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Elsie Dinsmore and Holidays at Roselands

January 31, 2008

Okay, I should really be working on this week’s assignment for my thesis class, but first I need to talk a little about Elsie Dinsmore.

It should come as a surprise to no one that I’m writing my thesis on old children’s books — girls’ series, mostly from the early 20th century — and this week I’ve been reading the first couple of Elsie Dinsmore books. The Elsie books were written my Martha Finley and ran from 1867 to 1905. There are 28 books, but Elsie is a grandmother by book eight. Actually a grandmother, as opposed to behaving like a grandmother, which she does right from the beginning.

Elsie is eight when the first book opens. She lives with her grandfather, his second wife, and their children, a couple of whom are younger than she is. Her father, Horace Dinsmore, secretly married her mother when they were teenagers, and when his father found out, he sent Horace to Europe. Elsie’s mother died a week after Elsie was born, and Horace has not yet returned from Europe, so Elsie has never known either of her parents. Basically, nobody loves her. She’s really lonely, but she’s also intensely religious, so she works out all her feelings by trying to be like Jesus.

Eventually her father comes back, but Elsie is all awkward and shy with him, so he thinks she’s scared of him. Also, he secretly dislikes her. But he wants to be a good father to her, so he takes over every aspect of her life, particularly breakfast: she’s not allowed to drink coffee, eat meat or hot bread, and she won’t be allowed to taste butter until she’s, like, twelve. According to one of the pieces in The Girl’s Own, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Nelson and Lynn Vallone, some mid-nineteenth century doctors thought hot bread and coffee led to premature sexual development in young girls. Personally, I think avoiding her father’s friend Mr. Travilla would be as much help to Elsie on that front as giving up coffee. He’s creepy.

Anyway, Mr. Dinsmore grows to love Elsie, and of course she adores him, so they get along pretty well, so long as she’s completely obedient, which she always is, provided he doesn’t tell her to do anything fun on a Sunday. The one time he does, Elsie falls off a piano stool and hits her head, almost being killed.

Anyway, they’re doing pretty well, and eventually the first book ends and the second begins, although you wouldn’t notice if it weren’t for the different title page of Holidays at Roselands — the first line of which says something like, “Elsie felt better the next morning.”

Elsie, however, does not feel better for long. Her father gets sick, and Elsie is the perfect nurse — she’s nine by this time, but it probably wouldn’t make a difference if she were half that age — until her father asks her to read a novel to him one Sunday. Elsie refuses, so her father comes up with a string of punishments: first he doesn’t allow her to see him, then he confines her to her room all day and doesn’t allow her to join the family at meals, and finally he sends away her mammy. Meanwhile the whole family is constantly going on about what a naughty, disobedient child she is.

Fortunately for Elsie, she believes that this is all a test from God, or perhaps a punishment for loving her earthly father better than her heavenly one. This manages to resign her to her punishments. Then Mr. Dinsmore, who is secretly just as upset as Elsie over the separation and is afraid that he’ll give in if he sticks around any longer, goes on a trip, and Elsie starts to waste away.

Mr. Dinsmore has bought a house for himself and Elsie nearby, and has been having it furnished. He sends a letter to Elsie telling her to go see how beautiful it is, and encouraging her to submit to him — what he wants her to do is to promise to be absolutely obedient to him at all times, regardless of the circumstances. So she goes and looks at the house — it’s called The Oaks — and it’s beautiful, and Elsie points out a tree on the lawn to her mammy, who has been acting as the housekeeper of The Oaks, and says that that’s where she’d like to be buried, because it’s so pretty, and her papa can see it from his window.

When Mr. Dinsmore hears that Elsie still won’t give it, he threatens to send her to a convent. Elsie has a horror of Catholicism, and imagines that she will be tortured and made to become a nun, so she promptly contracts brain fever.

Her aunt Adelaide, Elsie’s one ally in the family, writes to Mr. Dinsmore telling him Elsie’s life is in danger, but of course he doesn’t receive the letter immediately, and by the time he gets home she’s so crazy that she doesn’t recognize him.

Then she dies.

Mr. Dinsmore, prostrated by grief, becomes a faithful Christian on the spot, which I think is sort of counterintuitive — it’s like, thanks, God, for killing my kid. Meanwhile, the doctor is like, wait, there’s a little warmth around her heart, let’s see if we can bring her back to life. It’s exactly like the scene in 101 Dalmatians where Roger rubs the puppy and brings it back to life.

So Elsie gets better, but she’s still very weak, and she hasn’t asked to see her father, and the doctor is scared of giving her a shock. Then they realize that she has no memory of the past year or so, and doesn’t realize that she’s ever met her father. I honestly can’t see a point to this bit, because they meet again, and spend a lot of time together, and then eventually she remembers the past year, and nothing is any different.

So Elsie and her father move to The Oaks, and are very happy. They host a Christmas dinner, and Aunt Adelaide acts as hostess. Mr. Dinsmore says that he’s not going to get married again, and he can just continue to have his sisters preside at his parties until Elsie grows up. Creepy Mr. Travilla, who lives with his mother, says that he already has a housekeeper, and can afford to wait for Elsie to grow up. She’s ten, you know. I imagine this line is accompanied by a leer.

Elsie Dinsmore at Project Gutenberg or as a beautiful PDF at the Internet Archive

Holidays at Roselands at Project Gutenberg or as a beautiful PDF at the Internet Archive

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33 comments

  1. Review of the year! I stopped several times to have a good laugh while reading this post. It just kept on getting…better. How old is Mr. Travilla? I didn’t like all of that complete submission talk from the dad either so I added him to the creep pile…and then Elsie comes in with that “I want to be buried there!” line and I decided that the entire family should just be put away.

    I bet Mr. Dinsmore became a Christian out of pure fear. If that’s what you get for insisting on novel reading what would God do in response to his and Mr. Travilla’s plan to make Elsie the latter’s child bride, which we all know she would be perfect at at any age?

    Both books downloaded.


  2. [...] Melody on Elsie Dinsmore written by Martha Finley [...]


  3. Well, because he ran off and got married as a teenager, Mr. Dinsmore is only 18 years older than Elsie. Which makes Mr. Travilla 26 when Elsie is eight. At the end of the fourth book Mr. Travilla (age 49) looks at his and Elsie’s (age 31) nine-year-old daughter and says something like “She looks exactly as you did when i first knew and coveted you.”

    I didn’t go into the creepiness of Mr. Dinsmore much, but I did mean to say something about a bit where one of Elsie’s friends asks for one of her beautiful golden-brown curls to make into a bracelet, and Mr. Dinsmore says that Elsie has no curls; they all belong to him. And all her friends are always talking about how tyrannical he is, but Elsie insists that she likes to be ordered around and punished when she’s done something wrong. And they spend a lot of time kissing each other–she’s always craving physical signs of affection from him–and when Elsie is older, people are constantly mistaking them for lovers.


  4. Oh…dear. It’s like V.C. Andrews on crack. :o


  5. Except that neither the characters not the author think that they’re doing anything wrong.


  6. Y’know, I’d heard of Elsie Dinsmore, but I hadn’t known what it was (it was an aside in Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner). This gives me a new understanding of the cultural context of Little Orphan Annie, as well.


  7. Little Orphan Annie is no Elsie Dinsmore. By the time she was created, most girl-heroines didn’t make you want to strangle them.


  8. Dear Elsie. Elsie is a through creep, so is Mr. Travilla, so is Papa and Aunt Chloe aka Mammy. I’m considering the writing of an Elsie parody, in a similar style to Mary Hartman. Dear ol’ Elsie is always good for a laugh.


  9. I read some of these books when a child and instantly hated my father because he didn’t care if I ate butter or not! My husband had one order, “Don’t allow our daughter to read these books!” Nevertheless, the character and name of “Bromley Egerton” has become a household word in describing certain people.


  10. It’s good to know that these books still have relevance for some people. It’s been hard for me to understand how the Elsie books were so popular, but I guess there’s something deeply appealing about them when you read them as a child.


  11. It was all a bit confusing for me. sorry.


  12. No need to apologize.


  13. Uhh you’re sadly mistaen if you think elsie dies. I have read the series 3 times and it says shes NEAR death. Not that she dies. Sooo ya I don’t think that Mr.Travilla is wierd! I think he’s nice but he really tends to get elsie in a alot of trouble… But there’s another series with elsie’s daughter and her daughter’s name is Violet TRAVILLA so she like merries him or something.. EW he’s like 40 by the time she’s at most 20!!!! GROSS!!!!!


  14. I can only reply by quoting directly from Holidays at Roselands:

    “The first faint streak of dawn was beginning in the eastern sky when
    the doctor, who had been bending over her for several minutes, suddenly
    laid his finger on her pulse for an instant; then turned to his
    fellow-watchers with a look that there was no mistaking.

    There was weeping and wailing then in that room, where death-like
    stillness had reigned so long.

    “Precious, precious child! dear lamb safely gathered into the Saviour’s
    fold,” said Mrs. Travilla in quivering tones, as she gently laid her hand
    upon the closed eyes, and straightened the limbs as tenderly as though it
    had been a living, breathing form.”

    She obviously isn’t all the way dead, but everyone believes that she’s dead, and Finley plainly means for the reader to think so, too.

    Anyway, I suspect you’ve been reading the new version of the series, because the original Elsie books include both Elsie’s marriage to Mr. Travilla and the stories of heir children, including Violet.


  15. I dunno, I think Elsie is as creepy as the grownups ;)

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts, though I do wish you had a search widget – I was wondering if you’d read Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl and what you thought of it.


  16. I’ve read An Old-Fashioned Girl more times than I can count, actually. I usually read it in the fall, curled up in bed with a hot drink. It’s one of my all-tie favorites, and the only real reason I haven’t written about it here is that Alcott is a fairly canonical author and therefore too good for my website. :)

    Elsie is definitely creepy. She wants to be buried in the front yard so that her dad can see her grave when he looks out the window!


  17. You are all silly.


  18. Oh, Elsie rocks! She makes the reader want to strangle her upon the first reading, and doesn’t change at all. I’m hunting for a copy of ‘Elsie at the World’s Fair’, and ‘Christmas With Grandma Elsie’. Yes, Mr. Travilla does croak eventually. Living with Goodness and Piety is enough to take the ginger out of any normal older man. When they make a movie out of the Elsie Dinsmore stories, I nominate Mel Gibson to play the role of Mr. Travilla. Don’t forget, in Martha Findley’s time parental control was considered Good Parenting. She began the series to keep the wolf from her door, her brothers had lost all the family money.


    • You can find both those Elsie books at Gutenberg. When I was little we had Elsie Dinsmore and Elsie’s Girlhood. I used to read the first one over and over and cry. I never understood why she couldn’t have played a hymn for her father on Sunday, but maybe that never occurred to her. Even my grandmother, who was very religious, thought Elsie was a sap.


  19. You all made me laugh. The first time I read Elsie was as a small girl at my granny’s house. Elsie is undoubtedly the most insipid girl character ever created! My mother (who is very religious) even said she hated those books as a child.
    Travilla is definitely a closet child molester!
    Mel Gibson as Horace–brilliant casting!


  20. I think none of you is thinking like and 8 or 9 yr. old child, which is who these books are written to. I have never read these before I started reading them to my 9 yr. old daughter. I must admit I’d never heard of them until recently, however there is much that can be taken from them even as an adult. After all patience is always something we can use more of. Kindness is such a lacking character trait in so many people these days that if one person can show a little more kindness the world will be a better place. As an adult I do not think any 8 yr. old would know the “scriptures” as Elsie does, but as an 9 yr. old girl,my daughter does not go into this much thinking she simply accepts that Elsie knows the verses. As an adult, I think Elsie was sheltered and was not a realistic character, but as a 9 yr. old child my daughter accepts the qualities given to Elsie by the author and is in tears when she thinks Elsie dead. To my daughter Elsie is as real as anyone else while reading the book. As an adult I see Elsie as something much different than a child would see Elsie, but if I can put aside the “realities” of life while reading, these books tend to be enjoyable escape from the “nasty now and now”.


    • Well, certainly there’s something captivating about Elsie, especially for children. These books were wildly popular when they were published. And children are often much more accepting of odd things happening in books than adults are. But Elsie has worrying traits as well as good ones; I think probably kids are as capable of seeing that as adults are, but I worry that they’re not.


  21. I am sorry that I disagree with your point of view. I have several Elsie books and I think they are very interesting. To me, Mr. Travilla is very nice and kind, and I sincerely was very sad when Elsie ‘died’ Thanks for showing your views as I am showing mine.


  22. IElsie could easily have gone along with Daddy Dinsmore but she held on to her beliefs! She’s no sap! I am not of her religion but I admire moral courage. So there.


    • I absolutely agree that Elsie has the strongest personality of anyone in the book. She is, quite literally, willing to die for her beliefs. I just find the beliefs she’s willing to die for a little worrying.


  23. These books inspire young girls to lead good lives. I started reading them when I was 8. I believe they have helped me to be better.


  24. Goodness me! I didn’t quite realise how much today’s society is so twisted! I am going on 16 this year and still adore the A Life of Faith series. I think they are beautiful stories that are wholesome, well meaning, encouraging and helpful to young ladies and little girls who strive to be faithful to their Lord and their elders. Elsie’s Papa is her Elder who she respect and honour by obeying and striving to serve him the best she can in order to please our God. Why should this be frowned upon? Elsie is only doing what she knows to be right and good, as am I. I look up to Miss. Dinsmore for being so pure and righteous, I would never imagine getting “depressed” by her good manners and way of life!
    Oh, and the way you all think the elder men on this lovely story are “perverts” just shows how much your minds have been, well, perverted by the media, our society and I’d say – pornography. Growing up I’ve always know that seeking approval and affection by my parents…. Yes, that includes my Pa aswell is a very right and good thing to do! Why? Not only does it stop young girls and ladies from seeking attention from the wrong sources, i.e. boys who hold no commitment and break hearts but also makes the family unit a strong and commendable one. Yes, I do understand that a lot of Fathers and men in general TODAY are not loving towards their daughters in the same way and keep distances between any lady or girl that is any younger than themselves in case of being seen as a pervert… Or even worse. We have to see, though, that back then there weren’t these terrible things happening (not nearly in the same degree, any how) and I truly because, I truly believ, back then there was more of a fear of God and men were MEN. As I rake through advert, television programmes and modern day books the man of today is portrayed as ignorant, unmanly and stupid. He either has a ‘pretty’ face on an advertisement or a coach potatoe on the ‘funny’ comedies. Where is the real men? The men who love their families so much they pour their all into them, the men who love their God with reverence and purity, the men who are willing to be the bread-winners we have lost, and the men who aren’t afraid to kiss their daughters goodnight in order to show his love for them. It feels silly for us to think it is alright for a man to spend his time looking at porn or is addicted to sitting on his bum in front of soaps and action films all day but it isn’t alright for him to show affection to his family!
    And as for marrying someone with a big age gap that was a perfectly acceptable thing to do back then. When a lady goes to 70 years of age and her husband is 9m years of age it doesn’t seem shocking in the slightest. Just to point it out, only 60 years ago it was also perfectly acceptable for a lady to marry at the age of 16 but now everyone seems to be down right shocked that I am betrothed and extremely happy about it. Now a days people have this mentality that you have to be way over 20 years old before you consider settling down.
    It was a different world back then, don’t judge your ancestors for doing what they thought was normal and fine!
    ChloeJane
    xx


    • I’m not entirely sure why I’m replying to this comment, because I doubt we’re going to agree, but I want to make a couple of points.

      First, the age difference thing: it wasn’t the number of years between Elsie and Mr. Travilla that bothered me so much as the fact that he already intends to make her his wife when she’s about ten. That may not have been unheard of in the mid 19th century, but that doesn’t mean it was okay. You can’t possibly imagine that there was no pedophilia or sexual abuse in the 19th century — it just wasn’t talked about or, probably, recognized for what it was. And to present it in this context is a little scary to me, because a book for young girls that presents the romantic/sexual interest of a grown man in a young girl as acceptable is, quite frankly, dangerous.

      The other thing is Elsie’s obedience to her father. She’s NOT obedient. And I sort of like that she’s not blindly obedient to him, and is able to form her own moral judgments, but her priorities are wrong. She is literally willing to die rather than read a novel on a Sunday. And that’s not worth dying for.

      There’s something very seductive about this kind of story when you’re young. Part of it is the idea that the adults are wrong, and the suffering girl is vindicated. Part of it is that historical novels present what seems like a simpler, happier and more moral time. Just…think critically. Question your assumptions. Pointing out problematic things is not the same thing as making things seem worse than they are.


      • I first started reading the Elsie Dinsmore books when I was 8 years old. That was 53 years ago and I still enjoy them, so I think we can rule out that I’m being seduced by them because of my tender years! Pointing out problematic things is not, as you say, the same thing as making things seem worse than they are. However, critiquing a book or series of books without looking at them in the context of the history and literature ofthe time does tend to lead to misunderstanding and a loss of opportunity for using literature to better understand an era, region, etc. The literature of the late 19th century is replete with melodramatic, highly sentimental, dogmatically religious examples. I’ve always thought that Elsie’s relationships with both her father and Travilla probably represent a little (or a lot) of wish fulfillment on the part of the author.

        Imposing the values of our time on literature written 150 years ago can cause us to miss the things that are of value in the books and leads to some ludicrous situations. For example, people tried to get Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn removed from curricula and libraries because of the treatment of the runaway slave, Jim. Yet it was written for the public of THAT time, and can serve to enlighten today’s readers as to some of the issues of that time and, dare I say, the progressor lack thereof we have made since. Frankly, the very thought of censorship scares me a lot more than anything contained in the entire Elsie series–and I’ve read the whole thing many times.

        The age difference between Elsie and Travilla is not uncommon in relationships today. The comments he made, judged by the standards of that time, leave a quite different impression than if we judge them in light of today’s cultural values. Values change–we have not cornered the market for all time on what isright and wrong. If you were to write a book today and it had enough merit to survive a hundred years from now, I can guarantee you that there would be a significant group of people of the future who would be appalled by SOMETHING in its contents.

        I don’t know how many people on this board have read the later books in the series. The Raymond family, first introduced in Grandmother Elsie, pretty much takes over the series. Lulu Raymond, who becomes Elsie’s daughter Violet’s stepdaughter, adds a reality element–she is an often naughty little girl who doesn’t become a Christian until several books after he was introduced. Her father, Navy Captain Raymond, is about the same number of years older than Violet as Travilla was than Elsie. He is a sort of corrected version of Horace Dinsmore. He’s a Christian from the beginning and is trying to teach his children to lead Christian lives, and does not make all of “Papa Dinsmore’s” mistakes. On the other hand, dealing with a child who is often genuinely naughty, he whips her several times over the course of several books. If we judge that by today’s standards, we write him off as an abuser–yet that type of discipline was accepted and expected in the time we’re talking about–late 1800s–and for many years thereafter.

        I’ve never really had anyone to discuss this series with, and have enjoyed having that opportunity and reading your comments. I’ve been a collector of old girls series books for many years, and would love to read the thesis mentioned by one of the previous posters, when it’s finished.


  25. Thank you for the review.

    You had almost convinced me to read them until the Elsie supporters began posting.

    I realize I am now too evil to read the Elsie Dinsmore series and need to save them for the pure of heart.

    (Who ever was going to do the Mary Hartman treatment, I’ll read that.)


    • Don’t mind the Elsie supporters — what can they do, make you take Elsie seriously? I think not. I suggest reading the bit where Elsie is wishing she could be more like Jesus, and deciding based on that whether you’ll continue.


  26. Johnny come lately to this post, but the CHloe Jane poster must share the same legalistic views as these books. As others have said,Just because something was normal when these books were written doesn’t mean they are ok today. ‘Chloe Jane’ must have read the watered down version that leaves out when her father almost thrashed her with a whip and she was really inncocent. Would that be acceptable in today’s society? Slavery was also acceptable in those days. There is a difference in obeying and blind obedience. And don’t get me started on the double standards of the time. Women were expected to follow a high code of conduct being submissive first to fathers and then husbands. Modern women have learned they can be indpendent of male authority. You can still repesct parents and think fo yourself. I hope as ‘Chloe Jane’ gets older she relaizes our concerns over these books..THe ‘Father knows Best’ mantra is not lways correct. The problem in today’ society is the things that passes for ‘Christian’ may not be so Christitan after all. And you don’t need religion to be good.


  27. The elsie books are great i think, elsie is a very obedient little girl and very sweet. Also i have a sister that looks like elsie and she is very sweet her name is maryanne and she loves to play the piano so goodby.



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