(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]ymail.com 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 theThe story proper begins with the children of Roselands being taught by
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.
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.