Friday, November 9, 2012

Tall Tales: The Pink of Perfection (Part One)

Besides the fact that I've now admitted to my deep dark Disney past, I think this will be a fun series, as we explore the world of Elsie Dinsmore.

Poll results were very interesting:

1. She's a godly example, and I enjoy reading these books: 20% (4 votes)
2. She's too perfect, but I still read her books every now and then: 30% (6 votes)
3. She's way to perfect. She sets my teeth on edge: 20% (4 votes)
4. Who is Elsie Dinsmore? I've never heard of her. 30% (6 votes)

You all were in a conspiracy to yield me these perfect alternating results. :)

I remember the day I first met Elsie Dinsmore. Some friends of ours lent us the first book in the series, and for a very long time it sat on the bookshelf. Finally, one Saturday morning, my dad said "I'd like to read Elsie Dinsmore to you."

I looked at it doubtfully. "I don't know if I want to read that book."

"Why?" he asked.

I didn't know. 9 years old at the time, I had just taken it into my head that I wouldn't like it, for whatever odd reason. I didn't know the story, hadn't even heard anyone else say they didn't like it, but I was sure I wouldn't. Talk about judging a book by its cover; the poor thing didn't stand a chance.

"One chapter," my dad said, "And if you don't like it, we don't have to read it."
We curled up on the couch together, my dad with a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie in one hand, and the book in the other. And we read chapter one. I can still smell the cookies today, and every time I hear Elsie Dinsmore I think of warm gooey chocolate, the recipe of which is never allowed to be altered in our home. At the end of the chapter my dad closed the book, and my hand shot out to intercept  him, as every nine-year-old's does. He smiled at me. "Do you like it?"

I grinned. "Let's read another chapter."
So we read another chapter, and another, and another. That was the end of book one. We got the second book, and the night we started the whole Elsie saga where she almost died, we kept on reading way past my bedtime, because we couldn't stop. I still cried, even when everything turned out all right, from the pressure of almost losing her. We got the third and the fourth from the library. Then my dad bought the 12 hardcovers from Vision Forum. They were his, he told me, but someday they would be mine. Every time we had cause to go to the other side of the state, we would pick up one Elsie book from the homeschool bookstore there--one by one, until we collected all twenty-eight of them. For two years we sat together every evening on the couch, and I would bend the bookmark to bits while my dad read the story. Two years, twenty-eight books, and a treasure trove of memories and laughter.

That is why I love Elsie Dinsmore.

Some of you who chose the fourth option on the poll probably did so because you had heard of her, but never read her. However, for those of you who haven't I'm going to give a short plot synopsis below. It will make the rest of the series a lot more understandable.

The Story:
Elsie Dinsmore pays a pretty heavy price for the sins of her parents. Her mother and father eloped together at the ages of 16 and 19 respectively, and after they were separated by their indignant families, her mother dies giving birth to her. For eight years since Elsie has lived with her grandparents, and her father travels abroad. From an early age she accepted Christ as her Savior, and with the help of her nurse, she grows more in a knowledge of the Scriptures every day. Then her father comes home, and Elsie looks forward with wild excitement to having a parent that loves her. But when he comes she receives a sad disappointment. He loved his wife in a selfish way, but his child is merely an embarrassment, and a pious one at that. From then on conflicts arise as Elsie is torn between obeying her agnostic father and obeying God. She longs for two things: that he might come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, and that he will love her.

Conflict #1: The Era of the Elsies
A little digging leads me to a few interesting observations on the history surrounding the Elsie Dinsmore books. And frankly, the wide variance of opinion about this heroine doesn't surprise me. Elsie stemmed out of the Victorian Era of children's literature, which gave boys The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, R.M. Ballentyne, Treasure Island, and Kim--and gave girls Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,  Isabella Alden, and Elsie Dinsmore. While books such as Black Beauty and The Wind in the Willows were considered appropriate for both boys and girls, the other literary offerings of that time were strictly divided between the sexes. And never the twain shall meet.  No wonder, after a time, that literature took a shift. I love Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but I wouldn't want to be excluded from Treasure Island. And let's face it--there are only so many Isabella Alden Sunday School classes that one can handle. (Forgive me, all Alden fans.)

Such stories as these took place during the Third Temperance Movement during the United States, which lasted from 1893-1933. Both boys and girls, in Christian literature, were taught such things as loving to give your allowance to charity, and responding to all questions with a Scripture quotation. (These actions were later caricatured in L.M. Montgomery's Emily series, and Dickens had already employed them in his satire Bleak House years before.)
Now before I start sounding like someone who has a dislike for Victorian literature (far from it) or a horror of good stories where children know their Scripture, let me clarify myself. I love characters who are true, and brave, and wise, and pure. I love characters who use Scripture, as in Hinds' Feet on High Places. I also love stories about good boys and girls. But some authors during the Temperance Movement administered morals like Tar Water, and I don't think a child should feel guilty for not liking that. Spending a few of your pennies for chocolates is not going to send you down the road of destruction, and you don't have to teach a Sunday School class to inherit eternal life. Nor should all children have to have a burning desire to be martyred as a proof that they love the Lord.
Many people complain about Elsie because she's too perfect. But often they forget that heroines of Victorian literature were never intended to be relatable. They were intended to be examples. You're not supposed to be best pals with Elsie; you're supposed to look up to and imitate her.

Solution: Recognize that Victorian ideals had their weak points. Take it with a grain of salt, and don't try to read an exclusive diet of this literature--or at least an exclusive diet of the girls' books. Also, it is beneficial to be faced with a perfect example now and then. Sometimes we get comfortable being "just as good as everybody else", and it's impossible to hold that mindset and read Elsie Dinsmore at the same time. The two are going to clash.

Much more about Elsie controversies next Friday.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Wonderful post! I loved your personal story at the beginning. That is so sweet. :) You had some very special father-daughter time, I'm sure. ;)

    "For two years we sat together every evening on the couch, and I would bend the bookmark to bits while my dad read the story." I *loved* that sentence. I have wrecked so many of my bookmarks while reading that it's not even funny. Once I got them laminated they were stronger so it was harder to bend them. :P

    Yes, I loved reading through these books. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard about them, but I must have been about 13-14. Our pastor's eldest daughter had all 28 on the top of her bookshelf. I always wanted to read them so we started borrowing about two from her every Sunday. After that we started collecting our own, but we could only find the modern covers (though with the original story in it). Then one day mom found a published who was selling out all his books (I think he was going out of business, perhaps) and he was selling the complete original set (pink, hardcover). We purchased it and all the books arrived the day before we left on a trip to Alberta (in 2010). It was amazing. I had the 20-set each Ballentyne and Henty series and the Elsie Dinsmore to read during the long car hours. I completed the Elsie Dinsmore and the Ballentye series on that journey (plus another series that our aunt lent to us). Finley's books now sit on our top shelf as well and Sarah and her friends at church tried to have a race through them. I think they got stuck on the history though. :D They are great books, and, while I don't read them much anymore, I still remember much of the plot line especially for the first 10 or so. Wonderful review! Looking forward to next Friday's post. :)

    PS Sorry this is so long!

    1. Oh, no problem Kaleigh. ;) I love long comments. :) Reading together is one of my fondest memories, and I wrecked a lot of Irish-themed bookmarks that way. :P
      Did you get all 28 in pink hardbacks? If so, that would be impressive! I know the Millie Keith books were originally yellow hardbacks, because I saw them once, but except for the first 12 Elsies I have the modern paperbacks (with the original story)

      That sounds like a fun trip. :) I always take way more books than I can possibly read. Last year I packed up The Count of Monte Cristo and Little Dorrit for a weekend. Hehe, needless to say I didn't finish them. But I had the fun of bringing them along...

  2. Dear Lady B,
    I never quite heard the whole story about you and Daddy reading the books together. I loved it! I'd really like to read Elsie Dinsmore. We might be starting it soon... :D :D :D
    Love, Carrie-Grace

    1. That will be exciting. :) I think you'll really enjoy it. ;)

      Love and cuddles,

  3. "Many people complain about Elsie because she's too perfect. But often they forget that heroines of Victorian literature were never intended to be relatable. They were intended to be examples. You're not supposed to be best pals with Elsie; you're supposed to look up to and imitate her. ... Sometimes we get comfortable being "just as good as everybody else", and it's impossible to hold that mindset and read Elsie Dinsmore at the same time. The two are going to clash."

    Oh, WELL SAID!

    1. Thank-you. :D

      More on that later...I must revisit the point in more detail. Across states the mindset is still the same among female readers: "My mom thought I'd like her, but she was too perfect."

      That thought never crossed my mind reading the books. But then again, I never noticed some of those things anyway.

  4. Hi Schuyler, I have heard of Elsie Dinsmore, though I have not read them myself. There are so many of those style of books that I may have gotten it mixed up with something else and this series may not be the one I have in mind, but I think the reason I have not tried to read this series (if it is the one I heard of!) is not because the main character is too perfect! To be honest, I am the kind of person who enjoys reading a story of good and virtuous character, one that I could look up too and learn from (like Mary Jones and her Bible). Of course, I also like characters that I can relate too and who are not always perfect, but personally I get irked by girls in stories who are so far from being perfect that I feel like getting mad at them for their rebellion and silliness... Obviously, Elise Dinsmore would not be like that!

    I may be confusing this series again with another one, but I think my older sister read the first book or so in the Elise Dinsmore series some years back and really liked the main character's Christian spirit, however she did not read on in the series as she disliked the romance part with all the emotional break-ups and broken hearts in the series. etc... but again, this may have been another series. I don't know!

    Thanks for the review, Schuyler; I haven't commented around here in a while, being off writing on NaNo :).

    God bless!

    1. You have the right series, Joy. :) In book three there is a huge disaster when Elsie's father leaves her visiting relatives, and a scoundrel comes courting. I guess I never thought of that, but yes, some people might want to avoid her due to all the love sequences.

      I hope NaNo is going well for you! I'm keeping you in my prayers as you try to reach your writing goal. :)

      Thanks for stopping by!


  5. Dear Lady Bibliophile,
    You made me smile! I love the title of the post, and the story of reading all the books with your dad is lovely!

    I always liked the Elsie Dinsmore books, though I did find that she reached a sort of "state of perfection" in the later books. This post was very helpful; I had never known or thought about how the Victorian authors wrote, and it's an excellent point that we shouldn't be comfortable being "just as good as everyone else".

    We just have the first 12 books from Vision Forum. (I especially liked the first 5.) Are the rest of the books (after #12) about her grandchildren & great-grandchildren, etc. after Elsie is gone? Or is Elsie in all of them?

    Great post, and I hope to one day go back and read through all of them! (Oh, where, where is the time? I have so many books on my list that I haven't even read once! :P:) One day, though!)


    P.S. I've been meaning for awhile now to congratulate you on winning the "Elegance of Fashion" caption contest! I love your caption! It's like something Mr. Jaggers might say (not that he really had any friends!:):P) Sounds very 'famous author-ish'!

    1. Oh, I dearly love to laugh, and I'm glad this post made you smile. :)
      In answer to your questions about the later books--yes to both. They carry on mostly from the perspective of the Raymond family, and are about Elsie's grand-children and great-grandchildren. But Elsie is in all of them--in fact, the series never comes to a real conclusion--all the plots are concluded, yes, but in the end there's room for more books. I always wondered if she intended to write more, but died before she could.
      I've always wanted to read them again too...but alas, I have less time for reading now--fortunatly I can remember the stories, even if I can't get back to them as much as I would like. :)

      Oh, thank-you! I enjoyed the caption contest, and it *is* something Jaggers might say, isn't it? :) I took it from the 2009 Emma movie, from John Knightley, but it fit the particular scene in Little Dorrit as well, because Arthur Clennam is responding to a begging letter. :)


  6. Oh boy, this series.

    I am wary to approach it thanks to Montgomery, one of my favorite authors, dissing it like you said, saying it was just a soppy and children won't want to read novels starting perfect children characters.

    Now I know the reason why she said that. First of all, her Anne series were almost published as a Christian book and apparently she was told to change some things, which she refused.

    Then there's the fact that she herself was never religious. She just laughed at the unification of the Presbyterian and Methodist church, saying "It was like watching a dying old lady struggling to stay alive". And of course, there was the matter with her husband.

    I wonder if Montgomery liked Dickens. Lots of pure heroines there.

  7. I did not know that about Anne almost being published as a Christian book. Fascinating bit of fact there, I'm going to research it more! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  8. Oh, and I just started reading the Elsie books and I could see why it became infamous for being too preachy.

    Elsie said she wanted to become like Jesus. Well, Jesus didn't weep when he got bullied by non-Christians. I have a feeling that durable heart part is forgotten by the author.

    1. Yes, fortunately the tears get a lot less after book three. :)


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