Elsie’s Womanhood

Elsie’s Womanhood
Martha Finley
1875

NUTSHELL: I can’t rate this! It’s so bad it’s awesome!

Elsie, Elsie, Elsie.

I’ve given up on taking anything Martha Finley wrote seriously. Instead, I will deliver up the choicest bits, which you can discover for yourself (and many more!) at Project Gutenberg.

“Travilla; after years of patient waiting he has won her at last—our darling—and—and I’ve given her to him.”

Travilla is Elsie’s father’s friend. They’re roughly the same age. This would explain why “Elsie’s Widowhood” comes before “Grandmother Elsie” in the series, wouldn’t it?

Also, Elsie’s maybe twenty-one here. Man, I hope those years of patient waiting weren’t very long…

Of course, everyone in the book has to weigh in on Elsie and Travilla’s age difference. At last, she says this, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

“Some people seem like wine—to improve with age [. . . ].”

As well as this:

“I would not have him a day younger, except that he would like to be nearer my age, or different in any way from what he is[.]”

Some of my favorite lines belong to Aunt Wealthy Stanhope (misidentified in one review as “Elsie’s wealthy Aunt Stanhope” — well, no, not exactly.) “The doctor’s as busy as ever, killing people all round the country; he’s very successful at it” made me wonder if the doctor in question was a nineteenth-century Kevorkian. “Ah, funerals are almost as sad as weddings. I don’t know how people can ever feel like dancing at them” also gave me a chuckle. I think I’d like dancing at my funeral, thanks very much!

I only wish this were half as interesting as it sounded:

They were alone in Elsie’s boudoir, but when an hour had slipped rapidly away there came a message from Mr. Dinsmore to the effect that their company would be very acceptable in the library.

Poor Travilla. I mean, obviously he’d have liked more than one hour.

The true romance of this series to date has been, as readers will know, between Elsie and her father. To wit:

“Well, dearest,” he said, after a moment, in which he held her very close and caressed her with exceeding tenderness, “we shall not be far apart or miss passing some time together many days of the year. And you are not in haste to leave me?”

And upon arrival at Elsie’s property in New Orleans, Viamede:

“Yes, sir. Papa dear, welcome, welcome to my house; the dearest guest that could come to it.” And wiping away her tears, she lifted her loving eyes to his, a tender smile playing about the sweet lips.

“Save one,” he answered half-playfully, passing his hand caressingly over her hair, and bending down to press his lips on brow, and cheeks, and mouth. “Is not that so?”

Oh, but I’m saving the best for her wedding day.

“My darling!” murmured the father, in low, half tremulous accents, putting his arm about the slender waist, “my beautiful darling! how can I give you to another?” and again and again his lips were pressed to hers in long, passionate kisses.

Uh. Yeah. Now you know why I can ship Elsie/Travilla without getting groomer vibes off the latter: he’s positively sane compared to Daddy Dearest. (Aside: Daddy/Daughter kink for the steam age? You decide! Elsie’s totally submissive to everything in pants, so it ain’t that farfetched…)

Elsie’s still wearing an awful lot of white throughout and even after her honeymoon. Most of me thinks, yeah, she looked good in white, but part of me wonders if Elsie would’ve taken intimacy as slowly as falling in love! Imagine what a shock sex might’ve been, if the longest kisses she’s shared so far have been with her father. (For sanity’s sake, please imagine it that way, in fact.)

At this point, I imagine Elsie was quite disappointed:

“Hush, hush!” he said flushing, “I meant to have that left out; and did I not tell you you were to have your own way that night and ever after? You’ve already done enough of obeying to last you a lifetime. But please come round where I can see you better.” Then, as she stepped to his side, he threw an arm about her and drew her to his knee.

“But it wasn’t left out,” she said, shyly returning his fond caress; “I promised and must keep my word.”

“Ah, but if you can’t, you can’t; how will you obey when you get no orders?”

“So you don’t mean to give me any?”

“No, indeed; I’m your husband, your friend, your protector, your lover, but not your master.”

Shit, I would be. But Edward Travilla is quite vanilla, as Aunt Wealthy says at one point. He positively insists on equality between them:

“Does it satisfy you, my little wife?” he asked, in tones that spoke intense enjoyment of her pleasure.

Good lord, he’s saying that in front of his mom.

Somehow, about eleven months after the wedding, Elsie’s got an infant in her room. Graphic accounts of gunshot wounds? Totally cool by Mrs. Finley. Pregnancy? Eeek! Going on the baby’s age, she must have been conceived in short order. So all that wearing of white was a style choice. Neat.

Finley has been foreshadowing the Civil War throughout, quite subtly, I find; this passage exemplifies her skill at it:

“I have a very good offer for your New Orleans property, daughter,” said Mr. Dinsmore; “shall I accept it?”

“Do you think it advisable, papa? and you, Edward? I have great confidence in your judgments.”

“We do; we think the money could be better and more safely invested in foreign stock; but it is for you to decide, as the property is yours.”

“More safely invested? I thought I had heard you both say real estate was the safest of all investments.”

“Usually,” replied her father, “but we fear property there is likely to depreciate in value.”

If by “depreciate in value” you mean “get razed by Yankees”, sure. I bet there are a fair few homeowners today who wish they had Dinsmore and Travilla’s crystal ball.

So Mrs. T, Travilla’s mother, gets sick and dies. My money’s on metastatic, inoperable cancer; Mrs. T has a slow, painful decline, which diabetes really couldn’t offer back in the day. Somewhere in all that, Elsie’s pregnant again; she gives birth a week after her mother-in-law dies. Oy. Every time she has a kid, they treat her like she’s breakable. Dinsmore lost Elsie senior (yes, Elsie is the second in a line of three) right after she gave birth at, oh gods, sixteen and two weeks. Compared to that, Travilla married an old maid. Childbirth and Elsie apparently don’t get on well; she takes her sweet time recovering, and I’m getting a hint of post-partum depression from

“You want change, daughter,” Mr. Dinsmore said, coming in one morning and finding her lying pale and languid on a sofa; “and we are all longing to have you at home. Do you feel equal to a drive over to the Oaks?”

In the real world, of course, a bit of inter-plantation travel doesn’t cure a damn thing, but it works great on Elsie. So, too, does a subsequent trip to Europe.

In 1860.

Somehow I don’t think they’ll ever see their plantations again. Just as well, though, because the Dinsmores and Travillas are all pro-Union. They have family on both sides, which is heartbreaking, but they also have money out the ol’ posterior, so Elsie can afford to lend a bit to the war effort and still be comfortable waiting out the war in Europe. The worst scare they have there is baby Elsie’s seizure. Ignorance was bliss back then; Dinsmore’s wife, Elsie’s stepmother, blithely mentions that her sisters had seizures all the time as kids. Because the kid’s a Dinsmore by blood, of course this seizure kicks off an illness, and of course the illness almost kills the baby. Almost. Don’t worry; the youngest Elsie has her own adventures waiting in future books. Elsie number two promptly makes another baby, just in case.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Dinsmore’s most decent sibling, Walter, goes to war and dies. Ouch. But Elsie makes sure he’s Saved! Nobody’s spared in that respect, really; almost everyone we’ve met so far loses someone. Oh, and Dinsmore’s actually upset over the Emancipation Proclamation because he’s going to be poorer without his slaves. Again, oy. Travilla has the bright idea to actually pay their people to work, though he’s not entirely sure they’ll take the money (!), which cheers the old man up a little bit. Two years later, the war ends, everyone comes home, and we find out just how Walter bit it: escaping from Andersonville, where one of Elsie’s many admirers, Harold Allison (stepmother Rose’s brother. Yeah, I know) catches his death. Again, magical new baby! Prison camp? A mere bagatelle. Pregnancy? OH NOES THINK OF TEH CHILDRUN.

Miraculously, Viamede survives the war intact. What? I guess not selling before they went to Europe paid off. Just as well, because everyone else’s homes have been ravaged like Catherine Coulter’s early heroines.

Harold dies. Nobody notices.

We catch up with Dinsmore’s kin. His father’s a widower, his sister a widow twice over — married two Confederates — and oh yes: she’s just as rude as ever. Eh. I like that she sticks up for herself as a surviving child when Dinsmore Senior (!!) laments the loss of his precious sons, but otherwise she’s a repellent character.

By the end of the book, it’s 1867, Elsie’s thirty-one as far as I know, and Travilla’s as madly in love with her as ever. Of course he’s not going to get fifty more years to tell her so, but he wishes for them anyway. He’s a real sweetheart. I should also, at some point, mention that he does have a first name (Edward) but I kept flashing back to Twilight every time I tried to use it, so he’s stuck being Travilla to me. Sorry, mate.

No review of this book is complete without at least mentioning the fact that it is a product of its time. Doubtless Mrs. Finley remembered the era of which she wrote — this is the antebellum fantasy to end all antebellum fantasies. Attitudes we know are racist today were accepted then, though Elsie tries to treat her slaves as people within the confines of her worldview. She works to reunite families where she can, and opines that such reunions are worth many thousands of dollars; in pre-Civil War terms, that must have sounded positively abolitionist. (Undone, of course, pages later: “But some amount of patience with the natural slowness of the negro is a necessary trait in the character of an overseer who wishes to remain in my employ.”) I hate, hate, hate the practice of setting the people of color apart by their speech, but it was customary then, so I’m gritting my teeth and forging on ahead. I like to think perhaps the characters are putting on a show and laughing behind their hands at all of those silly white people — which may or may not fly in the face of history.

Thank God the other ones are set well after 1863.

Elsie Dinsmore, eternal figure of fun. O. Henry made fun of her, and now, so can I — but I rib with love. Like I said, I ship Elsie and her husband. They’re darling together. I like this book best of the ones I’ve read; sure, it has a few too many B-plots, but if you ignore those (which you can without losing much), this is a great little yarn.

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