A few memes ago, ladyherenya
asked me which characters I wanted to save from their narratives, a question that it took me basically forever to answer because I kept getting distracted and writing BASICALLY AN ESSAY about Elsie Dinsmore. So I decided that I should share
, because when I read this book for my nineteenth-century girls' literature project it basically exploded my brain.
Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore
books are a series about an evangelical Protestant girl, first written in the 1870s. They basically focus on her relationship with her terrible, terrible father, who is simultaneously antagonist and hero, which is screamingly painful
So Elsie’s mom died soon after Elsie was born, and in his grief Elsie’s father (who incidentally was super young and hot, the book informs us repeatedly) ran away to Europe and didn’t see his daughter till his return when she was eight. Eight-year-old Elsie, as Finley likes to remind us, is “not yet perfect,” because she does terrible things like allowing “her friend to accuse her [Elsie’s] father of cruelty and injustice without offering any remonstrance.”
You know, because he does little things like give her bread and water for lunch, and then, when she’s crying too hard to eat it, force her to choke it down because he thinks she’s refusing to eat out of stubbornness. Not cruel or unjust at all, am I right?
Poor abused Elsie spends the first few books yearning hopelessly for her father’s love, which he keeps withdrawing whenever she disobeys him. In Mr. Dinsmore’s mind, anything less than cheerful and instantaneous submission to his will is disobedience, so even saintly and self-effacing Elsie can’t please him.
And that’s before he asks her to flout her Calvinist convictions. Not, you know, because he doesn’t know about her convictions, but because he thinks that her convictions are ridiclous and wants to break them once and for all. So he gets sick, and he takes the opportunity to be all, "Elsie, I know it's the Sabbath, but you should read me this secular book."
Elsie refuses! Mr. Dinsmore is so vexed by her disobedience that he almost dies
. Elsie’s hitherto kindly aunt tells her, “we all know that it is nothing but your misconduct that has caused this relapse.” Go ahead, Aunt Adelaide, twist that knife
But then! But then! He gets better! NOOOOO. And Mr. Dinsmore is SUPER MAD. His daughter disobeyed him, and clearly the only proper response to this is SHUNNING. He tells her, “Elsie, I expect from my daughter entire, unquestioning obedience, and until you are ready to render it, I shall cease to treat you as my child. I shall banish you from my presence, and my affections.”
Elsie of course feels no anger about that. She tells him, “I know you have a right to do it, papa; I know I belong to you, and you have a right to do as you will with me, and I will try to submit without murmuring, but I cannot help feeling sad.”
(Is this the proper time to comment on the creepy incestuous vibes from their relationship? Lest you think this is my twenty-first century perversity talking, no, the other characters comment on it too: “Really, if a body didn’t know your relationship, he or she might almost imagine you a pair of lovers,” Elsie’s Aunt Enna scoffs.
And in a later book, after Elsie almost got engaged to a vile speculator Elsie’s father is all “DID HE KISS YOU?” Elsie assures her father that he did not, and Elsie’s father reacts thus: “ ‘I am truly thankful for that!’ he exclaimed in a tone of relief; ‘to know that he had – that these sweet lips had been polluted by contact with his – would be worse to me than the loss of half my fortune.’ And lifting her face as he spoke, he pressed his own to them again and again.”
People in the nineteenth century had different standards about physical contact than we do, but I am pretty sure that a father basically making out with his daughter was never okay
BUT BACK TO THE SHUNNING. Elsie’s father shuns her for six months. He convinces most of the extended family to shun her too. He takes away her nanny, who is basically her mother figure. Elsie begins to pine away and die. He builds a giant plantation house that they can live in together, if only Elsie will give up on her whole wicked “having a conscience” thing and apologize, and tells her that “all your friends will soon cease to love you, if you continue to show such a willful temper.”
Because apparently Mr. Dinsmore’s main goal in life is to destroy the last ragged shreds of Elsie’s self-esteem. The narrative is forever noting Elsie’s self-loathing with great approval: “I don’t deserve that he should love me or be kind and indulgent, when I am so rebellious,” she tells herself sorrowfully.
(This is, incidentally, the part of the book where Elsie begins to fantasize about dying. “I am afraid it isn’t right, but sometimes I am so sad and weary that I cannot help longing very much to die, and go to be with her [mother] and with Jesus; for they would always love me, and I should never be lonely any more,” she says wistfully.)
But despite her self-hatred, Elsie refuses to apologize! Her father, baffled and infuriated, is all, "If you don't obey me I will send you to a CONVENT SCHOOL." Elsie has been raised on terrible stories about wicked Papists torturing Protestants, and therefore promptly falls into a fatal decline, which so alarms her father that he comes to see her. Elsie, who is delirious, sees him and is like, “IT IS THE INQUISITOR AAAAAAH.”
I cannot disagree with you there, Elsie.
And then Elsie dies
! Except not really, because there are going to be twenty-something more books about her. But her father thinks
she dies, and is Saved, and then he never asks her to go against her conscience again, and they live together happily ever after despite the fact that he is a terrible, terrible
And these books have been recently reprinted
. What is this I don’t even WHAT WERE THEY THINKING.