the unbearable smugness of Elsie Dinsmore

Just finished reading Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge, which is a complex portrayal of an orphaned girl who has been kicked around from place to place. She builds her entire sense of self on finding out that she is a countess, because she has so little else to go on in the home of overbearing Aunt Barbara who constantly tells her she's not good enough.

Then I start reading Elise Dinsmore by Martha Finley... we're still post-Civil War here, hence Elise is also an orphan deposited with a family who does not love her. But while Charlotte is confused, uncertain, and awkward thanks to having been kicked from family to family, Elsie is beautiful, self-righteous, constantly in an attractive state of near-weeping, and refers incessantly to the Bible.

Why is she like this? How does her character come to be? We don't know, and it's hard to care when Elsie does nothing but demonstrate over and over how much better a person she is than anyone else. She's a child who needs no external motivation for her actions. All is about God, and obedience. To modern ears, used to the context-immersion of the era after all scholarship made a linguistic turn, since we began to think of culture as a kind of soup we swim in that also floats into our skins, Elsie is particularly jarring.

Kate reacts to Aunt Barbara's disapproval in a realistic way: she gives up. She freaks out, she screams and cries, and she just basically regresses to early childhood. When given explanations for obedience, she does try. When handed instructions with love rather than the assumption that she will fail, she is very effective. She responds to love.

Elsie reacts to everyone's disapproval, including that of her own father who judges her harshly, by turning to God, or her understanding of God, for comfort. "God must want it to be so" she consoles herself, seeking no explanation for the things around her. Elsie is like a little martyr, accepting all and questioning none. Elise carries a profound love for her father, who restricts her and lavishes affection on other children in front of her. She rejects the offer of another home because she loves her father so much. Obviously, her "father" is a thinly veiled metaphor for "God," although he isn't always righteous.

The differences between these books are, from the standpoint of complaints over realism made by 19thc librarians, somewhat subtle. Librarians approved of Yonge's Kate, disapproved of Finley's Elsie. Both are orphans, both are in unloving homes for most of the books... but while Kate's character is explained by her own passionate personality and her immaturity, which keeps her self-control mostly dormant, Elsie's is not explained at all. In an era during which Darwin and Freud had turned all eyes on Childhood as the most important phase of human development, Elsie is a throwback to an earlier era of the Sunday School books. Instead of children, those books had little saints. Kate reflects the complexity expected of books for children, in that she is neither good nor bad but learns to be better over the course of the book. Yonge does point out Kate's flaws as they occur, in asides to the reader. But Kate is a realistic human child, while Elsie is a cardboard cut-out of a girl.

Yonge's Kate:
It's not very realistic that a countess-ship would suddenly pass to an orphan girl, but it is realistic that the parson and his family were the only ones who would take her in until the inheritance of the title, at which point her wealthier relatives were interested for the first time. Aunt Jane is kindly but very ill, and Aunt Barbara is stiff and forbidding, assuming from the start that Kate is damaged goods due to her upbringing so far. She only experiences real obedience when she begins to be exposed to real love, from her other aunt and uncle who come back from India to take care of her when their own son dies.

Finley's Elsie:
It's not realistic that a little girl would experience absolutely no effects from the pity or scorn of her peers, and instead understand implicitly how to translate the words of the Bible into righteous deeds. It's not realistic that she would be both good and beautiful.... unless she's essentially a folkloric figure, and not really realistic at all. Of course, Elise gets love from the cardboard-cutout of Mammy, her black caretaker, who loves her and encouarges her in her Bible reading. That's all we see of her, Elsie's devoted servant, not a woman in her own right.

The interesting contrasts are not the plot or the set-up (both are similar), but the implicit messages each book gives about what children are capable of being and who they should be. This also gives insight into what parents should be.

What if 19thc librarians objected to folkloric one-dimensional characters in their novels, but not in folklore itself? Folktales could be unreal, because they represented the concepts of other cultures. But fictional stories were held to a higher standard of realism, in that they had to reflect beliefs (still held today) about the malleability of childhood and the importance of loving families.

I'm still reading Elsie Dinsmore, although it's hard going....

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