Elsie Dinsmore and Holidays at RoselandsJanuary 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.