Child Marriage in Elsie Dinsmore, part 2

Yesterday I looked at Elsie Dinsmore’s fictional nineteenth century marriage to her father’s friend, Mr. Travilla. But there’s another match that sticks out in the Elsie Dinsmore series, so fétèd by evangelicals. This match occurs in the book Grandmother Elsieand involves a hasty marriage between Elsie’s twenty-one-year old son, Edward, and fifteen-year-old Zoe.

Elsie’s oldest daughter (also named Elsie) travels to Europe on news that her fiancee, Lester, who was abroad in Italy, had fallen ill. Elsie’s oldest son, Edward, accompanies her. When they arrive it is decided that the two—Elsie jr. and her beau Lester—should marry there in Italy. As they prepare wedding details, Edward remembers something he meant to tell his sister:

“Ah, I am forgetting a piece of news I have to tell. I met an America gentleman and his daughter, the other day, fell into conversation with him, and learned that we have several common acquaintances I think we were mutually pleased, and I have asked him and his daughter in to the wedding; thinking it would not be unpleasant to you, and we should thus have two more witnesses.”

“Perhaps it is best we should,” she returned, in her sweet, gentle way, yet looking somewhat disturbed.

“I’m afraid I ought to have consulted you first,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it is too late now His name is Love; his daughter—an extremely pretty girl by the way—he calls Zoe.”

Zoe, we learn, is 15. Edward—whom the author informs us that he has just reached “the age of majority”—is 21. On his way back to the states after his sister’s wedding, Edward travels “leisurely” through France. One day, during a stay in a village outside of Paris, he learns that an American gentleman who has a room nearby has taken deathly ill. He inquires to find out who it is, and lo and beyond, it’s Mr. Love and his daughter, Zoe.

The Loves had remained in Rome for a few weeks after Elsie’s marriage, during which Edward had met them frequently, his liking for the father and admiration of the daughter’s beauty and sprightliness increasing with every interview.

He had found Mr. Love a sensible, well-informed Christian gentleman. The daughter was a mere child—only fifteen—extremely pretty and engaging, but evidently too much petted and indulged, her father’s spoiled darling.

Edward knew that she was an only child and motherless, and was much shocked and grieved to hear that she was likely to lose her only remaining parent.

We get it, she’s beautiful already.

Ever the gentleman, Edward goes to the Loves at once. Zoe opens the door, in tears. Mr. Love calls out to him from his bed. Edward goes to him, and Mr. Love asks Zoe to leave the room so that he can talk to Edward alone. He tells Edward that Zoe has no other relatives whatsoever, and that his health worsened because news came from the states that he is financially ruined. There is only enough money to pay for his funeral and Zoe’s return journey; after that she will be penniless and alone.

Edward was deeply moved by the sad recital. “My dear Mr. Love,” he said, “make yourself quite easy about Miss Zoe. I will attend to all these matters about which you have spoken. I am about to return home myself, and will be her companion and protector on the voyage. Nor shall she want for friends or any needed assistance after we arrive.”

“God bless you! you have lifted a heavy load from my heart!” faltered the dying father, with a look of deep gratitude. “You are young, sir, but I can trust you fully. There are few older men whom I would as willingly trust.”

And this is where it should have ended. Edward should have taken Zoe home to his mother. He has siblings that are Zoe’s age and younger, you see, and there are other children in the house as well. Zoe could have joined the household; Edward’s mother would have welcomed her. She could have finished her schooling there, with the same surroundings and comfort she was used to. Or, barring that, they could have found another place in the neighborhood for her, or paid for her attend a boarding school.

But Edward does not stop there.

“Mr. Love,” he said, flushing and speaking with some little hesitation, “will you give your daughter to me if she is willing?”

“Give her to you?” the sick man asked as if not fully comprehending.

“Yes, sir; give her to me to wife, and I will cherish her to life’s end.”

There was a flash of joy in the dying eyes, quickly succeeded by one of hesitation and doubt. “Is it love or compassion only that moves you to this most generous offer?” he asked.

“It is both,” Edward said. “I have admired and felt strongly attracted to her from the first day of our acquaintance, though I did not recognize it as love until now. We are both so young that I should not have spoken yet but for the peculiar circumstances in which we are placed; but I truly, dearly love the sweet girl and earnestly desire to be given the right to protect, provide for and cherish her as my dearest earthly treasure so long as we both shall live.”

“But your friends, your relatives?”

“I think my mother would not object, if she knew all. But I am of age, so have an undoubted right to act for myself even in so vitally important a matter.”

“Then if my darling loves you, let me see you united before I die.”

Yes, really. How is this a better solution than him simply taking her home to his family, to help look after her? If a man and a girl traveling alone was unseemly, he could have hired a nurse or maid or governess or something to come with them for the return journey. It’s not like money is an issue; Edward and his entire family are obscenely wealthy. But no, the men in Zoe’s life decide her fate on the spot, determining her entire life’s trajectory in a moment.

Sure, they say they’re going to ask her. But is this really a great moment to ask Zoe to make a decision of this magnitude? When she is 15 and is about to be alone in the world, and penniless? Consider the pressure she’s under!

At this moment the door of the adjoining room opened and Zoe’s voice was heard in imploring, tearful accents: “Mayn’t I come back now? O papa, I cannot stay away from you any longer!”

Edward hastened to her, and taking both her hands in his, “Dear Miss Zoe,” he said, “I love you, I feel for you, I want to make you my very own, if you can love me in return, that I may have the right to take care of you. Will you be my dear little wife? will you marry me now, to-night, that your father may be present and feel that he will not leave you alone and unprotected?”

She looked up at him in utter surprise, then seeing the love and pity in his face, burst into a passion of grief.

“Leave me! papa going to leave me!” she cried. “Oh, no, no! I cannot bear it! He must, he will be better soon! O Mr. Travilla, say that he will!”

“No, my darling!” replied a quivering voice from the bed, “I shall not live to see the morning light, and if you love Mr. Travilla tell him so and let me see you married before I die.”

“Can you, do you love me, dear little Zoe?” Edward asked in tenderest tones, passing his arm about her waist.

“Yes,” she said half under her breath, with a quick glance up into his face, then hid her own on his breast, sobbing, “Oh, take care of me! for I’ll be all alone in the wide world when dear papa is gone.”

Can … you … love … me. Really? Really? That’s the question we’re going to throw at her, when she has just learned—just this moment—that her father is dying? That’s not exactly on the top of her mind right now! This is a horrible, terrible, very bad idea.

And notice –she’s not given any other alternative. We know that Edward already promised Mr. Love that he and his relatives would take care of Zoe, even before Edward asked him if he could marry her instead. But she doesn’t know that. She is given two options: Be left utterly alone in a foreign country, or marry a much-older man she barely knows and be taken care of.

Yes, Edward is 21, not 36 or 49 or something. He’s only six years older than Zoe. But when you’re 15, that six years is a lot. And it’s not as though Zoe is ever portrayed as an especially mature fifteen-year-old. The opposite, rather. She is a child. A spoiled, pettedindulged child, in author Martha Findley’s words. Edward is a full-grown man with life experience, monied, educated, and able to manage his own affairs. That makes the age difference feel only wider.

So they call a minister and are married on the spot. Like literally, right that moment. In fact, Edward sent for the minister before making his offer to Mr. Love—one hopes he did so so that Mr. Love would have a minister at his side when he breathed his last, and not because he was already positive he could get the beautiful Zoe for his own out of this mess.

Right then and there, the minister read the words.

When it was over Edward took her in his arms, saying softly as he pressed his lips again and again to her forehead, her cheek, her lips, “My wife, my own dear little wife!”

“My child! my darling!” murmured the father, feebly reaching for her hand.

Edward took it and put it into his.

The dying fingers closed feebly over it. “Lord, I thank thee for this great mercy! ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.'”

The words came low and faintly from the lips already growing cold in death, a gasp for breath followed, and all was still, no sound in the room but Zoe’s wild weeping, while with silent caresses Edward held her to his heart.

They laid him to rest in the nearest Protestant cemetery, for such had been his request.

Seriously Edward? You’re going to take up some of Zoe’s last minutes with her father kissing her? Leave the poor child alone! Let her grieve! This is not the time to rejoice in having obtained a child bride! My god!

When Edward arrives home with Zoe, without any warning, his mother, Elsie, welcomes her warmly, but his grandfather, Mr. Dinsmore, is upset that he has married without first consulting his mother (by this time Elsie’s husband, Mr. Travilla, has died; her father, Mr. Dinsmore, has stepped into his place, ever-present and domineering). But when Zoe leaves the room and Edward tells his mother and grandfather the circumstances in which he married her, they both approve.

“Do not expect too much of her, Edward,” Mr. Dinsmore said. “She is a mere child, a petted and spoiled one, I presume, from what you have told us, and if she should prove wayward and at times unreasonable, be very patient and forbearing with her.”

“I trust I shall, grandpa,” he answered. “I cannot expect her to be quite the woman she would have made under my mother’s training; but she is young enough to profit by mamma’s sweet teachings and example even yet. I find her very docile and teachable, very affectionate, and desirous to be and do all I would have her.”

This is so gross on so many levels.

It’s worth noting that no one acts as though this marriage is ideal. That much is good. There’s a measure of shock that Edward has married such a young girl, and it’s not just his parents who show it. Still, Edward’s intentions and his offer are viewed as noble and honorable. Everyone who hears the story agrees he did right.

We could argue that the enemy here is patriarchy, and not Edward. After all, the most charitable reading of Edward’s actions is that he married her rather than risk sullying her reputation by traveling with her, a young girl and an unrelated man. But that doesn’t excuse any of what comes next, because Zoe is not given any allowances for what has happened to her, or for how old she truly is. The entire series is suffused with a strong belief in female obedience to male authority. It’s not all fun and games.

In the next book, Elsie’s New Relations, we get this bit:

The weather was delightful, and the children having been given a half holiday, spent the afternoon in the grounds. Zoe forsook the company of the older people for theirs, and joined in their sports, for she was still child-like in her tastes.

She was as active as a boy, and before her marriage had taken keen delight in climbing rocks and trees. The apple-trees in the orchard were in full bloom, and taking a fancy to adorn herself with their blossoms, she climbed up among the branches of one of the tallest, in order, as she said, to “take her pick and choice,” Rosie, Lulu, Gracie and Walter standing near and watching her with eager interest.

“Oh, Zoe, take care!” Rosie called to her, “that branch doesn’t look strong, and you might fall and hurt yourself badly.”

“Don’t you be afraid. I can take care of myself,” she returned with a light laugh.

But another voice spoke close at hand, fairly startling her, it was so unexpected. “Zoe, what mad prank is this? Let me help you down at once.”

“There’s no need for you to trouble yourself, I am quite able to get down without assistance, when I’m ready,” she replied, putting a strong emphasis upon the last words.

“No; it is too dangerous,” and he held up his arms with an imperative, “Come!”

“How you do order me about,” she muttered, half under her breath, and more than half inclined to rebel.

But no; the children were looking and listening, and must not be allowed to suspect any unpleasantness between herself and her husband.

She dropped into his arms, he set her upon her feet, drew her hand within his arm, and walked away with her.

“I do not approve of tree-climbing for a married woman, Zoe,” he said, when they were out of ear-shot of the children; “at least, not for my wife; and I must request you not to try it again.”

“It’s a pity I didn’t know how much my liberty would be curtailed by getting married,” she returned bitterly.

“And I am exceedingly sorry it is out of my power to restore your liberty to you, since it seems that would add to your happiness.”

At that she hastily withdrew her hand from his arm and walked quickly away from him, taking the direction of the house.

What the eff, Edward.

The whole situation escalates. A woman, Ms. Deane, is visiting the family. When she meets Zoe she declares her “so very young that I should have taken her for a school-girl,” and she flirts endlessly and pointedly with Edward. Edward begins spending his time with Ms. Deane rather than with Zoe, who spends her time playing with the other children because she is one.

But then Zoe becomes worried. She comes into the parlor one day and sees him sitting apart from the others with Ms. Deane. She knows that Edward spending this much time with Ms. Deane is a problem—that it is a potential threat to her position—but she doesn’t know how to fix it. So she sits down at a table with Mr. Larned, a gentleman who is also visiting the family, and spends the evening talking with him and entertaining him while Edward glares at her. Finally, the party disperses.

Zoe’s heart quaked as the door of her boudoir closed upon her, shutting her in alone with her irate husband.

She knew that he was angry, more angry with her than he had ever been before, and though in her thoughts she tried to put all the blame on him, conscience told her that she was by no means blameless.

He locked the door, then turned toward her. She glanced up at him half defiantly, half timidly. His look was very stern and cold.

She turned away with a pout and a slight shrug of her pretty shoulders.

“It seems your smiles are for Miss Deane, while your black looks are reserved for your wife,” she said.

“I have no interest in Miss Deane,” he replied; “it is nothing to me how she behaves, but my wife’s conduct is a matter of vital importance; and let me tell you, Zoe, I will have no more such exhibitions as you made of yourself to-night with either Mr. Larned or any other man. I won’t allow it. There are some things a man won’t put up with. You must and shall show some respect to my wishes in regard to this.”

“Orders, you’d better say,” she muttered.

“Well, then, orders, if you prefer it.”

She was very angry, and withal a good deal frightened.

“Exhibitions indeed!” she cried, sinking into a chair, for she was trembling from head to foot. “What did I do? Why had you any more right to laugh and talk with another woman than I with another man?”

“Laughing and talking may be well enough; but it was more than that; you were actually flirting.”

“You call it that just because you are jealous. And if I was, it was your fault—setting me the example by flirting with Miss Deane.”

“I did nothing of the kind,” he returned haughtily. “I sat beside her against my will, simply because she requested me to go over those sketches and engravings with her. I couldn’t in common politeness refuse.”

“Well, I didn’t know that; and you needn’t scold me for following your example.”

“I tell you I did not set you the example; and I advise you to beware how you behave so again. ….”

“Indeed! Why don’t you say at once that you’ll beat me if I don’t obey all your tyrannical orders?”

“Because it wouldn’t be true; should I ever so far forget myself as to lift my hand against my wife, I could never again lay claim to the name of gentleman.”

“Perhaps, then, you will lock me up?” she sneered.

“Possibly I may, if you make it necessary,” he said coldly.

“Lock me up, indeed! I’d like to see you try it!” she cried, starting up with flashing eyes, and stamping her foot in a sort of fury of indignation.

Then rushing into the adjoining room, she tore off her ornaments and dress, pulled down her hair, her cheeks burning, her eyes hot and dry.

But by the time she had assumed her night-dress the first fury of passion had spent itself, and scalding tears were raining down her cheeks.

She threw herself on the bed, sobbing convulsively.

What in the hell.

Edward abruptly packs his things, leaves the room, gets in a carriage, and embarks on a trip. He doesn’t say one word to Zoe, leaving her sobbing in her bed. Edward leaves some sort of note for the family, or sends a letter, saying he will be away for a time on business. At this time, Edward and Zoe don’t have their own house. Instead they live at Ion, on the Travilla plantation, with scads of rooms and cooks and servants, etc. This means that all the time Edward is gone, Zoe is living with his family, trying to pretend that nothin tis wrong and all the while imagining the worst.

Finally, Zoe decides to run away; she packs her things and leaves in the middle of the night. But as it so happens she leaves exactly as Edward is returning (also, apparently, in the middle of the night). When she sees him, she faints on the step. He carries her inside, works to revive her, sees the note she has written, and realizes what was happening.

He set down the lamp, knelt by her sofa and gathered her in his arms, resting her head against his breast.

“Zoe, my little Zoe, my own dear wife!” he said in faltering accents, “have I really been so cruel that you despair of my love? Why, my darling, no greater calamity than your loss could possibly befall me. I love you dearly, dearly! better far than I did when I asked you to be mine—when we gave ourselves to each other.”

“Oh, is it true? do you really love me yet in spite of all my jealousy and wilfulness, and—and—oh, I have been very bad and ungrateful and troublesome!” she sobbed, clinging about his neck.

“And I have been too dictatorial and stern,” he said, kissing her again and again. “I have not had the patience I ought to have had with my little girl-wife, have not been so forbearing and kind as I meant to be.”

“Indeed, you have been very patient and forbearing,” she returned, “and would never have been cross to me if I hadn’t provoked you beyond endurance. I have been very bad to you, dear Ned, but if you’ll keep me and love me I’ll try to behave better.”

“I’ll do both,” he said, holding her closer and repeating his caresses.

Yes, he really and truly calls her his “little girl-wife.” And yes, Zoe blames everything on herself and Edward lets her. He ought to be telling her that his behavior was wrong no matter how she behaved, or that it was his fault for not communicating with her, or that he was wrong to be angry with her for sitting and talking with Mr. Larned when he was doing the same thing with Ms. Deane. But he doesn’t say any of that. He said he wasn’t patient enough with her, and then lets her make herself the problem.

Now yes, this match is treated as out of the ordinary and not ideal. But if you’re referring to your wife as your “little girl-wife” it might be time to reassess. Maybe—just maybe—Edward should have given Zoe some space to finish growing up. Maybe there’s a finishing school she could have gone to for a few years. Or maybe she could have shared a room with his sister Rosie, who was around her age; she could have attended her lessons in the schoolroom with the other children, allowed to be a child like them until she’s older. Instead, Edward kept Zoe by his side, and because her education wasn’t finished he appointed himself her tutor, giving her assignments and grading her work.

The exchange between Edward and Zoe in the last bit quoted, by the way, is standard for this series. Time and again, a male character will realize that he has been perhaps too hard on a female character under his authority (a daughter or wife), and he will tell her as much; she will respond by insisting that no, she is the cause of all the trouble, because she has been so naughty, so disobedient, so thoroughly unlikable, and really everything is her fault. It becomes increasingly disturbing every time it happens.

Zoe and Edward eventually find their stride, though Zoe remains childlike long enough that even some fans of the series have mentioned online that the match is somewhat troubling. There is the scene a year after their marriage, when Zoe is 16, when Zoe and Edward come home from a two-week journey to find a new baby in the home. Zoe cannot imagine whose it is, and asks her mother-in-law, baffled, where it came from. She is told that it is Violet’s. Violet, like Zoe, still lives in her mother’s household, as her husband (an older widower) is a sea captain. A year into marriage, Zoe apparently doesn’t know where babies come from.

Actually it’s slightly more disturbing than that:

“I never saw so young a baby,” remarked Zoe. “How old is she, mamma?”

“A week to-day.”

“I’m tempted to break the tenth commandment,” said Zoe, leaning over the babe and touching her lips to its velvet cheek. “I used to be very fond of dolls, and a live one would be so nice. I almost wish it was mine.”

Did I mention that Zoe is still a child? Because it shows.

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