Elsie’s Girlhood

February 6, 2008

When Elsie’s Girlhood begins, Elsie and her father are traveling with Rose Allison and her brother Edward. Rose had paid a visit to the Dinsmores at Roselands before Mr. Dinsmore returned from Europe, and because they were the only two serious Christians in the house — not counting the slaves, of course — they became very good friends. And since Mr. Dinsmore is now an avid Christian too, and because Rose is very attractive, and because something needs to be done to save him from the designing Miss Stevens, they fall in love and get engaged. Elsie is very pleased, and gladly promises to call Rose “mamma”.

So Mr. Dinsmore and Rose get married and go back to The Oaks, and they and Elsie live very happily together. One day Elsie comes downstairs for breakfast or something and finds her father sitting there alone.

Elsie: Where is mamma?

Mr. D: Oh, upstairs. But look at what I’ve got here!

Elsie: A baby! But where did it come from?

Mr. D: It’s your brother!

Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but it really is as if the baby came out of nowhere, and its mother is barely mentioned in connection to it at all. I just kept wondering how they’d been explaining away Rose’s weight gain to Elsie. I mean, she’s supposed to be really innocent, but she’s also supposed to be fairly bright.

Then we skip three years. Elsie is fifteen. Her friend Herbert Carrington is sixteen, and completely in love with her. What else is there to do when you’re an enthusiastically Christian cripple? Not much, I guess, because no one seems surprised by this development except for Mr. Dinsmore. But then, he’s only upset because he wants Elsie all to himself. He refuses his consent because Elsie is too young and because Herbert is a cripple, or so he says, but clearly it’s because he’s disturbingly obsessed with his daughter. So the engagement is called off, and Herbert wastes away and dies. No one seems surprised by this either.

Three more years pass. Elsie is eighteen, and her good-for-nothing uncle Arthur, who tormented her as a child, is about twenty. While Elsie makes a visit to her aunt Wealthy Stanhope in Ohio, Arthur is getting ever more deeply in debt to Tom Jackson, a professional gambler. One night, after losing thousands of dollars, Arthur comes up with a great way to pay Jackson back — by putting him in the way of marrying Elsie, who, by the way, is an heiress worth about $3 million. And this is before the Civil War, so Elsie is seriously wealthy. Today she’d be a billionaire.
So Tom Jackson goes the town in Ohio where Aunt Wealthy lives. He’s disguised as a gentleman and he introduces himself as Bromly Egerton, and he somehow manages to convince Elsie that he’s a serious Christian and eventually she falls in love with him. He’s just proposed when Mr. Travilla shows up for a visit. Now, not only is Travilla jealous — seeing as he’s been in love with Elsie since she was way too young for it to be remotely appropriate — but he also happens to have seen Jackson before. At the time, Jackson was winning lots of money from a young and inexperienced man who tried to shoot himself when he realized how much he’d lost. So Travilla takes great pleasure in telling Elsie that her boyfriend is a scoundrel.

Fortunately, Arthur gets sick right around then, and while he’s raving — as sick people invariably do in this series — he inadvertently reveals to his brother Walter (one of the nice Dinsmores) that he’s sent Jackson to seduce Elsie. Walter’s and Travilla’s letters of warning reach Mr Dinsmore on the same day as does “Egerton’s” letter asking for Elsie’s hand in marriage.

Mr. Dinsmore wouldn’t have consented anyway, because even though Elsie’s mother was fifteen when he married her, Elsie, at eighteen, is still too young to get married. But when he reads Arthur and Travilla’s letters, he rushes to Ohio and forbids Elsie to ever have any interaction with “Egerton” again. She obeys, because she’s completely obedient now that he never asks her to read novels on Sundays anymore, but she doesn’t really believe that Bromly Egerton is Tom Jackson, even when he shows her the various proofs Walter sent him.

Of course, this is all complete nonsense. It’s impossible that perfect little Elsie should be allowed to marry a professional gambler. Fates like that are reserved for her bratty cousin Enna, who marries local wastrel Dick Percival, who, at about the age of ten, was probably the first person to win money off Arthur Dinsmore. See, everything is connected, which is why Mr. Dinsmore’s decision to take Elsie to Europe to cheer her up results in her catching a glimpse of Tom Jackson in his natural habitat. He happens to be talking about how he only wants her for her money at the time, and after that there’s no way she can continue to believe that he’s a nice guy. Actually, it’s kind of a wonderful scene — Elsie and her father happen to be driving by just as Jackson is coming out of a bar with a prostitute, and Jackson and the prostitute just happen to be talking about how Jackson isn’t really in love with Elsie and thinks she’s kind of boring, and somehow Elsie — who, remember, is driving past — manages to overhear the whole conversation.

After that things wind up pretty quickly. The Dinsmores spend a couple of years in Europe, and toward the end of their trip they encounter Mr. Travilla, who joins them on their travels. Mr. Travilla is still in love with Elsie, but he misses her childlike ways. Sometimes I wonder whether Martha Finley actually meant him to sound like a pedophile. Anyway, eventually they go back to the US, and Elsie realizes that she’s in love with Mr. Travilla when she thinks he wants to marry her Aunt Adelaide (who is only nine years younger than him) and becomes jealous. Travilla reassures her (maybe he tells her that Adelaide is too old for him?), and, with Mr. Dinsmore’s consent, they get engaged, although Mr. Dinsmore stipulates that they wait another year to get married — he considers Elsie, aged 21, too young to marry. Never mind that her mother married her father at the age of fifteen, or that her father’s second wife was 21 when they got married, or that if Elsie were much older Mr. Travilla would probably lose interest.



  1. That’s his dastardly plan. He’s hoping that by the time she’s 23 Travilla will be too disappointed at the loss of her childish figure to even think about marrying such an ape leader, leaving Else aaaaalll for her Daddy.


    That scene outside of the bar with the gambler and the prostitute was hilarious though. But poor Herbert. No one had any spare Christian charity for him.

  2. Lucky for him, she looks exactly the same in her mid thirties as she did the day they were married — and her wedding dress still fits her perfectly.

    Also, Elsie told Herbert that she would do anything she could to make him happy. Obviously that didn’t include disobeying her father. Which she would never, ever do, except for he accidentally-on-purpose bits when she’s in love with Tom Jackson.

  3. There is another great “baby coming from out of nowhere” scene in Elsie’s New Relations, when Violet has her baby and Zoe, her brother’s WIFE, is like “Oh, a baby! Where did that come from? I wonder how I could get one of my own.” I know she’s only 15 and “child-like” but really? No one explained that one to her? At least all the other married women in the books seem to have a passing understanding of reproduction. (it’s also creepy that Zoe’s husband clearly knew what was going on and didn’t see fit to explain it to her.)

    • Yeah, that might be the funniest of the baby-arrivals, and also the creepiest. I forget whether I’ve written anywhere on this site about the Edward/Zoe relationship, but it’s kind of desperately creepy, isn’t it? She’s far too child-like to be married to anyone.

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