No Christian novel series has elicited as much controversy as the infamous Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley. O. Henry and Thomas Pynchon both mocked it, organizations like [the now defunct] Vision Forum promote it, many Christian readers think it's evil or (at the least) unsettling, and among homeschoolers it temporarily enjoyed a renaissance. What is this strange collection of novels for young women? why has it conjured such division? is it really just persecuted for its commitment to goodness? or is there something pernicious buried within its pages?
First of all, the context: Finley penned the 28 original books between 1867 and 1905. The spinster daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Miss Finley devoted her life to teaching, writing and charity, writing many books besides the Dinsmore series in which saintly young women figured prominently. Her most well-known creation was Elsie, whose unshakable perfection eventually wins her abundant earthly rewards, including the eventual spiritual conversion of her stern father.
Children's novels of the time were often maudlin, involving perfect little angels whose motivations were always pure and who refused to do anything wrong, even when their health depended on it. Little Elsie puts them all to shame. At one point, she gets blamed for ruining some stuff when in fact it was her Uncle Arthur who did so. Though her father is about to beat her for the infraction, Elsie will not tell him who is actually guilty (thinking that a sin), and is only saved at the last minute by another relative who saw everything.
The absurdity of such "piety" is overwhelming. Far more disturbing, however, is Elsie's relationship to her father. She basically idolizes him, and is frequently described as longing for his kind words, his embraces, his kisses; she even marries his best friend. There's nothing wrong with fathers kissing their daughters, obviously, but the way Finley describes their interactions borders on the highly inappropriate (at the very least, embarrassing). Also, when she is (presumably) happily married, she continues to defer to her father's will and wisdom rather than her husband's.
If you haven't gathered it yet, we're not too fond of these books. There are plenty who disagree with our assessment, however. Many feel these books are simply edifying stories about a girl wholly dedicated to God. We fully support complete surrender to the Most High, but we also question whether the "virtues" Elsie displays are evidence of genuine faithfulness or simply of 19th century morals and prejudices. You be the judge—but we strongly advise you read these before handing them to your kids.
A Note About Editions:
There are four major reprints of the Elsie books we're aware of; although mostly out of print again, you can find used copies with relative ease. Three publishers have reprinted all 28 of the original, unabridged versions—Mantle Ministries in hardcover, Holly Hall/Full Quart Press and Hendrickson in paperback. The Mantle Ministry editions are still available from Sovereign Grace Publishers, although mostly in expensive print-on-demand copies ($35 each); the later books in the series from Full Quart are becoming hard to find. Mission City Press (from ZonderKidz) published an adapted form of eight of the books with different titles. Only Hendrickson's handsome paperbacks are currently all in print .
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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