Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Salon: Reading Elsie Dinsmore (1867)

Elsie Dinsmore. Martha Finley. 1867. 320 pages.

Reading Elsie Dinsmore is an experience. But is it a pleasant experience? Or an infuriating one? And if is an infuriating one? Why is it SO infuriating? Well, this is how Elsie's described:
Though not a remarkably precocious child in other respects, she seemed to have very clear and correct views on almost every subject connected with her duty to God and her neighbor; was very truthful both in word and deed, very strict in her observance of the Sabbath--though the rest of the family were by no means particular in that respect--very diligent in her studies; respectful to superiors, and kind to inferiors and equals; and she was gentle, sweet-tempered, patient, and forgiving to a remarkable degree. (17)
Elsie Dinsmore is a young girl being raised by her grandparents. Her father is alive but traveling; her mother is dead. The house has plenty of children, Elsie's aunts and uncles, most are close to her in age, just close enough to bully in some cases. Elsie is bullied by children older and younger than her. Most of her aunts and uncles are true brats, for the most part. But Elsie doesn't find compassion, sympathy, courtesy, or respect from any (white) adult on the plantation. (Most of the slaves, however, love and adore her.) So how does Elsie spend her time? Reading the Bible, crying, praying, and talking with her beloved mammy, one of the few people on the plantation that love Jesus just as much as she does. Anytime Elsie is picked on unfairly (which happens at least once per chapter), she doesn't complain; she doesn't make excuses; she doesn't defend herself; she doesn't tattle on others; she just cries and submits to whatever punishment the adults hand out. Several chapters into this one, her father returns home. Elsie wants more than anything to feel warmth, love, affection from her father. But he finds her an unnatural child and prefers to spend time with his own brothers and sisters (Elsie's aunts and uncles). Any interactions they do seem to have with each other is disciplinary. The more he disciplines, the more Elsie loves him. She doesn't resent his harshness or think him mean or unfair. The more he misunderstands her, the more she understands her own weaknesses and failures. She's a sinner. She's a horribly, rebellious sinner. Her father isn't punishing her enough.

Elsie Dinsmore is NOT Jane Eyre OR Mary Lennox OR Anne Shirley. She has no fight within her, no gumption or spirit.

Elsie Dinsmore talks openly about her faith in Jesus Christ. And her eagerness for everyone in her life to come to Christ is evident in her dialogue. She is clearly presenting the gospel message--the bad news and the good news--to everyone in her life. She's eager to share what truths she's learned with others. And she LOVES to quote Scriptures to those around her. Very few in her family want to hear talk about Jesus, very few want to hear the Bible read to them, but, Elsie consistently tries her best to reach out to others.

I had a difficult time liking any of the characters, especially the adults: her grandfather, her grandmother,  her father, her governess. I didn't have an easy time loving Elsie either. While I appreciated Elsie's love for Jesus, I could not identify with Elsie as a heroine. She did not respond naturally, in my opinion, to her family. The adults in Elsie's life were infuriating. There were dozens of times when it would only be normal and natural for Elsie to get angry and show it, even if that showing was only to the readers and happened in the privacy of her own room. I also hated the fact that her father was always, always yelling at her to stop crying. While her father eventually calmed down slightly and started treating his daughter better than before, it still wasn't enough for me to actually like this novel.

Have you read the novel? What did you think of the characterization and dialogue? Is there any benefit to reading Elsie Dinsmore?

Quotes from the novel:
She laid down the geography, and opening her desk, took out a small pocket Bible, which bore the marks of frequent use. She turned over the leaves as though seeking for some particular passage; at length she found it, and wiping away the blinding tears, she read these words in a low, murmuring tone:
"For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called; because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow His steps."
"Oh! I have not done it. I did not take it patiently. I am afraid I am not following in His steps," she cried, bursting into an agony of tears and sobs. (6)
 Readers also meet Rose Allison, a Northern woman visiting the South. She is Elsie's kindred spirit.
"She is an odd child," said Adelaide; "I don't understand her; she is so meek and patient she will fairly let you trample upon her. It provokes papa. He says she is no Dinsmore, or she would know how to stand up for her own rights; and yet she has a temper, I know, for once in a great while it shows itself for an instant—only an instant, though, and at very long intervals—and then she grieves over it for days, as though she had committed some great crime; while the rest of us think nothing of getting angry half a dozen times in a day. And then she is forever poring over that little Bible of hers; what she sees so attractive in it I'm sure I cannot tell, for I must say I find it the dullest of dull books."
"Do you," said Rose; "how strange! I had rather give up all other books than that one. 'Thy testimonies have I taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart,' 'How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth.'"
"Do you really love it so, Rose?" asked Adelaide, lifting her eyes to her friend's face with an expression of astonishment; "do tell me why?"
"For its exceeding great and precious promises Adelaide; for its holy teachings; for its offers of peace and pardon and eternal life. I am a sinner, Adelaide, lost, ruined, helpless, hopeless, and the Bible brings me the glad news of salvation offered as a free, unmerited gift; it tells me that Jesus died to save sinners—just such sinners as I. I find that I have a heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and the blessed Bible tells me how that heart can be renewed, and where I can obtain that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. I find myself utterly unable to keep God's holy law, and it tells me of One who has kept it for me. I find that I deserve the wrath and curse of a justly offended God, and it tells me of Him who was made a curse for me. I find that all my righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and it offers me the beautiful, spotless robe of Christ's perfect righteousness. Yes, it tells me that God can be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus."
Rose spoke these words with deep emotion, then suddenly clasping her hands and raising her eyes, she exclaimed, "'Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift!'"
For a moment there was silence. Then Adelaide spoke:
"Rose," said she, "you talk as if you were a great sinner; but I don't believe it; it is only your humility that makes you think so. Why, what have you ever done? Had you been a thief, a murderer, or guilty of any other great crime, I could see the propriety of your using such language with regard to yourself; but for a refined, intelligent, amiable young lady, excuse me for saying it, dear Rose, but such language seems to me simply absurd."
"Man looketh upon the outward appearance, but the Lord pondereth the heart," said Rose, gently. "No, dear Adelaide, you are mistaken; for I can truly say 'mine iniquities have gone over my head as a cloud, and my transgressions as a thick cloud.' Every duty has been stained with sin, every motive impure, every thought unholy. From my earliest existence, God has required the undivided love of my whole heart, soul, strength, and mind; and so far from yielding it, I live at enmity with Him, and rebellion against His government, until within the last two years. For seventeen years He has showered blessings upon me, giving me life, health, strength, friends, and all that was necessary for happiness; and for fifteen of those years I returned Him nothing but ingratitude and rebellion. For fifteen years I rejected His offers of pardon and reconciliation, turned my back upon the Saviour of sinners, and resisted all the strivings of God's Holy Spirit, and will you say that I am not a great sinner?" Her voice quivered, and her eyes were full of tears.
"Dear Rose," said Adelaide, putting her arm around her friend and kissing her cheek affectionately, "don't think of these things; religion is too gloomy for one so young as you."
"Gloomy, dear Adelaide!" replied Rose, returning the embrace; "I never knew what true happiness was until I found Jesus. My sins often make me sad, but religion, never.
A glimpse of Elsie's mammy:
"I's only a poor old black sinner, but de good Lord Jesus, He loves me jes de same as if I was white, an' I love Him an' all His chillen with all my heart." (15)
A glimpse of Elsie's relationship with her dad:
"I am very sorry I was naughty, papa. Will you please forgive me?" The words were spoken very low, and almost with a sob.
"Will you try not to meddle in future, and not to cry at the table, or pout and sulk when you are punished?" he asked in a cold, grave tone.
"Yes, sir, I will try to be a good girl always," said the humble little voice.
"Then I will forgive you," he replied, taking the handkerchief off her hand.
Still Elsie lingered. She felt as if she could not go without some little token of forgiveness and love, some slight caress.
He looked at her with an impatient "Well?" Then, in answer to her mute request, "No," he said, "I will not kiss you to-night; you have been entirely too naughty. Go to your room at once."
Aunt Chloe was absolutely frightened by the violence of her child's grief, as she rushed into the room and flung herself into her arms weeping and sobbing most vehemently.
"What's de matter, darlin'?" she asked in great alarm.
"O mammy, mammy!" sobbed the child, "papa wouldn't kiss me! he said I was too naughty. O mammy! will he ever love me now?" (92)
 And then there's this infuriating scene:
"What is the matter?" he asked, looking up as they appeared before the door.
"Elsie has been very impertinent, sir," said Miss Day; "she not only accused me of injustice, but contradicted me flatly."
"Is it possible!" said he, frowning angrily. "Come here to me, Elsie, and tell me, is it true that you contradicted your teacher?"
"Yes, papa," sobbed the child.
"Very well, then, I shall certainly punish you, for I will never allow anything of the kind."
As he spoke he picked up a small ruler that lay before him, at the same time taking Elsie's hand as though he meant to use it on her.
"O papa!" she cried, in a tone of agonized entreaty.
But he laid it down again, saying: "No, I shall punish you by depriving you of your play this afternoon, and giving you only bread and water for your dinner. Sit down there," he added, pointing to a stool. Then, with a wave of his hand to the governess, "I think she will not be guilty of the like again, Miss Day."
The governess left the room, and Elsie sat down on her stool, crying and sobbing violently, while her father went on with his writing.
"Elsie," he said, presently, "cease that noise; I have had quite enough of it."
She struggled to suppress her sobs, but it was almost impossible, and she felt it a great relief when a moment later the dinner-bell rang, and her father left the room.
In a few moments a servant came in, carrying on a small waiter a tumbler of water, and a plate with a slice of bread on it.
"Dis am drefful poor fare, Miss Elsie," he said, setting it down beside her, "but Massa Horace he say it all you can hab; but if you say so, dis chile tell ole Phoebe to send up somethin' better fore Massa Horace gits through his dinner."
"Oh! no, thank you, Pompey; you're very kind, but I would not disobey or deceive papa," replied the little girl, earnestly; "and I am not at all hungry."
He lingered a moment, seeming loath to leave her to dine upon such fare.
"You had better go now, Pompey," she said gently; "I am afraid you will be wanted."
He turned and left the room, muttering something about "disagreeable, good-for-nothing Miss Day!"
Elsie felt no disposition to eat; and when her father returned, half an hour afterward, the bread and water were still untouched.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asked in a stern, angry tone; "why have you not eaten what I sent you?"
"I am not hungry, papa," she said humbly.
"Don't tell me that," he replied, "it is nothing but stubbornness; and I shall not allow you to show such a temper. Take up that bread this moment and eat it. You shall eat every crumb of the bread and drink every drop of the water."
She obeyed him instantly, breaking off a bit of bread and putting it in her mouth, while he stood watching her with an air of stern, cold determination; but when she attempted to swallow, it seemed utterly impossible.
"I cannot, papa," she said, "it chokes me."
"You must," he replied; "I am going to be obeyed. Take a drink of water, and that will wash it down."
It was a hard task, but seeing that there was no escape, she struggled to obey, and at length every crumb of bread and drop of water had disappeared.
"Now, Elsie," said her father, in a tone of great severity, "never dare to show me such a temper as this again; you will not escape so easily next time; remember I am to be obeyed always; and when I send you anything to eat, you are to eat it."
It had not been temper at all, and his unjust severity almost broke her heart; but she could not say one word in her own defence.
He looked at her a moment as she sat there trembling and weeping; then saying, "I forbid you to leave this room without my permission; don't venture to disobey me, Elsie; sit where you are until I return," he turned to go.
"Papa," she asked, pleadingly, "may I have my books, to learn my lessons for to-morrow."
"Certainly," he said; "I will send a servant with them."
"And my Bible too, please, papa."
"Yes, yes," he answered impatiently, as he went out and shut the door. (99-101)
A word from Elsie herself:
"Dear papa, I love you so much!" she replied, twining her arms around his neck. "I love you all the better for never letting me have my own way, but always making me obey and keep to rules." (164)

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


hopeinbrazil 6:05 AM  

I tried to read the Elsie books at one time, but they were just as you described - unbelievable and unpleasant to the extreme.

bookwormans 2:00 PM  

My mom read this book to my sisters and I when we were young. After (another) scene where Elsie was left in tears, Mom asked "So, what did we learn from this chapter?". My sister, who was probably about 6 or 7 at the time, snorted and replied "That this little girl needs to suck it up and get a life." Needless to say, we did not read any of the other books in the series.

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