Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Elsie Dinsmore Deconstruction: The Readers Have Spoken!

This picture came 140 years too late for Elsie.

(note: I am copying and pasting text from the Project Gutenburg ereader. For some reason, that turns off the text wrap, and while editing a post, I can't tell where the side elements of my blog are. I think I've got it fixed, at least viewing through firefox, but if not, please email me at personalfailure[at] and let me know. If you know how to turn text wrap back on in blogger, pleasepleaseplease email me. I really do try to provide you guys with the best blog I can, I'm just working from a place of ignorance.)

Alright, you asked for it and here it is: The Deconstruction of Elsie Dinsmore. Thanks to Project Gutenberg (not Gutenburg, as original typoed), I can read this book for free online, and so can you! (You can also download for ereader if you are so inclined.)

So, a little background. The first book in the series was written by Martha Finley in 1867. That's right, the Reconstruction, that lovely period in American history when we were busy mopping up the mess of the Civil War and ensuring that newly emancipated and enfranchised slaves were sufficiently oppressed. (Ending slavery didn't do as much for the average person of color as you might think.) So don't be surprised when persons of color in the book are referred to as n***ers. Don't be surprised by the way people of color talk in the book or the way white people in the book talk about people of color. It will make me wildly uncomfortable, but I will do my best to address these issues.

Don't be surprised by the rigidly enforced gender roles, the misogyny or the use of the word "fondle" to mean a kind touch not applied by a pedophile. And while I'll explain it in more detail when it comes up, the (platonic until later) romance between 8-year-old Elsie and her father's 30-year-old friend would not have been viewed as alarming when the book was published.

Also, I am by no means an expert in this period of American history, nor in literature of the time period. I do have some knowledge gleaned from an enjoyment of (other) literature of the time, but if you do have knowledge about this, please feel free to comment and let me know what I missed or got wrong.

Now, the deconstruction!

 "I never saw an eye so bright,
And yet so soft as hers;
It sometimes swam in liquid light,
And sometimes swam in tears;
It seemed a beauty set apart
For softness and for sighs."

That's how the book begins. Already, we know Elsie is the
urMary Sue. Over 110 years before a Star Trek fanfic writer
ever introduced us to the world's most perfectist
character, Ms. Finley created Elsie, she of the incomparable
beauty and the world's kindest soul. She is so amazing, random
characters write bad poetry about her eyes.

The story proper begins with the children of Roselands being taught by
their nanny, Ms. Day, who is the worst teacher ever.

Within this pleasant apartment sat Miss Day with her pupils,
six in number. She was giving a lesson to Enna, the youngest,
the spoiled darling of the family, the pet and plaything of
both father and mother. It was always a trying task to both
teacher and scholar, for Enna was very wilful, and her
teacher's patience by no means inexhaustible.

"There!" exclaimed Miss Day, shutting the book and giving it
an impatient toss on to the desk; "go, for I might as well
try to teach old Bruno. I presume he would learn about as fast."

Fuck you, Enna, I may as well go teach the dog. Enna threatens to
tell her mother, and that is treated as more proof of Enna's wicked
ways, but she ought to. Enna's willful, but she's not developmentally
disabled. If I were her mother, I'd be righteously pissed that I
was paying a teacher to give up on teaching.

Then, Miss Day decides that she doesn't want to teach any of them,
she'd rather take them riding. So she announces that everyone who
is done with their work at the end of the hour gets to go riding
with her. She leaves 6 children in a room by themselves
for an hour, expecting them to do schoolwork. Either
Miss Day is an idiot or she's a sadist. (More on that later.)

Now we are introduced to Elsie, and right away we know she's the Sue.
We know, because not only does she get the most description, but
she's the only one who gets a mention of eye color, and it's an unusual
color. (That trope is much older than I thought.)

"Yes, ma'am," said the child meekly, raising a pair of large soft
eyes of the darkest hazel for an instant to her teacher's face,
and then dropping them again upon her slate.

Yup, that's the Sue.

It's now page 2 of this fine, 28 volume set, and already we see a
pattern. Every person who is not a Real True Christian is a complete
and utter jerk. The governess is impatient and can't be bothered
to do her job. Enna is uncontrollable. Arthur- a mischief loving boy
of ten- is a bully. Meanwhile, Elsie of the darkest hazel eyes is a
whiney pushover. Well, I'm sure Finley meant for Elsie to be the best
sort of meek-will-inherit-the-earth, turn-the-other-cheek
Christian, but really, she's whiney.

Arthur stole on tiptoe across the room, and coming up behind
Elsie, tickled the back of her neck with a feather.

She started, saying in a pleading tone, "Please, Arthur, don't."
"It pleases me to do," he said, repeating the experiment.

Elsie changed her position, saying in the same gentle,
persuasive tone, "O Arthur! _please_ let me alone, or
I never shall be able to do this example."

"What! all this time on one example! you ought to be ashamed. Why,
I could have done it half a dozen times over."

So, Arthur, left to his own devices, decides to tease Elsie. Is anyone
surprised? This sort of behavior is totally normal between 8 and
10-year-old siblings*. I can't believe this is the first time Arthur
has done this to Elsie. I have two older siblings myself. I'm fairly
certain they spent two years actively trying to kill me, and they admit
to regularly taking delight in scaring me senseless. My
sister and brother aren't bad people. That's just what siblings do.

What Arthur is doing is mild. He's tickling Elsie. Her response is
bizarre. One could argue that girls were probably expected to be docile
in the time period, but the 12 and 14-year-old girls' behavior is
completely different from Elsie's, so that's not it. Elsie is the Sue.
Elsie is perfect. Clearly, this is what Finley is promoting as perfect,
Christian behavior: complete docility, even to the point of not
defending oneself from attackers.

Remember why I started this deconstruction? Elsie Dinsmore is the
favorite of fundymommys everywhere. These books are the gold
standard of Christian entertainment for little girls. Often,
these are the only books other than the Bible fundymommys
will allow their girls to read. Elsie is held up as the only
heroine acceptable for little girls to model themselves after.

Elsie Dinsmore is perfect. Perfectly docile. Perfectly
uncomplaining. The perfect victim.

It's even more disturbing when you consider how nonChristians
are presented in this book: evil, cruel, sadistic, monstrous
ravening wolves. That's not an exaggeration of how fundy
Christians see the rest of us. If that's how you saw the world,
would you arm your children with strength and knowledge,
or make your children too docile and beaten down to fight?

Assuming you like your children, of course.

Page 3 of book 1 and shit's already gotten seriously creepy.

*The other five children, including Arthur and Enna, are siblings.
Elsie is their cousin. However, Elsie has always been raised in
this family. You'll get the backstory later, but effectively Elsie
is the sixth sibling.


  1. The fundy approach to defence seems to be tied up with their hierarchical worldview. If you are attacked by someone who is not below you in status, you complain to your superior (you always have a superior), who will decide on and take any appropriate action. Presumably, if necessary, this goes up the chain until you get someone who's superior to both parties.

    Obviously your own direct superior would never do anything bad to you in any way.

    (I don't speak blogspot, but possibly composing the full post in a plain-text editor - Notepad, if on Windows - might do the job?)

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  2. This crap is worse than I thought it would be and that's saying something. I actually think that possibly one of the saddest most oppressive things about fundamentalist culture is having one's entertainment limited so severely.

    I have so many good childhood memories that revolve around having music on in the background, watching certain TV shows with mom and dad (Saturday nights were Star Trek TNG night, because that's when the new episodes came on), and playing video games with my dad. I remember spending entire summer afternoons doing nothing but reading.

    I would hate to imagine what my childhood would have been like if all that great music was replaced with bland hymns and that my love of diverse musical styles was stifled. I can't imagine having all the books I loved growing up being replaced by garbage like this. Just sharing entertainment with mom and dad and friends was a bit part of my childhood and a lot of nostalgia is based on things like that. I can't watch Ghostbusters without having a flashback to the best parts of being 7. I can't imagine that being replaced by some crappy Kirk Cameron movie.

    Not being able to listen to the music I loved or lose myself in the fiction of a good book, movie, or video game just seems so sad...

  3. Hi Faith!

    If you had a paypal button, I would have clicked it by now. You've entertained me for hours and I'd like to pay you for it.

    Well, maybe you have a Paypal button and I didn't find it. I'm stupid that way.

    If your blog works like mine, me writing you a comment means you get my email address. So maybe you would send me an email with instructions on how I can give you money? Or if you're not comfortable with that, post it here.

  4. Where the fuck is my paypal button?!

  5. Yeah, I was gonna paypal you too, because you were instrumental in helping me get my blog going, but when it came time to do so, the button had disappeared.

  6. It's back! Embarrassingly, that was a 10 minute phone call with my husband while I said things like "slash br, what does it mean?" and he said things like "what? what are you . . . just give me your password."

  7. small comment: It's Gutenberg Project. not Gutenburg. you know, the guy who invented the letterpress which would revolutionize books.. ;)

  8. Here's for literate childhood! My folks had bookshelves in every room, and we were free to read anything on them. (We were Catholic, and there were 7 of us kids.) There was everything: Little Golden books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (didn't matter who read which), The Book of Knowledge, the Encyclopedia Americana, westerns, sports, sci-fi, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Shakespeare, and all manner of textbooks. There was a Bible in there somewhere. And an unabridged dictionary that was 8" thick.
    None of us grew up to be psychopaths. Only one is still religious (but not Catholic), and only one (so far) is gay. And all of us still read voraciously.

    (this is mutzali. Google won't let me post, so I'm using AIM...)

  9. I grew up with the Five Little Peppers, and I loved them until I re-read it as an adult. If there were a god I'd thank him for making me a yankee so I wasn't subjected to this.

    OTOH, I grew up with my grandmother, and she probably wouldn't have wanted me to read about mean grandparents!

    For anyone who still has their lunch, check out the fan comments here:

  10. I love this deconstruction (and hate the book(s)) already. Eager for more.

    Also, if you need help with anything regarding blog formatting or layout or whatever (whether for individual posts or the whole template), I’d love to help you out. Just shoot an email (or a tweet, whichever) whenever you like. (I’m free all day, so … yeah.)

  11. " This sort of behavior is totally normal between 8 and10-year-old siblings. I can't believe this is the first time Arthurhas done this to Elsie. I have two older siblings myself. I'm fairly certain they spent two years actively trying to kill me, and they admit to regularly taking delight in scaring me senseless."

    Hah! Role reversal on my part: I'm the eldest. My little brother is the only person who's ever managed to annoy me to the point of a reaction. I don't think I've ever so much as raised my voice at anyone else, but my brother regularly had me in screaming frothing fits back when he lived here. That dude is a professional.

    And the picture is brilliant: it instantly makes that character interesting. For the record though, wish-fulfillment characters are perfectly acceptable if you can just avoid actually writing about them. By their nature they're interesting to the author, so as a peronal story that lets your imagination go where it wants, why not?

  12. (Got here from FC's blog) I am really looking forward to this deconstruction. I did not "grow up" on these books, although I did read three or four of them (and I might still have them in a box somewhere...ick). My parents bought them for me probably because someone else recommended them, but fortunately they did not keep buying them for me because I wasn't that interested. I found them horribly depressing, but couldn't always say why. So thanks for helping me turn an analytically critical eye on them.

    Anyway, just one nitpick: Elsie is the niece of the rest of the kids, not their cousin. Her father is the son of Arthur-etc's father, by his first wife.

  13. mutzali;
    try logging in but first UNCHECK the "remember me" or "keep me logged in" box [can't remember which it is] that worked for me, although it apparantly only has about an 80% success rate, it's worth a shot.

    i remember picking up one of this while i was in one hospital or another. before that day, my dad didn't pay much attention to what i read - he knew i read, a LOT, and that was enough.
    until he saw me reading THAT. i was... 6? pages in? i think, when he walked in.
    i've never EVER seen him so angry. ever.

    he turned around and left - i had hysterics [i hadn't seen him in 2 weeks, and had been in the hospital over a month by that point - this was while he was still in the AF, and since i wasn't dying, they wouldn't let him get out of TDY, and he was sent to Germany.]

    20 minutes later he was back - with every Heinlein juvenile he could find [10 or so] and a good dozen other sci-fi books that the bookstore person told him were "adult but not more than PG-13"
    [and i've been hooked ever since. we STILL fight about the fact that now i read what he dismissively calls "vampire idiocy". sure, vampires aren't real - and i don't really like most vampire Urban Fantasy, i prefer fae or magic users, but meh.]

    and he tore apart the Elsie book, and handed the hospital librarian $100 to "find books that aren't designed to brainwash girls into believing they're helpless, hopeless, and stupid". and then reamed him [the librarian] out for HAVING books like that.
    [thankfully, the librarian? didn't mind, he himself didn't like the Elsie books, it was literally the only set of books that i was allowed to check out without permission that i hadn't read - and he HAD tried to convince me to wait until a parent got that to allow me to read something else. because if the librarian had decided to be mad at my dad, he'd have been mad at ME, probably, and i wouldn't have had the same level of access, the only thing that kept me sane]

  14. I LOVE your description of Elsie as a Mary Sue! That's so true.

    I found this post earlier today, while at work, and only skimmed it there, but I've been ranting to myself at the depiction of non-Christians (as really nasty people) in these books. You hit that spot on.

    "EitherMiss Day is an idiot or she's a sadist." Having originally read these as a child, can't say I've ever thought of it that way before, but you're right.

    "it's an unusualcolor. (That trope is much older than I thought.)" *laughs*

    "Clearly, this is what Finley is promoting as perfect,Christian behavior: complete docility, even to the point of notdefending oneself from attackers." This is nothing. If I remember correctly, her father later has her sitting at a piano (because she won't play on Sunday) until she passes out and nearly dies. So the role model here is to allow people in authority to allow you to die from neglect or willful ignorance. Ick! These books make me shudder.

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