Elsie Dinsmore (by Martha Finley)

I don't suppose I would ever have read anything by Martha Finley, who died about 100 years ago, but for two things. Firstly it appeared in Amazon's recommendations to me for the Kindle, and it was free. More significantly, her 'Elsie' books are referenced - albeit in rather condescending terms - in the book 'Jo of the Chalet School'.

So I downloaded 'Elsie Dinsmore', first in the series, and read it over the past week. It features the rather too-good-to-be-true Elsie, who is brought up with her aunts and uncles of similar age. She is eight when the story begins, subject to regular bullying by her youngest aunt and uncle, and treated with disfavour by their governess.

She is looked after materially by her grandfather and his second wife, but longs more than anything to be loved. She finds plenty of affection in her maid 'Mammy', who has brought her up as a devout Christian, but there's a lot of the inherent racism of the era in the USA; the black servants, while much loved by Elsie, are clearly considered somehow inferior to the rest of the family.

Shortly after the book opens, Elsie's father Horace returns to the family home and meets his daughter for the first time. Unfortunately he has somehow been biased against her, and treats her coldly and harshly at first, issuing orders that he expects to be obeyed without question, and eventually leading her to a battle of conscience when he asks her to do things she believes to be wrong.

There is rather too much preaching for my tastes; I can't imagine how this book would appeal to today's children, and can understand why the books have been parodied. Nobody could be quite so humble and pious at the age of eight; Elsie's worst fault appears to be her tendency to dissolve into tears at little provocation. Some of her moral scruples seem very dated, too, although her refusal to be a tattletale is admirable.

Somehow, though, it made compulsive reading. There are a lot of characters, who I suppose are developed further in other books in the lengthy series, and while Elsie is too much of a paragon to be believable, she did rather grow on me as the book progressed. So after finishing, I downloaded some of the sequels which are also available free for the Kindle.

Not really recommended, unless you're curious about these much maligned classics and are able to skim or put up with the lengthy Bible expositions and Elsie's attacks of conscience.

Links given are to paperback editions of this book, which has evidently been re-published now it's out of copyright; but I'd recommend searching for free e-book editions, if you want to read it (or are curious at least to see it) either on Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 7th April 2011

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