisarita

        elsie is a child, not an adult, and is noy growing,up in,a warm loving adoptive family. servant caregivers are never pppperceivwedas actual parents, not then and not now. so horace remains an absent parent. an absent parent is often all the more longed for due to his or her absence.,perhaps it would have been better if elsie had been adopted in infancy? perhaps but that would be a different story.

      • LizBert

        Servant caregivers are never seen as parents? What are you basing this on? If the servant is the only caregiver a child has ever had, why would she not feel a parent like attachment? You seem to think that biology creates some connection when that is simply not the case. Many children meet absentee parents after years of no contact and don’t feel any particular bond.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        “If the servant is the only caregiver a child has ever had, why would she not feel a parent like attachment?”

        Because the caregiver is a black slave and the child is a white, antebellum plantation owner’s granddaughter living in a society that pretty much views black people and white people as separate species? That’s a pretty good reason even if it’s also a disgusting one.

        I have said this before and so have many others at this point, but childcare in wealthy families was primarily carried out by servants and not by parents, even if both parents were present. That didn’t mean that all of those children viewed their nurses, black or white, as their parents. Really. They would have been raised with awareness of race and class distinctions which would have informed their relationships. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have been emotionally attached to their caregivers. Probably a lot of them were more attached to them than they were to their own parents but parents were still parents and servants were still servants and they would have known that. This is not a society that defines parents as “the people that love you, no matter who they are” and defining parent-child relationships primarily by love is really a pretty modern idea. This is a society that has very strict roles for everybody, that is very aware of bloodlines and blood ties, and where your social position is very much determined by who your parents are, especially your father. This is not a “love makes a family” world.

      • The_L1985

        Yes, she’s a child, but that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t miss somebody you never knew. I was separated from my dad for a few months when I was 8 or so, when he got a job out of state and my parents decided to wait until summer to move the rest of the family for academic/social reasons.

        I missed my father because of the things we did together and the person I knew him to be. I missed his guidance, his hugs before bedtime, and the silly jokes we used to tell each other. I missed his love of thrill rides and science and the way he always encouraged me to be more and better. I didn’t miss the abstract concept of “father,” I missed the person I knew and loved as “Daddy.” If I’d never known my father, I would not have missed him, because he would just be a disembodied concept instead of a person I knew.

        To contrast this, I knew I had a great-uncle Ray who lived in Australia. I’d never met the man; to me, he was a total stranger. Literally everything I knew about him was that he was my grandfather’s brother and he lived in Australia somewhere. I didn’t know what he looked like; I didn’t know what his personality was; I didn’t know what his favorite foods or songs or colors were. He was a complete unknown to me, so I never missed having him around.

        When I was a little girl, my mom had a close friend named Marge. She was not related to me or my family in any way; she was just my mom’s college friend. But to me, she was “Aunt Margie” and was part of the family. I was much closer to this woman–who wasn’t a relative at all–than I was to my great-uncle Ray, because I knew her and I didn’t know Uncle Ray at all.

        Children consider people they know and have a close relationship with to be family. They do not consider people they’ve never met to be family, regardless of blood ties.

      • LyricalPolyphony

        Elsie may have been indoctrinated, by the family and the servants both, in what she owed her father should he ever appear. No, nothing about the way she relates to him is natural. At all. But I think she was lonely as a kid and built up this fantasy in her mind about having a parent, a white parent, (I think she’s still pretty racist, though not compared to the other protagonists) and that combined with the reinforcement from all sides might result in her curious sense of attachment? It’s weird regardless though. I received many “Elsie” books as a kid, and even then she seemed insipid and annoying. I have always thought her relationship with her dad and her total lack of agency in her own life is the most problematic part of her story.

      • kisarita

        The response people have to an absent parent is variable. Some miss the absent parent, some don’t. Adults are far likely to come to terms with it than children. Elsie is not an adult. The longing for an absent parent is very common. It does not have to be universal for it to be recognized as a valid human response. Plus, Horace ISN’t absent at the time the telling.
        Instead of criticizing Elsie for the very realistic fear of losing the love of this parent, we may well criticize her environment for allowing him to play this role in her life after his years of neglect. A bit of humility in rebuilding a relationship is called for. But aha, i guess “rebuilding a relationship” means “asserting his control.”

      • Christine

        There is a reason though – Elsie has been told that Horace is her father. I might disagree with the term (unless the qualifier “biological” was appended), but it’s what she believes. It was mentioned on one of the earlier posts that it is quite plausible that Elsie wouldn’t really see Mammie as a parent, because she would have been very harshly criticized for showing “too much” affection to one of the servants. The difference between Elsie and Marina is that Marina was allowed to be affectionate with her guardians, and no one tried to tell her that her real parents were elsewhere, she should be looking up to them. (I know she was aware of this, but it was a vague thing to her, and no one had tried to tell her that she should be having a fixation on having “real” parents).

        And frankly, Elsie’s attitudes towards Horace, as they were characterized in these posts, don’t really sound like she viewed him as a father in the sense I would understand the word. She viewed him as someone who she should strive to please and who was supposed to take care of her. It’s plausible to me.

    • Baby_Raptor

      I have no connections whatsoever to my biological parents. They lost custody of me when I was about a year and a half old, and never showed interest in getting it back. I was too much of an interruption to their 24/7 pot smoking.

      I might know my father if for some reason he was in Arkansas and I bumped into him, but that’s only because I’ve heard a billion times that I’m a female remake of him.

      So what, exactly, is there bonding me to these people? DNA? Yeah, explain to me how well that worked out.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        A reconnected with my biological father when I was middle aged (he tracked me down). We were in contact for 18 months, then he died suddenly. Before connectng with him I would have said same as you. When I did get to know him, it was lke meeting the twin i was separated from at birth. I was not expecting this, beleive me. Being around him when I was a child would have been a bad idea because he was extremely unstable. But there is often a connection between biological parents and children. I’ve heard about it from enough people who rediscovered a biological connecton. But it is simply that – a connection. It doesn’t mean you should be with that person, or that they would be a decent parent, or anything like that. Sometmes you even have to tell them to leave you alone because they don’t know how to behave. I think the author of Elsie operates in black and white to such an extent that she can’t cope with the idea that a biological connection means something, but it is balanced with lots of other factors like whether the person has basic life skills, whether they treat others decently, whether both parties are interested, ect.

        If you are interested, here is an article I wrote about reconnecting with my father:

  • The_L1985

    “I wonder if the definition if love has changed or if humans just have trouble grasping its meaning, each of us using a different definition. The author’s definition strikes me as somewhat shallow.”

    I, frankly, get the feeling that Horace’s “love” for Elsie is actually conditional. I have a father like that. Anything that strays too far from his idea of a Good Life will create estrangement. I’m not even joking; he has said in my presence that for a child of his to be gay would be grounds for disowning, because no child of HIS will ever be one of those filthy queer types. (I’m bisexual. Imagine the pins and needles I have to walk on just to continue to have a father.)

    I think if my fundie cousin has a daughter, I will buy her the Anne of Green Gables books instead. They’re set in the 19th century; they encourage moral behavior; they are not as ridiculously problematic as Elsie Dinsmore. That, and Anne has an actual personality, and I’m not getting any sense from these reviews that Elsie’s portrayed as having one at all.

    • B.E. Miller

      Don’t forget “Little Women”, or “The Little Princess”, if you think your fundie cousin would let her future daughter read those books.

      • The_L1985

        His. And quite frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck if he likes me buying such books or not. Just because he thinks that the person with the penis is in charge of his household, doesn’t mean that I can’t give whatever gifts I want to my kin. If she likes Anne of Green Gables and wants more books set in that time period, I’ll buy her the Laura Ingalls books, Little Women, and any other such book that comes to hand. (I adored the Little House books as a young girl, just because it was fun to see what it was like to grow up on the frontier.)

        If she turns out to hate Anne of Green Gables, I’ll buy her the kinds of books she does like: silly poems, books about space flight, princess coloring books, whatever.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Also good is Caddie Woodlawn (might pass under the radar because it’s about pioneer-ish times, but the protagonist actually kicks quite a bit of ass).

  • Niemand

    In Horace’s very partial defense, he’s a very young man who has no experience with children and has probably been stuffed full of “advice” on parenting of the sort that would make the Pearls say “whoa…that’s going a bit too far”. It’s probably a good sign that he had it in him to relent when Elsie was dying. Others in real life have failed to relent and their children have died.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I’m surprised Elsie wasn’t given a hysterectomy or a clitoridectomy since back then that’s how they treated extreme “hysteria.” I think it also feeds the Purity Culture’s idea that girls crave attention so they need to have a Christian father in their life or the outcome will be unhealthy (in this case physical).

    • Djiril

      Well, that probably wouldn’t be considered an appropriate subject for a children’s book.

  • kisarita

    regarding your comment that you would be loving your kid although you might be expressing anger at the moment, thats all well amd good but its a tall order to expect your kid to have,faith in you love if the anger and negativity is frequent.

    • Tracey

      I agree with you there. I don’t think Horace does love Elsie as he should. I don’t think Elsie understands love as she should. Ultimately, this feels false enough that I’m seeing it mainly as a story and again taking the author to task (so to speak) for presenting this incredibly empty picture of what it means to love.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    Understanding Finley also means understanding her surroundings and her Presbyterian religion.

    Ohio of 1828 was almost “frontier” territory, not the comfortable Midwest we think of.

    Her father was a Presbyterian elder – think of John Knox and John Calvin – with the emphasis on education and anti-Catholic feelings of the recent Scots immigrants.

    And her father’s views would have been strongly shaped by the “Great Awakening” – the second one.

  • Christine

    Your comment about wanting to keep an eye on what your future children read really strikes home with me. In all honesty, there are books I intend to recommend to my daughter, not because they’re all that amazing, but because I’ve already read them and can stay ahead of her reading that way, and still be able to discuss it.

    • Alix

      Also? I’m of the opinion that it’s good for kids to read disagreeable stuff, with proper parental guidance, so that kids grow up knowing how to handle things they disagree with. I’ve known too many people who believe everything written down is true, because they’ve never run across something that didn’t accord with their beliefs, and I’ve known many more people who were just not equipped to effectively critically think about stuff presented to them.

      And if said hypothetical children end up liking something disagreeable, then they end up learning how it is possible to like stuff you morally oppose, and how to navigate that.

      • Christine

        I like your reasons for encouraging kids to read disagreeable stuff. But you have to understand that my parenting style can be summed up in one word: lazy.

        I don’t own a stroller. We use cloth diapers, I breastfed and carried her around to all sorts of places with me so I didn’t have to deal with bottles as often. We let her feed herself from day 1 (admittedly that wasn’t just for the convenience of not spoon feeding her, but also for the convenience of not trying to wrestle the spoon away from her all the time). So the idea that I’d try to control what she read, when it’s a lot easier to just discuss it with her while/after she reads it is rather ludicrous. (BTW, if you notice a lazy parenting trick that isn’t on my list, please share, I might be missing good ideas.)

      • sylvia_rachel

        My lazy parenting toolkit also included sleep-sharing when DD was younger (for the convenience of nursing at night without waking up, and also the convenience of not spending hours every night trying to get her to sleep somewhere else, and also because we lived in a 1-bedroom flat until she was four and a half).

        Also, letting her pick our her own outfit for the day as soon as she showed any interest (<18 months) and not fussing about it if she picked something totally ludicrous, and, as she's gotten older, teaching her to do stuff and then just letting her get on with it…

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        Alot of people wish they had been raised by you :)
        Funny how the less work stuff can end up being nice for the kid.

  • Alice

    Hmm, this is interesting. Wikipedia says that the books were edited when they were reprinted, which included toning down the child abuse and racism. I usually take wiki with a grain of salt, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is true. And I had no idea that O’Henry wrote the first anti-fan fic of the series! :)

    • Trynn

      I think that wiki is referring to the Life of Faith adaptation… Which does tone things down… From like, raging fire to

    • Trynn

      From raging house fire to somewhat smaller housefire. They toned down the racism but left in most of the child abuse and sexism.