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The Two Elsies and Elsie’s Kith and Kin

April 8, 2008

I haven’t been keeping up with writing about the Elsie books as I read them, but let’s forget about that and skip to book #11, The Two Elsies. The two Elsies in question are probably the original Elsie and her eldest daughter, but neither of them is particularly central to the story and several people have babies named Elsie at this point.

Anyway, a little background: in book #8, Elsie’s second daughter and third child, Violet, married Captain Raymond, a naval man and a widower with three children. Captain Raymond is away at sea much of the time, so Elsie and her father — he and his wife kind of moved in with Elsie after Mr. Travilla died in book #7 — say that the kids can come live with them (Violet is continuing to live at home, too). Max, the eldest, is kind of hasty and impulsive, but basically a good kid. Lulu has a bad temper that she has trouble controlling (in other words, she has a backbone, which means that she’s kind of alone in this series) but she is also scrupulously honest. Grace is a sickly but gentle little girl who soon becomes nearly as religious as Elsie was at her age. At this point, the books start to focus in on Lulu and her father, reworking the father daughter relationship that was so creepy in the earliest Elsie books, except that in this version, Lulu is pretty much always in the wrong, and also there’s a fair amount of corporal punishment, described in more detail than I wanted to read.

The Two Elsies begins, not with Lulu, but with Evelyn Leland and her parents. Evelyn’s father, Eric, is he elder brother of Lester Leland, who married Elsie’s eldest daughter. It’s so inconvenient that there’s no equivalent to ‘junior’ for women. I’m just going to call her Elsie II. Anyway, Eric Leland is dying and calls Lester and Elsie II to his home on the Hudson. His wife is kind of a bitch and talks a lot about “the claims of society” in order to justify going off to resort towns and leaving her thirteen-year-old daughter and dying husband, so Eric leaves Evelyn to the care of Lester and Elsie II, and when he finally dies, after a very drawn-out final illness, they take her with them to Fairview, their plantation, which is pretty much next door to Ion.

Lulu is glad to meet Evelyn, because Elsie’s youngest daughter Rosie, who is about the same age as the other two girls, is kind of obnoxious and mean. Except that she can’t be, because she’s Elsie’s daughter. But she sort of is. So Lulu and Evelyn become close friends, and Evelyn help Lulu keep control over her temper a bit better.

Then the whole extended family goes to Viamede for the winter. The older children — Max, Rosie, Lulu and Evelyn — are sent to a school nearby. There is a music teacher there, Signor Foresti, who has a very good reputation as a musician, but a very violent one as a teacher. So Mr. Dinsmore tells him not to hit any of the Viamede children and assumes that that will take care of the matter.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t. And it is Signor Foresti’s bad luck that the student he happens to strike out at — literally — is Lulu. He hits her across the hand with his pointer (raising blisters), so she hits him in the face with her music book and gives him a black eye. Yeah, Lulu’s kind of cool. And for a little bit, everyone agrees with me. They’re like, “yeah, Signor Foresti is a horrible man, and he should probably go to jail, etc,” and they all congratulate Lulu on her bravery. Meanwhile, Lulu vows never to take a lesson from Foresti again.

Mr. Dinsmore, however, has other ideas. for him, the fact that Foresti is a good music teacher — although all available evidence seems to point to his being a pretty bad one — trumps the fact that he hit Lulu so hard she got blisters. When Lulu refuses to take another lesson from Foresti, Mr. Dinsmore deprives her of a number of privileges, eventually confining to her room when she’s not at school. When she still doesn’t succumb, he doesn’t allow her to come home at all, and has her board at the school, where they provide inadequate food and are mean to her. It takes Gracie falling ill and Captain Raymond’s being rumored to be lost at sea to convince her that God is angry at her and she should just give in. Just as she’s finished writing a note to Mr. Dinsmore to that effect, though, another girl comes up to her and says, “guess what? Signor Foresti is moving back to Italy!” This is tremendously lucky for Lulu, especially since Max is there and can vouch for the fact that she wrote the letter before she knew she wouldn’t have to take the lessons either way.

In Elsie’s Kith and Kin, after a whole bunch of stuff about Elsie’s son Edward and his underaged wife, Zoe (he married her when she was fifteen), the family returns to Ion. Lulu is very sorry about her disobedience in the last book, and tries harder than ever to be good, but it’s very difficult for her to keep her temper when Rosie is always teasing and insulting her. Also, Rosie’s dog is always picking on Lulu, biting at her skirts and chewing up her stuff. So, when Max suggests that he and Lulu go horseback riding — Lulu riding Rosie’s horse because she hasn’t got her own — and she comes outside to find that Rosie has changed her mind about going riding and has gone off with the horse without saying anything, and then she feels something tugging at the back of her skirt, she just kicks out at Rosie’s annoying dog without even thinking about it. And who could blame her?

Except that it wasn’t the dog.

It was Lulu’s baby sister Elsie, Violet and Captain Raymond’s daughter. And not only did Lulu kick her, she kicked her down the stairs. I’ve certainly never laughed this hard over an Elsie book before.

Meanwhile, or a little while back, on Captain Raymond’s ship — which is not actually lost at sea — Captain Raymond receives a letter from (scrupulously honest) Lulu, telling him all about her misbehavior at Viamede. “Gee,” thinks the Captain, “I wish I was rich enough to resign from the Navy so I could go home and watch over Lulu constantly.” Then he goes on to the next letter, and lo and behold! An investment out West has made him a millionaire! He resigns from the Navy and goes home, arriving just in time to see the commotion Lulu has caused by kicking little baby Elsie down the stairs, although Lulu herself has already run off to her room.

The baby, who, by the way, is more of a toddler, really, instead of having a concussion or broken bones or internal injuries or anything reasonable, is unspecifically deathly ill. The next bit is kind of complicated, but basically everyone thinks Lulu did it on purpose, even her father, although she soon manages to convince him that it was an accident. After being assured that the baby will recover, even Violet eventually forgives Lulu.

Captain Raymond buys a plantation house nearby with very little ceremony, and then fixes it up perfectly for every member of the family. The six of them move in, and the Captain tries to supervise Lulu and help her to curb her temper. But you know, the whole breaking-Lulu’s-spirit thing isn’t even the issue. It’s sad to think that the only character with a mind of her own is going to eventually turn into a clone of Elsie, but it’s sadder to think that these characters inhabit a world where girls are punished for their tempers by family members becoming ill and by being made to accidentally kick their baby siblings down the stairs, and where, if a boy fires a gun without permission, he will inevitably hit his father.

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6 comments

  1. Oh, my god. I LOVE the Elsie books– they’re total trainwrecks– and the Patty books, and Ruth Fielding, and Betty Wales, and I’m still catching up here, but you’ve read Grace Harlowe and Jane Allen and E. D. E. N. Southworth, right? And god bless ManyBooks and Archive.org, and Gutenberg.

    And I’m going straight from here to 19th Century ChickLit.

    Also, I love the Elsie books. The total, epic Electra / Oedipal complexes, the deification and reincarnation of Elsie, the deeply weird family relations (everyone moves in with everyone else)– it’s all just stunning.

    My favorite character will always be Lulu, though. I like to imagine that instead of becoming elsie-fied, she runs away and becomes a sculptress, or a celebrated furniture designer (like Morris).


  2. Yes to Grace Harlowe, no to Jane Allen (although I’m sure I’ll get around to them eventually), and I only got about a quarter of the way through The Hidden Hand because I was in the middle of a bunch of other stuff. If you like Southworth, check out Child’s Romance of the Republic.

    As for Elsie, I can’t count the number of people I’ve scared away by recounting her adventures–can I call them that–in detail. Lulu was potentially awesome, but I also like Molly Percival, even though Martha Finley’s idea of a woman having her own career was a little lacking. Also, I love that wearing high heels once made her a lifelong cripple.

    Thanks for commenting; I love to know that I’m not the only person who enjoys this kind of book, and I hope you enjoy working your way through the archives.


  3. I love Southworth because someone’s always murdering someone or surviving a murder attempt or going insane or having an evil twin or an illegitimate baby. They’re like trashy talk shows, only with much better clothes and grammar.

    Jane Allen is a lot like Grace Harlowe, only not so Grace Harlowe-y, and with a serious fascination with basketball.

    re Adventures – Remember the bit in “Patty’s Summer Days,” pre-breakdown, when she recounts her adventure to her friends? And the adventure is how she got into a cab with no cab fare and had to call for help?

    Compared with the Outdoor Girls’ getting caught and almost suffocating in an avalanche, Patty’s story made me laugh and laugh and laugh.


  4. re: Adventures — I know! Stratemeyer girls are always getting caught in storms and nearly attacked by wild animals, and Patty just forgets her change purse. On the other hand, she did get kidnapped that one time.

    Southworth is on my to-read list. I love that kind of stuff — illegitemates, babies switched a birth, secret marriages — the weirder the better.


  5. She got kidnapped? I don’t remember that one, might’ve missed it. But I remember the time Patty danced barefoot (gasp!)!

    Is there any possibility Wells was writing the books as a semi-spoof?

    What makes Southworth truly awesome is that so many of these things happen so often in the same book. And her heroines are always patterns of gorgeousness, of course.


  6. Have you read Patty’s Friends? That’s the book that convinced me that Carolyn Wells wrote the Patty books tongue planted firmly in cheek. She arrives in England and promptly reunites an estranged father and daughter, recovers a lost family treasure, and is proposed to be an earl.

    You should definitely read Romance of the Republic. Not only are two babies switched at birth, but they’re both named Gerald Fitzgerald, and one of them is one-sixteenth black. And his mother is separated from her sister for twenty years only to be reunited by a parrot! And everyone, of course, is related to everyone else.



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