Guest Post: An Outsider Reads Elsie Dinsmore, Part II

Guest Post: An Outsider Reads Elsie Dinsmore, Part II May 19, 2013

A Guest Post by Tracey

This is the point in the book(s) where the chapters all start running together. This time I will summarize the events from chapter 8 of book one through chapter 3 of book two, spoil the ending, touch on some themes, and compare Elsie to other books.

Picking up where we left off, Elsie and Papa (Horace) are all sweetness and shiny-happy. Horace has no major beefs with his obedient little daughter, although he does keep her on a pretty tight leash. Elsie still cries at the drop of a hat, sometimes when she’s sad, sometimes happy, and sometimes when she thinks about Jesus. There are two minor incidents which almost land Elsie in hot water; first she refuses to tell a secular story on a Sunday. Luckily her dad thinks storytelling shouldn’t be forcibly extracted regardless of subject matter. Then she refuses to play a secular song on the piano on a Sunday. As punishment, Horace forces Elsie to sit at the piano until she is so tired she faints, striking her head. Horace is so shocked at Elsie’s injury he lets the matter drop.

Christmas goes by and there are some minor punishments for fairly ridiculous infractions, but things are mostly smooth and a Merry Christmas is had by all. By now we are into book two. There is a rather interesting commotion in chapter 3. Arthur really seems like he may be a sociopath. He continues to show himself hopelessly deficient in empathy. Elsie refuses to loan him money which he needs to pay a gambling debt. (He’s a little young for this cliche isn’t he?) To get revenge Arthur pushes her down a hill, then tries to make out like Elsie slipped. He is found out, and sent away to boarding school.

It was somewhere in these chapters that I started becoming seriously annoyed with the author. She is the one writing all these weird demands into Horace’s character, but in the end she makes sure he always has a point. He was right to keep Elsie from Rattlesnake Meadow. He is right to control her food intake by forbidding butter and coffee. He is right to proofread all her personal correspondence. He is right to emotionally monopolize her. In chapter 1 of the second book he tells her he wants “not a single thought or feeling concealed from me.” This is all written as if it is normal and positive, rather than odd and manipulative.

This was also the point at which I began to see the books as one long, boring sermon. The author manages to work in a ridiculous number of bible verses and concepts—often at the expense of the story. As an adult reader I can follow the neat little trail of breadcrumbs the author left us to follow if we want to be good Christians. We must love Jesus and follow him at all cost, bringing our burden for him to make lighter with his blood. And always remember what reprehensible sinners we are; this is an absolute must. You sinned, tell it to Jesus, and his blood will save you. Repeat. Total downer if you ask me. And probably the most times the word “blood” has appeared in a book for children.

Now I’d like to compare the Elsie story to some others that I actually read and liked. Early on in my reading I felt compelled to revisit the story of Sara Crewe, sometimes called A Little Princess. Sara is also presented as a long suffering child with no one to love her. Her father sends her to a posh boarding school for an education. He then dies, leaving her penniless and forced to become the house servant. Sara is like Elsie’s polar opposite however. She has retorts to match the volume of her mistreatment and isn’t afraid to sling them. Where Elsie’s good deeds are trivial and fall on those the least likely to need or appreciate them (see Arthur and the sailboat incident), Sara has a record of feeding the wholly destitute, even when she herself is hungry. Sara has a strong inclination towards justice. And justice is just not one of Elsie’s priorities.

I also revisited The Secret Garden. It stars a girl named Mary Lennox who is pampered and coddled as a British child in India. Her parents die and she is sent to England to live with an aunt. Mary is presented less pathetically than either Elsie or Sarah Crewe. Mary has a couple of friends and her main problem is boredom. The striking thing to me is that Mary arrives in England still very spoiled, and expecting to be given a servant who will dress her, because she’s never actually dressed herself. Regarding Elsie Dinsmore, dressing Elsie seems to be one of Mammy’s primary duties. The girl is sometimes dressed two and three times a day. Does she peel all her clothes off constantly or what? And I’ve been wondering for a while now if Elsie is even capable of putting on clothes.

My final comparison story will be Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights is a story of love and love withheld and its twisted repercussions. Heathcliff and Catherine (unrelated by blood) grow up together, and over the years fall in love. Catherine makes a careless statement at a critical moment, causing Heathcliff to doubt her love and flee for several years. When he returns she has married another. The rest of the book is about how they torture one another over this love they can never really express. The culmination of Catherine’s life involves an illness that is worsened (if not outright created) by a hysterical fit she has over Heathcliff and the desire for his love. Here’s the part where I spoil the ending of Elsie Dinsmore; she also works herself into illness over possibly losing her Papa’s love. The only difference here is that while Catherine dies, Elsie merely hovers at death’s doorstep. This seems a rather common theme in older novels: death from heartbreak and excitation. I get the distinct feeling that the type of sobbing and gasping happening in the Elsie story are on par with those in Wuthering Heights. And that’s disturbing, because Elsie and Horace are NOT lovers. They shouldn’t both be in such hysterics over one another. It’s creepy and unnatural—even more so given the shortness of their knowing one another.

I am forced to wonder again who this author is and where she gets her information on normal human behavior. Was her life as a child this dramatic and father-obsessed? Or is she merely overplaying the allegory of our desire as Christians to obtain the Father’s love? We really don’t know. In the next post I will give what little information I have regarding the author, follow the second book to its conclusion, and make some final remarks.

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