Child Marriage in Elsie Dinsmore, part 1

One of the many articles published on the allegations against Moore, and their relationship to especially conservative strands of evangelicalism more generally, I was especially struck by this Slate article, which included a mention of Elsie Dinsmore:

Vision Forum also repackaged the 19th-century book series Elsie Dinsmorewhich then became wildly popular among conservative home-schoolers. The series follows a pious young rich girl in the pre–Civil War South, who marries her father’s best friend when she is still in her teens. He has been romantically attracted to her—and flirtatious—since she was a pre-pubescent child.

Elsie marries her father’s closest friend, a man fifteen years her senior whom she addresses as “Mr. Travilla” even after they are married. (This brings to mind all the times Roy Moore referred to the parents of the teenage girls he allegedly dated being friends of his.) Defenders of the Elsie Dinsmore series might point out that Elsie was twenty-one when she married (or, as it is stated in the book, she had “reached her majority”). She was not a child. This is true. However.

The following scene occurred at the end of Elsie’s Girlhood. Twenty-one-year old Elsie had mistakenly heard that Mr. Travilla was to marry her Aunt Adelaide. In a romance formula we will likely all realize, it was only at that moment that Elsie realized that she, Elsie Dinsmore, was in love with Mr. Travilla. Upset at his impending match to her Aunt Adelaide but not wanting to show it, she began avoiding him. Then we get this scene, when Mr. Travilla came upon Elsie at her home.

“Good-morning,” she said, rising and giving him her hand; but with the reserved manner that had now become habitual, instead of the pleasant ease and familiarity of earlier days; “were you looking for papa? I think he is somewhere on the plantation.”

“No, my dear child, it was you I wished to see.”

“Me, Mr. Travilla?” and she east down her eyes, while her cheek crimsoned; for he was looking straight into them with his, so wistful and tender, so fall of earnest, questioning, sorrowful entreaty, that she knew not how to meet their gaze.

“Yes, you, my little friend, for I can no longer endure this torturing anxiety. Will you not tell me, dear child, what I have done to hurt or grieve you so?”

“I—I’m not hurt or gri—you have always been most kind,” she stammered, “most—But why should you think I—I was—”

The rest of the sentence was lost in a burst of tears, and covering her burning cheeks with her hands, she sank down upon the seat from which she had risen to greet him.

“My dear child, I did not mean to pain you so; do not weep, it breaks my heart to see it. I was far from intending to blame you, or complain of your treatment,” he said in an agitated tone, and bending over her in tender concern. “I only wanted to understand my error in order that I might retrieve it, and be no longer deprived of your dear society. Oh, little Elsie, if you only knew how I love you; how I have loved you, and only you, all these years—as child and as woman—how I have waited and longed, hoping even against hope, that some day I might be able to win the priceless treasure of your young heart.”

Intense, glad surprise made her drop her hands and look up at him.

“But are you not—I—I thought—I understood—Aunt Adelaide—”

“Your Aunt Adelaide!” he cried, scarcely less astonished than herself, “can it be that you do not know—that you have not heard of her engagement to Edward Allison?”

A light broke upon Elsie at that question, and her face grew radiant with happiness; there was one flash of exceeding joy in the soft eyes that met his, and then they sought the ground.

“Oh, my darling, could you? is it—can it be—”

He took her in his arms, folded her close to his heart, calling her by every tender and endearing name, and she made no effort to escape, or to avoid his caresses; did nothing but hide her blushing face on his breast, and weep tears of deep joy and thankfulness.

Pro-tip: If your favorite pet name for someone is “my dear child,” you probably should not be marrying them.

Elsie is not, of course, a child. She is twenty-one. It’s just that Mr. Travilla was her father’s best friend and fifteen years older than her, and had been paying Elsie attention (and even courting her, in a fashion) since she was a young child. Calling her “my dear child” was, it seems, a habit he found difficult to break. The words we use are often reflective of mental patterns, and Mr. Travilla has known Elsie as a child for so long (because she has been a child) that it is highly unlikely (especially with his continued use of the endearment “child”) that he is now relating to her as an equal.

I am not an expert on Victorian literature, or Victorian romance tropes. Some—but not all—of what now feels so off about the relationship between Elsie and Mr. Travilla is likely the result of author Martha Findley’s engagement in various tropes and contentions of literature of this era. (I would love to see these books analyzed by a scholar of this period and genre.) The trouble is that these books are being published now, and read now, as prescriptive godly literature, and not as an example of a specific period genre with foibles and flaws we should rightly find troubling today.

Let’s begin our exploitation of Mr. Travilla’s past relations with Elsie with this scene from when Elsie was eight. It comes from the first book in the series, the eponymous Elsie Dinsmore:

“Ah! that is what you are about, Miss Elsie! a bookworm, just like your father, I see. I had been wondering what had become of you for the last two hours,” exclaimed Mr. Travilla’s pleasant voice; and sitting down beside her, he took the book from her hand, and putting it behind him, said, “Put it away now; you will have time enough to finish it, and I want you to talk to me.”

“Oh! please let me have it,” she pleaded. “I shall not have much time, for papa will soon be calling me to go home.”

“No, no, he is not to take you away; I have made a bargain with him to let me keep you,” said Mr. Travilla, very gravely. “We both think that there are children enough at Roselands without you; and so your papa has given you to me; and you are to be my little girl, and call me papa in future.”

Elsie gazed earnestly in his face for an instant, saying in a half-frightened tone, “You are only joking, Mr. Travilla.”

“Not a bit of it,” said he; “can’t you see that I’m in earnest?”

His tone and look were both so serious that for an instant Elsie believed he meant all that he was saying, and springing to her feet with a little cry of alarm, she hastily withdrew her hand which he had taken, and rushing out to the veranda, where her father still sat conversing with Mrs. Travilla, she flung herself into his arms, and clinging to him, hid her face on his breast, sobbing, “O papa, dear papa! don’t give me away; please don’t—I will be so good—I will do everything you bid me—I—”

And then, later, in the next book, Holidays at Roselands:

Adelaide, at her brother’s request, took the head of the table, and played the part of hostess very gracefully.

“Ah, Dinsmore,” remarked Travilla, a little mischievously, glancing from one to the other, “you have a grand establishment here, but it still lacks its chief ornament. Miss Adelaide fills the place to-day, most gracefully, it is true; but then we all know she is only borrowed for the occasion.”

Mr. Dinsmore colored a little and looked slightly annoyed.

“Elsie will supply that deficiency in a few years,” he said, “and until then, I think I can depend upon the kindness of my sisters. Besides, Travilla,” he added laughingly, “you must not forget the old proverb about people who live in glass houses.”

“Ah,” replied Travilla, looking affectionately at his mother, “I have a mistress for my establishment, and so can afford to wait for Elsie.”

The child looked up quickly, with a slight flush on her face.

“You needn’t, Mr. Travilla!” she said, “for I am never going to leave my father; and you know he promised not to give me away, so if you want a little girl you will have to look somewhere else.”

“Ah! well, I will not despair yet,” he replied laughingly, “for I have learned that ladies, both little and large, very often change their minds, and so I shall still live in hopes.”

“You know I like you very much indeed, Mr. Travilla—next best to papa—but then I couldn’t leave him for anybody, you see,” Elsie said in a deprecating tone, and looking affectionately up into his face.

“No, my dear, that is quite right, and I don’t feel at all hurt,” he answered with a good-natured smile, which seemed to relieve her very much.

And then there is this, early on in Elsie’s Girlhood (Elsie’s father has remarried—her mother died when she was a baby—and her new mother has just given her a baby brother):

The first time Mr. Travilla called, after little Horace’s arrival, she exhibited her treasure to him with a great deal of pride, asking if he did not envy her papa.

“Yes,” he said, looking admiringly at her, and then turning away with a half sigh.

A few minutes afterwards he caught hold of her, set her on his knee, and giving her a kiss, said, “I wish you were ten years older, Elsie, or I ten years younger.”

“Why, Mr. Travilla?” she asked rather wonderingly.

“Oh, because we would then be nearer of an age, and maybe you would like me better.”

“No, I wouldn’t, not a bit,” she said, putting her arm round his neck, “for I like you now just as well as I could like any gentleman but papa.”

How old was Elsie when the above took place? The book doesn’t exactly provide her age at the beginning of each chapter, of course, but some time later, when baby Horace is old enough to walk and run to his sister, Elsie is identified as being fifteen. This would suggest that when the above passage took place—when Mr. Travilla wished her ten years older or himself ten years younger—she was likely around thirteen.

Later in the same book, Elsie’s Girlhood, Mr. Travilla comes upon Elsie’s wayward teenage uncle, Arthur, trying to extort money out of her (Elsie is roughly fifteen). Mr. Travilla sends Arthur packing, and then walks with Elsie a bit before he has to leave.

“I’m much obliged!” she said, taking his offered hand, and looking up brightly into his face.

“Welcome, fair lady; but am I to be dismissed without any reward for my poor services?”

“I have none to offer, sir knight, but you may help yourself if you choose,” she said, laughing and blushing, for she knew very well what he meant.

He stooped and snatched a kiss from her ruby lips, then walked away sighing softly to himself, “Ah, little Elsie, if I were but ten years younger!”

She tripped across the lawn, and entering the open door of her boudoir, found herself in her father’s arms. He had witnessed the little scene just enacted between Mr. Travilla and herself, had noticed something in his friend’s look and manner that had never struck him before. He folded his child close to his heart for an instant then held her off a little, gazing fondly into her face.

“You are mine; you belong to me; no other earthly creature has the least shadow of a right or title in you; do you know that?”

“Yes, papa, and rejoice to know it,” she murmured, putting her arms about his neck and laying her head against his breast.

“Ah!” he said, sighing, “you will not always be able to say that, I fear. One of these days you will—” He broke off abruptly, without finishing his sentence.

She looked up inquiringly into his face.

He answered her look with a smile and a tender caress. “I had better not put the nonsense into your head: it will get there soon enough without my help. Come now, let us have the lessons. I expect to find them well prepared, as usual.”

In sum: When Elsie was eight, Mr. Travilla tried to convince her that she was to come and live with him and be his own little girl. When she was perhaps ten, he made a comment about being content to “wait for Elsie.” When Elsie was around thirteen and Mr. Travilla twenty-eight, he pulled her onto his knee, kissed her, and told her that he wished she were ten years older or he were ten years younger so that “we would … be nearer of an age” and “you would like me better.” When Elsie was fifteen and Mr. Travilla was thirty, he repeated the comment and kissed her on the lips.

And then, when Elsie was twenty-one and he asked her to marry him, Mr. Travilla repeatedly referred to her as “my dear child” and “my little friend.” Even once they’re engaged and then married, Mr. Travilla goes on calling Elsie “my dear child.” In fact, in Elsie’s Womanhood, the book where she plans her wedding and is married, if you do a control-F search for “dear child,” you’ll find that the term “dear child” is as often by Mr. Travilla as it is by Elsie’s father. Mr. Travilla’s paternalistic attitude toward Elsie never changes—and she goes on calling him Mr. Travilla.

I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a problem, but I will anyway. Mr. Travilla set his sights on Elsie when she was somewhere between eight and ten years old. Mr. Travilla would have been between twenty-three and twenty-five at the time. That is weird. Elsie was around thirteen when Mr. Travilla began expressing his desires to her, though in such a cloaked way that she, always portrayed as an innocent, did not understand what he meant. When Elsie was fifteen (and Mr. Travilla was thirty), Mr. Travilla’s intent had become so obvious that even Elsie’s father recognized it.

And this passes for godly Christian literature today.

Rather than finding a woman his own age to marry, a grown woman with similar life experience whom he could have wooed and courted, Mr. Travilla set his sights on a child and waited for her to grow up. Their marriage was never one of equals, or even semi-equals (these books were written in the late eighteen hundreds, after all). Their marriage was always one where Mr. Travilla took care of Elsie, and Elsie obeyed his wishes.

(Mr. Travilla is frequently portrayed as far less demanding than Elsie’s father. The author’s many comparisons between Elsie’s father and Mr. Travilla, combined with the similar manner each assumes toward Elsie, sometimes makes it feel as though Elsie has not grown up at all, but merely been transferred from one owner to another. When Mr. Travilla dies, widowing Elsie with seven children, her father steps in, becoming again her protector and guardian. Elsie constantly defers to whatever man is presently in charge of her, never losing a certain degree of innocence and naiveté.)

These books haven’t just been republished by disgraced far-right “traditional family” groups that might realistically be seen as fringe. They have been revised and republished by major evangelical publishers and are in every Christian bookstore today. They are far more widely available (and popular) now than when I was a child. In some cases publishers have released the books with revisions; I do not have copies of the revised books and it’s possible that some of the above texts have been changed. They can’t exactly make her not marry her father’s friend, Mr. Travilla, entirely, however.

A quick look at Amazon reviews reveals how popular these books are among evangelicals. “My 12 yr daughter loves these books,” gushes one review. “Would highly recommend to any mother who is looking for good reading for their daughter,” reads another. “I would recommend these books to EVERYONE, although they are best for girls ages 6-14!” “MY ADVICE IS BUY, BUY, BUY THEM, if you want a cheerful, good, and loving Christian girl as a friend.” “Appropriate and beneficial for all girls 4th grade and older.” Yes, these are real reviews.

I’ve heard some evangelicals argue that they’re being given a bad rap, in the wake of the Roy Moore allegations. I get how this must feel. My advice to evangelicals who find the allegations against Roy Moore abhorrent is to go tell other evangelicals why this kind of thing is abhorrent. Does your local Christian bookstore sell the Elsie Dinsmore books? Start a campaign to get them discontinued. Talk to your pastor. Spread the word in your Bible study. Speak up. Take action. Create change. It starts with you.

Tomorrow, we turn to another match in the Elsie Dinsmore series.

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