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Literature / Elsie Dinsmore

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This series (28 books in all) was written by Martha Finley and published from 1867-1905. Targeted specifically at young girls, these Slice of Life books aimed to teach them how to be more Christlike by way of the adventures of the title character, a young girl born into a secular family who takes up Christianity. The first eight novels chronicle her maturation from a little girl to a widowed grandmother; further adventures of her and her descendants make up the remainder of the series. Wildly popular in its time, only Louisa May Alcott's work outsold these novels in the field of children's literature, and the series remains popular among Christian audiences today, if obscure to the general public.


Due to Values Dissonance and the resultant Unfortunate Implications found in these novels by modern audiences, at the Turn of the Millennium Mission City Press published an adaptation of the series, A Life of Faith — Elsie Dinsmore, that toned down the racism and parental abuse featured in the original texts. This ran for eight books and was succeeded by two additional eight-book series under the Life of Faith banner: Violet Travilla, which focused on one of Elsie's daughters featured in the later novels, and Millie Keith, an updated adaptation of another Finley-penned series.


These books provide examples of:

  • Absurdly Youthful Parents: Elsie Grayson and Horace Jr. were quite young when Elsie was born. Justified, as Elsie is the result of a Teen Pregnancy.
  • Abusive Parents: Horace Jr is one, considering the things he does to Elsie in the name of love, from cutting her off from people who genuinely love her, such as friends and the one slave who cares for her, to being quick to punish her for things such as crying (for justifiable reasons) and not obeying his unreasonable, often idiotic commands.
  • Adaptation Name Change: in the reprints, Mrs. Travilla is named Eugenia, so Violet's name comes from her great-grandmother, Violet Eva, the first Mrs. Dinsmore.
  • The Atoner: Horace Jr becomes an Overprotective Dad because of the way he treated Elsie in the first two books.
  • Author Tract: The original author, Martha Finley, was the daughter of a strict Presbyterian minister. Make of that what you will.
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  • Big Fancy House: Nearly every house mentioned in the books, as they are all plantations. The main ones are Roselands, The Oaks, Ion, and Viamede.
  • Brain Fever: Elsie contracts this after her father threatens to send her to a Catholic boarding school, and when she recovers, she has no memory of the last year or so. note 
  • Boarding School: Horace Jr. threatens to send Elsie to one if she does not behave like he wants her to.
  • Bury Your Disabled: Herbert Carrington, a boy that walks with crutches and is in general frail health, proposes to Elsie, but is declined since she only loves him as a brother. His condition makes a turn for the worse and he dies a few months later. No one, despite being well-loved in Elsie's circle of friends, mourns him for too long.
  • Bowdlerize: The Life of Faith series tones down the racism and Horace's abuse of Elsie significantly.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Generally any character who didn't abuse Elsie (or enslaved) fell to this (sans Adalaide and Lora), due to fears they would be meddling/snitching or too shy to properly stand up for Elsie, including Elsie herself. Adalaide and Lora do try to get involved, but are dismissed as being children (they're 16 and 14 respectively at the begining of the series) by their mother and Horace.
  • Canon Foreigner: From the "Life of Faith" reprints, Laylie Colbert. Though she mostly was featured in Elsie's cousin Mildred Keith's stories (whom, unlike her wealthier cousins, Millie was a staunch abolitionist). Laylie did get her own book, "Laylie's Daring Quest"
  • Character Title: Elsie Dinsmore for the first book.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Wealthy Stanhope, Horace Jr's aunt.
    • Mrs. Murray, the Irish former housekeeper of Elsie's mother's plantation Viamede.
  • Creepy Catholicism: Right before Elsie gets sick with Brain Fever, she has nightmares about being sent to Catholic school, including nuns that look like demons. Should be noted that there's plenty of anti-Catholic bias in this series as well.
  • Daddy's Girl:
    • What Elsie aspires to be to Horace, and eventually is to a sickeningly sweet degree.
    • Enna is this to Horace Sr., but it's a Deconstruction. Because he spoiled Enna so much, she is emotionally stunted, still living with him even after marrying twice and raising four children.
  • Dances and Balls: It wouldn't be the Old South without a few, though Elsie doesn't dance, telling Enna she believes dancing is not Christian (the reprints change this to where Elsie is a terrible dancer, so she avoids dancing).
  • Dead Guy Junior: Elsie herself and later Violet named after her grandmother, Violet Travilla.
  • Death by Despair: Elsie's mother, who was 16 and already weak from childbirth, dies after being told that Horace had died.
  • Disney Death: Elsie was thought to have died from her Brain Fever (which is the catalyst of her father's conversion), but she recovers, but due to the fever, she's actually forgotten the last year or so, essentially meaning she and Horace Jr. can start with a clean slate.
  • Disease Bleach: Due to the stress of causing Elsie's Brain Fever, Horace gets a few gray hairs, as Elsie points out at the end of the second book.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Elsie refused to read a secular novel to her father on a Sunday. What does he punish her with? First he doesn’t allow her to see him, then he confines her to her room all day and doesn’t allow her to join the family at meals, and finally, he sends away Chloe, whom he believes is a bad influence. And the whole family is constantly going on about what a naughty, disobedient child she is.
    • Indeed, many of his punishments are ridiculous and over-the-top for what amounts to very small mistakes normal children make.
  • Elopement:
    • Elsie Grayson and Horace Jr. elope, much to the displeasure of their parents because Elsie Grayson came from a Nouveau Riche family. They are later forced to separate.
    • Bromly Edgerton suggests this to Elsie, who refuses since she wants to get permission from her father.
  • Entitled to Have You: Tom Jackson, to the point where he threatens Elsie with a gun on at least two separate occasions. Also counts as a Dirty Coward as well, since he only threatens her when she's alone.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Horace Jr believes Elsie is a willful, disobedient child and a self-righteous Christian, thanks to his step-mother's influence. Despite evidence to the contrary, he keeps beliving this even after being told what a good girl Elsie is by practically everyone, bordering on willfully ignoring her real attitude due to his ego.
  • Fainting: Perhaps the most famous scene in the series is when Elsie refuses to play a piece of secular piano music on a Sunday, despite Horace Jr. demanding she play for his friends. She and her father have a battle of wills until she faints from the stress and gets her temple cut from the edge of the piano bench (implied to be close by an important artery, if the doctor's comment is anything to go by). This makes Horace realize his treatment of his daughter is cruel.
  • Floral Theme Naming: After Elsie's first daughter (named Elsie as well), she names her subsequent daughters Violet, Lily and Rose
  • The Fundamentalist: Elsie herself, and many of the good characters are this. Anyone who disagrees is either converted or else met with some not-so-good fate.
  • Funetik Aksent: How all slaves speak in the original novels. Due to the unfortunate implications and values dissonance, A Life of Faith changes this speak into standard English.
  • The Gambling Addict: Arthur Dinsmore and Tom Jackson, to the point where they both plot to have Tom marry Elsie for her fortune, as well as Arthur nearly assaulting Elsie on multiple occasions because she refuses to give him money. Hell, Arthur picked up the habit before he turned 13!
  • God Is Good: One of the main messages of the series.
  • Gold Digger: Enna Dinsmore and Tom Jackson.
  • Good Stepmother: Rose Allison is easily the best parent Elsie has, and they were close even before she married Elsie's father.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Horace.
  • Hate Sink: Enna Dinsmore is intended to be this. As if her bratty nature wasn't enough, she ends up supporting the Klan after the Civil War. Yay...
    • Her mother, Mrs. Dinsmore isn't much better. Mrs. Dinsmore not only hates Elsie, but also her stepson with a passion, though with the later she hides her resentment well, even going so far as to make up lies that Elsie was an awful, wicked child, despite having nothing to gain from it.
  • Happily Married: Nearly every couple in the books, with the exception of Enna.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Aunt Chloe, and the slaves at Ion, Edward Travilla's plantation. They stay even after the Civil War, though they at least get wages now. Keep in mind, the original author was from Ohio, meaning the romanticism of the antebellum south started quite soon after the Civil War. It's downplayed in the "Life of Faith" reprints.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Horace Jr., once he thinks Elsie has died, converts to Christianity.
    • Also Aunt Chloe's husband, Joe, was said to have been quite a cruel man before converting at some point before Elsie buys him.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Elsie, only by technicality in the first book.
  • Henpecked Husband: Horace Sr. He doesn't do anything to stop his wife's abuse of Elsie.
  • Honorary Uncle: Edward Travilla is one to Elsie Changed when he marries her. Rose Allison is a female version.
  • The Ingenue: Elsie, to a now-ridiculous degree.
  • Ill Boy: Herbert Carrington. We are never told what he is ill with, though it is mentioned he walks with crutches and has to rest often. The reprints imply he has a mild form of polio.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Mrs. Violet Travilla and Elsie.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Arthur Dinsmore. He frequently teases and harasses Elsie, but also volunteers to help Elsie and even stands up for her on occasion. He also ends up deeply regretting his plan to have Tom Jackson marry Elsie, and tries to get him to stop pursuing her.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • After Adelaide's first fiancé dies, no one in her family comforts her, and Enna teases her for her grief.
    • Walter doesn't want to go to war so he can help out his parents at home. They both shame him for not joining the war and for having a "Yankee" fiance, leading to his death on the battlefield.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Enna, who not only ended up marrying a ne'er do well and was widowed twice by the Civil War, but was eventually rendered mentally unstable after a carriage accident with her father, and later dies alone. Yikes...
    • Arthur Dinsmore dies fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
    • Mrs. Dinsmore dies from a sudden heart attack after reading about the deaths of her two sons in the war.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Elsie in the first book.
  • Maiden Aunt: Aunt Wealthy.
  • Mammy: Aunt Chloe.
  • The Matchmaker: Wealthy Stanhope.
  • May–December Romance: Many, as these were desirable in the 19th century. The most prominent is Edward Travilla and Elsie Dinsmore, he being 17 years older than her, though to be fair, they do wait until she is 22.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: The Dinsmore family, including Horace, have seven children all together, and the Travilla's have eight kids. This was normal for the time.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Elsie, and all the other children, get one cup of coffee with breakfast. This was routine back then. When her dad returns, he won't let her have any. He also forbids hot rolls, toast and meat for breakfast note , but Elsie finds it hardest to give up her coffee.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Horace, multiple times throughout the first four books. Notable examples including the fact he allowed Elsie to faint at the piano, treating her so cruelly it drives her to Brain Fever, and nearly beating her when he learns Tom Jackson nearly assaulted her because she didn't tell him immediately, fortunately for the latter one, Rose Allison was able to make him think about what he was about to do.
  • No Sympathy: When Elsie is sad about something, Horace doesn't try to ask her what's wrong, help her out, or understand why, but instead berates her for crying, being childish (keep in mind, she is eight years old when he first sees her) and "disobeying" him. At one point, he tries to force-feed Elsie when she says she's too sad to eat dinner.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Elsie treats her slaves well, from reading the The Bible with them, to buying them Christmas presents, and later when they are freed, pays them quite well. She is especially close with Aunt Chloe, whom she not only buys Aunt Chloe's husband, but also their granddaughter.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Elsie may be a millionaire, but once she's an adult, she uses any time not with her children helping others.
  • Old Maid: Adelaide Dinsmore is 26 when she marries, and before then refers to herself as this, while Elsie assures her she isn't. Enna marries at 16 to avoid this fate.
  • Old Retainer: Aunt Chloe, the mammy to first Elsie's mother, then Elsie herself, and finally Elsie's children.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Elsie's oldest daughter, also named Elsie, is nicknamed "Missy" in the reprints (most likely to avoid any confusion).
    • In the same reprints, Mildred Keith (Elsie's cousin) is also referred to as Millie.
  • Outliving One's Offspring:
    • Aunt Chloe had four children, out of them, only one survived to adulthood.
    • Elsie's daughter Lily dies at the age of 7 from illness.
  • Parental Abandonment: Elsie's father Horace leaves her with her grandparents when she is young, while he travels Europe, though he does make sure she is financially provided for. He later returns. Elsie's mother suffered Death by Despair, not helped by her weakened condition after childbirth.
  • Parental Hypocrisy: Horace refuses to allow Elsie to marry until she's at least 25, despite the fact he was 17 when he married her mother. He's called out on this by Rose Allison, who was 21 when she married him. He eventually allows Elsie to marry Edward Travilla when she's 22.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Horace gives one to Elsie and Bromly Edgerton because Bromly Edgerton is really Tom Jackson, though Elsie, innocent as ever, refuses to believe this until she sees him with a saloon girl.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • When he returns, Horace to Elsie.
    • Elsie's grandfather as well.
  • Parents as People: Horace, despite his initial resentment of Elsie, does try to be a good father to her... by taking over every aspect of her life and forcing her to be absolutely obedient to his will, and while quite harsh with punishments, he won't hesitate to apologize when he realizes he's in the wrong, such as in the first book when Elsie's grandparents wanted to punish her for refusing to read Enna a fairy tale; while Horace does have Elsie apologize to her grandfather for being impertinent he refuses to punish her any further. He gets better once he gets his Heel–Faith Turn. Teeters between this and Abusive Parents, but this was the norm for the 1850's. For obvious reasons, his harsh treatment of his daughter was toned down in the reprints.
  • Parental Substitute: Aunt Chloe and Mrs. Murray raised Elsie as is she was their own. Rose Allison as well, who eventually becomes Elsie's stepmother.
  • Parody: The series got one in O. Henry's short story "Elsie in New York", which while he insists his Elsie is not this Elsie, it's clear the short story mocks the series and its sense of morality.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Elsie is first raised by her maternal grandfather until his death, then by her paternal grandparents from age four until her father returns.
  • Religious Edutainment: Not only do the Elsie books fit under this trope, but everything penned by original author Martha Finley fits under "Sunday school" literature.
  • Sadist Teacher: Miss Day, the governess of the Dinsmore children. While quite prickly and stern with her other pupils, she vents her all her frustration onto Elsie, knowing she can get away with it, since Mrs. Dinsmore doesn't care enough about her to get involved with the discipline of Elsie. Says something when her father decides to tutor Elsie himself. Surprisingly, Elsie forgives her when she sees her again as an adult, even giving her son money so he can start a new life out West.
  • Second Love: Rose to Horace
  • She Is All Grown Up: Edward Travilla when he meets up with the Dinsmore's in Elsie's True Love.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Elsie becomes this when she's grown up. True, she's a Southern Belle, but is quite the Determinator when she wants to get something done.
  • Spoiled Brat: An argument could be made for most of Horace Sr.'s and the second Mrs. Dinsmore's children (aside from the two oldest, Adelaide and Lora, and maybe younger son Walter), but Enna and Arthur stand out due to them getting the most focus. Fortunately, they all outgrow this attitude, except Enna and Arthur.
  • Tell Me About My Father: Elsie asks this to Aunt Chloe when she learns that her father is returning from Europe. Later on, she asks her father about her mother.
  • Too Unhappy to Be Hungry: Elsie is punished by her father for freeing a hummingbird he trapped in a jar. When she's sent to her room with one of her hands tied up, she's extremely upset. Later, he tries to get her to come down and eat dinner, but she's too sad to do so. Instead of understanding the problem and giving her her space, Horace forces her to eat, thinking she's being willfully disobedient and naughty (Which she isn't, but her father is too much of a stern authoritarian Jerkass to believe otherwise, even when he's told by others she's not like that), scolding her for sulking about the punishment.
  • Turn the Other Cheek: What Elsie does regarding her cousins Arthur and Enna, though she still refuses to give Arthur money for his gambling habit.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Aunt Wealthy. Also a Meaningful Name, since she is... wealthy.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The second Mrs. Dinsmore is a step-grandmother, but definitely fills the criteria
    • Much earlier, she tricked her abolitionist step-niece Millie into owning a slave.
  • Wife Husbandry: Elsie marries Edward Travilla, who was one of her father's best friends, and her honorary uncle.
  • Womanchild: Enna Dinsmore. Due to being the spoiled pet of her father, Enna never really matured, something even her own daughter points out.
  • Younger Than They Look: Enna Dinsmore was an early bloomer. Despite being younger than her cousin Elsie by a year, she is often mistaken to be the older of the two, a point in which the worldly Mrs. Dinsmore is quite proud. This later bites her in the ass when she's aged well before her time.


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