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Crossposting here from Ye Olde LJ comes Elsie Dinsmore! I am so sorry for the spam, those of you who have me friended. But for those who slumber peacefully... it's time to read Elsie Dinsmore!

"Hrnnngh," you declare sleepily into the blankets, but it avails you not. I have arrived on the scene with the intention of inflicting Elsie upon you. I cannot be defeated, especially since I have timed my attack well and-

-have been removed by the scruff of the neck by those of you with spouses to defend or come to your defense. Or just your own morning ire. Protesting all the way, I am deposited in the kitchen, where I make buckwheat pancakes with honey and lemon or possibly maple syrup, depending on whim.

"What," you say, staggering to the table to see if that is tea or coffee waiting for you, "is an Elsie Dinsmore supposed to be?"

"She's a child heroine and a paragon of little-girlhood, as conceived by a slightly crazy person with many intense issues," I explain, forking pancakes. "Something of a model Stepford child."

"How did you get in my house?" you begin, but I can see you're just about to derail this whole discussion and am still going on. "She's of interest for a couple reasons... one of which is that despite being hilariously out of date, her books are still being given to home-schooled little girls and children in the evangelical community. Which then raises the question: what is being taught, what's the real message, and what's being carried out of the past?"

"Okay," you say, "so this Elsie girl is an adorable child that lives a virtuous life by the standards of some hyperreligious author. We're a very self-aware culture that looks at our own influences. And it's not bad for children to be given moral examples. So how can that lead-"

"Did I mention she meets her future husband when she's about eight?" I say brightly. "And he's twenty-something?"

"Glurble?" You object through pancake, reaching for the "ABORT" lever.

"Too late!" I say. "Elsie Dinsmore'd!"

The school-room at Roselands was a very pleasant apartment; the
ceiling, it is true, was somewhat lower than in the more modern
portion of the building, for the wing in which it was situated
dated back to the old-fashioned days prior to the Revolution,
while the larger part of the mansion had not stood more than
twenty or thirty years; but the effect was relieved by windows
reaching from floor to ceiling, and opening on a veranda which
overlooked a lovely flower-garden, beyond which were fields and
woods and hills. The view from the veranda was very beautiful, and
the room itself looked most inviting, with its neat matting, its
windows draped with snow-white muslin, its comfortable chairs, and
pretty rosewood desks.


Which is a great start, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Where are we? We're in the South. The American South, so you can guess how many minority friends Elsie will have. Elsie herself has money, although it's all tied up outside her reach. When is it? Good question. A later scene will look a lot as if one face of the black character* is a slave, but that could be immediately post-war. The Civil War is not as important as the Revolution, because it wasn't as patriotic.

*After reading the dialogue, it becomes pretty clear that all the black people in the novel are actually one very busy black person who just keeps changing clothes. That, or someone got stuck in some kind of quantum photocopier. Keeping to Occam's Razor, we will be reading Elsie D. with the first theory in mind.

"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."

And Enna walked away with a pout on her pretty face, muttering
that she would "tell mamma."

"Young ladies and gentlemen," said Miss Day, looking at her watch,
"I shall leave you to your studies for an hour; at the end of
which time I shall return to hear your recitations, when those who
have attended properly to their duties will be permitted to ride
out with me to visit the fair."


I picture Miss Day as about fifteen. She's educated, she's not very driven, she likes having a position with a family, and she's basically saving up money to be comfortable. In the meanwhile, she sort of pretends to be teaching, in between sending her pupils randomly across the house and wandering off from the lesson-plans when she feels like it. Is Miss Day a proto-hippie? Did anyone in the house actually hire her, or did she just show up?

"Oh! that will be jolly!" exclaimed Arthur, a bright-eyed, mischief-loving boy of ten.

HA. Ha, I say, from two or three books in the future. You think you know Arthur? You do not. You cannot comprehend the many dimensions of Arthur's character. But that's going to have to wait.

Arthur stood over her criticising every letter she made, and
finally jogged her elbow in such a way as to cause her to drop all
the ink in her pen upon the paper, making quite a large blot.

"Oh!" cried the little girl, bursting into tears, "now I shall
lose my ride, for Miss Day will not let me go; and I was so
anxious to see all those beautiful flowers."

Arthur, who was really not very vicious, felt some compunction
when he saw the mischief he had done. "Never mind, Elsie," said
he. "I can fix it yet. Just let me tear out this page, and you can
begin again on the next, and I'll not bother you. I'll make these
two figures come right too," he added, taking up her slate.

"Thank you, Arthur," said the little girl, smiling through her
tears; "you are very kind, but it would not be honest to do
either, and I had rather stay at home than be deceitful."


And this, believe it or not, is where Elsie begins to become Interesting. Who does this? What eight-year-old child is compelled to act like this, and why?

So of course Elsie has "failed in everything," Miss Day rules on her return, and we also get this note:

She was always more severe with Elsie than with any other of her pupils. The reason the reader will probably be able to divine ere long.

It may be that Elsie is Just Too Good. This is only a theory, mind. Anyway... Lora tells Miss Day that Elsie was indeed as good as she could be, Arthur is ashamed of himself, and Miss Day rules that they both have to stay home.

In the meantime the little Elsie sat at her desk, striving to
conquer the feelings of anger and indignation that were swelling
in her breast; for Elsie, though she possessed much of "the
ornament of a meek and quiet spirit," was not yet perfect, and
often had a fierce contest with her naturally quick temper. Yet it
was seldom, very seldom that word or tone or look betrayed the
existence of such feelings; and it was a common remark in the
family that Elsie had no spirit.


But we know she's got spirit. She just argued with four other children, all older than her, about her having to do her work exactly how she was told, and taking the consequences for sticking it out. And then she defends herself to Miss Day, is boxed on the ear for... FOR VILLAINRY, I guess... and then is left alone to do her work again. At the end she hauls out her Bible and cries because she didn't bear it all patiently enough.

Elsie needs therapy. Her creator might too. But that is not all that is going on here. Join us next time for more waffles! More morning hot drinks! More wrong! And more Elsie!

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January 2012

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