12 October 2011

Farewell to Elsie Dinsmore (sorta)

A friend and colleague of mine was in grief and sorrow the other day, so I very helpfully recommended Books To Read in Times of Distress, the main one of which, as far as I'm concerned, is Elsie Dinsmore. That, and Elsie's Holidays at Roseland, Elsie's Girlhood, Elsie's Womanhood, and Elsie's Motherhood. After that the series loses its punch.

When I was a child, I liked to read Elsie books whenever I had a fever -- very comforting they were then, cause I never had times as hard as Elsie's, at least in the first two books, wherein she is persecuted for her goodness.

I'm still waiting for my colleague to report back on her reading of Elsie -- if indeed she's still speaking to me after she slogs through the book -- but handing it over reminded me that years ago I had a plan to write some scholarly article on Elsie, just to get her out of my system, so I collected other scholarly articles, so as to familiarize myself with the discourse, of which, really, there wasn't much, but it was going to require me to learn a whole nother field -- which would be American, you know, and 19th Century, rather than, like, British and medieval -- and I never got around to it and I can't find the articles either, and I think I threw them out.

So it turns out that the blog entry I wrote long ago on Elsie is probably the only thing I'm going to write about Elsie. That's it.

So here, from about 7 years ago in "Creating Text(iles)," is My Last Scholarly and/or Semi-Scholarly Word on Elsie Dinsmore:


Occasionally I get tired of all the excellent literature I read, and return to a project I've got going, which is that I'm in the middle of reading ALL the "Elsie Dinsmore" books.

The first Elsie book, Elsie Dinsmore, was written in 1860, by Martha Finley. In this book, little Elsie, who is, oh, I guess about 10 when the series starts, is living with her grandparents and a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins, while her father, whom she has never met, is off in Europe. Elsie's VERY young mother died when Elsie was teeny tiny, but not before she imbued Little Elsie with a strong and abiding Christian faith, a faith which has been since nourished by Elsie's faithful mammy. Yes, our Little Elsie is rolling in the bucks, and owns slaves, being a very wealthy plantation heiress someplace in the ante-bellum South.

When I was small, my mom bought the second book, Elsie's Holidays at Roseland, for me, and I was immediately hooked. This is one hell of a series. Little Elsie is, hands down, THE most put-upon heroine of children's literature. Ever. In the first book, all her relatives hate her cause she's so committed to Being Good and saying her prayers, and they've got no patience with her, and when her dad comes home, he comes to like her cause she is so beautiful, but they all the time have little troubles, which eventually get Big when, one Sunday, he tells her to play the piano for the guests, and she won't, cause it's Sunday, and he makes her sit at the piano stool till she agrees, which she won't, cause though she's supposed to honor her father, she's also supposed to keep the Sabbath holy, so eventually she passes out and cracks her head open and has to be put to bed. The guests are pretty disturbed by this -- well, really, you can imagine -- and her dad is sorry.

But not so sorry that he doesn't get into almost exactly the same jam, only worse, in the next volume, when, during a lingering illness, he asks Little Elsie to read to him from a book of fairy tales, and she won't, cause, guess what, it's Sunday, so she's in dutch again, and he decides he can't treat her as a daughter if she won't act like one, so he won't kiss her or anything, and she goes into a decline, and then he leaves for Europe, so as to absent himself from her, and she just FADES away, very dramatically, and he manages to get back to her dying beside at just about the last minute. What the hell, I'll start a new sentence. In this dying illness, Elsie has become delirious, and is alternately haunted by visions of being handed over to The Nuns (the doctor has had her hair cut off on account of the fever, and her dad has threatened to hand her over to the Catholics), and visions of being Spurned By Her Father. "Oh, Daddy, Daddy, won't you kiss me now?" she's crying in her delirium.

Well, then she dies, and her dad is sorry and grieved, and becomes a Christian. And then she recovers. And all is well. I'm quite taken with the resurrection imagery here, myself. And it's SO subtle.

The rest of the series, which was enormously popular, went on for about 36 volumes. I forget the exact number. They go downhill after the first two, which are PACKED with interesting scenes, though throughout the series various interesting bits appear: Elsie marries her father's best friend, the nearest she can get, I guess, to her Dad himself; the family rides out the Civil War in Europe, sort of conveniently not taking sides (though their slaves all seem to be freed all of a sudden, one notices); later, on their return, the neighbors, who consider them to be Traitors to the Cause, attack the house, but the former slaves pour boiling oil on the Ku Klux Klan from an upstairs window; several many babies appear, all in the most mysteeeeerious fashion.

This is how it works, in the Elsie books: at breakfast, the family will be discussing the day's planned events, and making remarks about the excellence of the beaten biscuits. Then, one of the grown AND married women will disappear upstairs. End of chapter. Opening of next chapter: there's a baby! Yes, and Mama is doing well and is very pretty and fetching in her ruffled bed jacket. Also, baby is cute.


I'm on Book 13 -- Elsie's Friends at Woodburn -- and you'd think I'd be used to these things by now, and their singular narrative structures. But this one took me by surprise the other night -- I nearly fell out of bed laughing.Here's what happened.

In this book, Elsie's grown daughter, Violet, has married a much older sea-captain (yep, you see a pattern here), who has three children already. They have come to love their dear and beautiful new mama. She loves them. He loves her. Everybody loves everybody else. The children have retired to bed, and Violet and her husband are sitting looking meditatively at the fire. Violet remarks that she's been thinking about how two of the three inherited children look like their father, but the youngest, Grace, doesn't. "No," the father says, "she is just like her mother." Violet asks about the mother, mentioning that her husband's never mentioned her. The husband says that he didn't think Violet wanted to know about her. Oh, yes, Violet loves the children, and wants to keep their mother's memory green for them.The husband mentions that Grace was a lovely and kind Christian woman. "Oh," Violet says. "Grace!"

"Yes," the husband answers. "Our little Grace is named after her."

That's where I fell out of bed.

These people have known each other for at least two years now, and Violet's never learned the name of his first wife?

God, I love these books. They are deeply inspired.

But beware, folks -- if, hooked by my description of them, you want to go read them, do NOT get the new editions, which have been rewritten. You need to hit the used book sellers. Don't get anything published after 1990.

Since this writing, there has been an unexpurgated edition of a few of the Elsie books published -- just be careful. If you buy these books, you want the originals, in all their gawdawful horror.


Cass @ That Old House said...

Well shucks now I have something new to search for on eBay. Me 'n' Elsie need to get to know one another; I just loves me a sufferin' child.

Just ask my girls.

Anne said...

After you read them, you can feed them to Cousin Dion.

Infinite Possibilities said...

If cousin Dion ate mine (which I don't have any more...check half-price books) he would be all red from the covers.