The books take place in the American South. Elsie is an eight-year-old girl who has been living with her paternal grandfather, his second wife (Elsie's step-grandmother), and their six children: Adelaide, Lora, Louise, Arthur, Walter, and Enna. Elsie's mother died soon after giving birth to her, and her father has been traveling in Europe. She is good friends with Rose Allison, with whom she studies the Bible. The first book begins as Elsie's father, Horace, returns from Europe and she goes to live with him.
The first Elsie books deal with a constant moral conflict between Christian principles and familial loyalty. Horace is a strict disciplinarian who dictates inflexible rules by which his daughter must live. Any infraction is severely and often unjustly punished. In her father's absence, Elsie became a Christian and abides by Biblical law, especially the Ten Commandments - as taught to her by her dead mother's housekeeper and then her own nanny, Chloe. Her father, being "worldly" and not a strict Christian, regards this as ludicrous and in some cases as insolence. Many conflicts result from Elsie's belief that she must obey the Word of God before that of her father and can only obey her father when his orders do not conflict with Scripture. For example, Horace attempts to force Elsie to "sin" by playing secular music and reading fiction on Sunday. Their conflict culminates with Elsie having a nervous breakdown as she thinks that her father does not really love her. She begs him to read the Bible with her to become a Christian but his heart is hardened.
The plot of the second book, Elsie's Holidays at Roselands, revolves around Horace's refusing to speak to Elsie — or allow anyone else to speak to her — for several months, because she is more obedient to God than to her father. Their "war of wills" culminates in Elsie coming very near to death, to the point that they shave her head hoping to abate her "brain fever". When Horace thinks that she has died, he finds her Bible, comes to a knowledge of Jesus, and converts to Christianity. Elsie comes back from the brink of death, but her recovery is slow, and due to this her father is very protective of her. Her recovery is helped by her father marrying Rose Allison. They have two more children, Horace, Jr. and Rosie.
Some years later, Edward Travilla, an older man who has had his eye on Elsie for a long time, proposes to Elsie, and the next year they enjoy a quiet wedding. While the Dinsmore and Travilla families are vacationing in Europe, the Civil War begins, and they remain there until it ends. They return to find the devastation that the War has wreaked and attempt to help their families heal. They also attempt to protect themselves against the KKK. Elsie's considerable funds are used to rebuild the families' plantations and restore the families to health. The children of both the Dinsmore and Travilla families have adventures and grow in their own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in an amoral world, guided by Edward and Elsie. All of the children grow up and are married except Herbert and Walter.
By the dates given in Elsie's Womanhood and Elsie's Widowhood, Elsie's birth date can be traced to about 1837. Elsie also has some more distant relatives, who are recurring characters in the series, including the Keiths, the Lilburns, and the Landreths.
Elsie and the Raymond family
Later in Elsie's life, the books focus less on Elsie herself, and mostly deal with Lulu's constant conflict with her fearful temper. When Violet is first married to Lulu's father Levis Raymond, Lulu creates a problem by refusing to obey her new mother. Another time, she hurts and nearly kills her baby sister, causing her father to beat her with a riding whip. When Lulu attends school in Louisiana, her music instructor taps her with a ruler, causing her to strike him over the head with a book. When Lulu refuses to comply with Mr. Dinsmore's order that she go back to the signor, Lulu holds out, causing her to be cut off from the family circle. Her bad behavior causes Rosie to sympathize with her sister Vi for having such burdens, and Rosie often teases Lulu into a passion.
A new Elsie Dinsmore series of eight books was adapted and abridged from the old one and published by Zondervan/Mission City Press in 1999 and dubbed "Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith". The language has been somewhat modernized and the African American characters no longer speak in dialect (e.g. "Da bressed chile" as opposed to "The blessed child"). While the plot-lines still hinge on Elsie's attempts to gain her father's love while maintaining her Christian ethics and refusing to report bullying incidents (usually by Arthur or Miss Day, the governess), some of Horace's actions have been toned down and the infamous scene in which he drags her off to beat her with a riding crop no longer exists. There is a line of dolls and a Bible study curriculum based on the new series. The original books have been reprinted as "Original Elsie Classics" by many publishers.
When Elsie comes of age she marries her father's good friend Edward Travilla. He has been her knight in shining armor who constantly helps her when other people are cruel to her; he has loved her for a long time. They have 8 children: Elsie, Edward, Violet, Harold, Herbert, Lily (who dies at age seven), Rosie, and Walter.
Elsie Dinsmore's eldest daughter Elsie becomes engaged to her neighbor's nephew, Lester Leland. Edward Jr. goes to Europe with young Elsie when Lester Leland falls ill. While in Europe, Edward Jr. meets the woman who will become his wife, Zoe Love. He marries her just before her father dies. They later have twins: Edward Lawrence (Laurie) and Lily. While they are away, Violet meets and falls in love with Captain Levis Raymond. He has three children by his first wife: Max, Lucilla (called Lulu), and Gracie; the rest of the books are mainly about them. Together, Levis Raymond and Violet have two children: Elsie and Edward (Ned). Rosie marries a college friend of her brother's whom she met on vacation, William Croly. Lulu Raymond marries Chester Dinsmore, and they have one child together before the series ends. Max marries his step uncle's orphaned niece Evelyn Leland.
Places featured in the books
- Roselands - A plantation owned by Elsie's grandfather. Elsie lives here during the first two books.
- The Oaks - A plantation owned by Elsie's father. Elsie moves here with her father the year after he returns from Europe.
- Ion - A plantation owned by Edward Travilla and his mother. Elsie moves here after she marries Edward. The majority of the books take place here.
- Viamede - A plantation that belonged to Elsie's mother; Elsie inherits it when she turns 21.
- Woodburn - A plantation owned by Elsie's son-in-law, Captain Levis Raymond.
The plantations are said to be set in Union, Virginia, except for Viamede, which is in Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. Other less-visited plantations include:
- Crag Cottage - Cottage belonging to Evelyn Leland.
- The Laurels - A plantation owned by Elsie's sister Rose Lacey and her husband.
- The Pines
- Ashwood - Rose Allison's father's Plantation
- The Crags (not related to Crag Cottage) - A plantion owned by Phillip and Lucy (Carrington) Ross. Elsie and her children (except Rosie and Walter, who were born later in the book) visit the Crags in Elsie's Children.
- Sunnyside - A plantation owned by Lucilla and Chester, Max and Eva.
- Magnolia Hall- Plantation owned by Molly and Louis Embury.
- Elsie Dinsmore - The only child of Horace and Elsie (Grayson) Dinsmore. She marries Edward Travilla Jr., and is the mother of Elsie, Horace Edward, Violet, Harold, Herbert, Lily, Rose, and Walter Travilla.
- Horace Dinsmore - Elsie's father. He is married first to Elsie Grayson, by whom he had Elsie, then to Rose Allison, by whom he had Horace III and Rose Dinsmore.
- Edward Travilla Jr. - Son of Edward and Violet Travilla, married Elsie Dinsmore, and fathered her children. He dies in Elsie's Widowhood.
- Rose Allison Dinsmore - Second child in the Allison family, married Horace Dinsmore, mother of Horace, Jr. and Rose Dinsmore.
- Enna Dinsmore Percival Johnson - Seventh child of Horace Dinsmore Senior.married first to Richard Percival, then Mr. Johnson. She is the spoiled pet of the Dinsmore family, and she is mean to Elsie in both childhood and adulthood. She mothers four children: Richard Jr. and Molly, by Percival, and Robert 'Bob' and Elizabeth 'Betty'. She is rendered mentally unstable after a carriage accident with her father, and in the first chapter of Grandmother Elsie it is mentioned that she has died at the home of her oldest daughter.
- Arthur Dinsmore Jr. - Fifth child of Arthur Dinsmore, Horace's half-brother. He is very mean to Elsie in her childhood, and is killed in the Civil War.
- Thomas Jackson alias Bromly Egerton - one of Arthur Dinsmore's friends. He tries to win Elsie's hand in marriage so he can have her inheritance. He nearly succeeds, but Horace finds out before he can convince her to run away with him. He is killed in the Civil War.
- Elsie Leland - Eldest child of Edward and Elsie Travilla. She marries Lester Leland and has four children: Edward Travilla, Eric, Elsie Alicia, and Violet Leland.
- Horace Edward Travilla - The second child of Edward and Elsie Travilla. He marries Zoe Love shortly before her father's death and they have twins: Lily (after his sister) and Edward Lawrence.
- Violet Raymond - Elsie and Edward Travilla's third child. She marries the widower Captain Levis Raymond and becomes the stepmother of Max, Lulu, and Grace. She has two children: Elsie and Edward Raymond.
- Harold Allison Travilla - The fourth child of Edward and Elsie Travilla. He eventually marries his sister's stepdaughter, Grace Raymond.
- Herbert Travilla - Edward and Elsie's fifth child. He becomes a physician and after the first books he is rarely mentioned.
- Lily Travilla - Edward and Elsie's sixth child who dies at age 7.
- Rose Travilla Croly - Edward and Elsie's seventh child. She marries her brother's friend, William Croly. She is very mean to Lucilla.
- Walter Travilla - The youngest child of Edward and Elsie, named after Walter Dinsmore.
- Lucilla "Lulu" Raymond Dinsmore - The oldest daughter of Grace and Captain Levis Raymond, and stepdaughter to Violet Raymond. She is known for having an incredibly bad temper, and as a little girl she is punished several times in each book by her father. She marries Chester Dinsmore. Most of the later books mainly focus on her.
- Max Raymond - Only son of Grace and Captain Levis Raymond, and stepson of Violet Raymond. He marries Evelyn Leland, his step-cousin and his sister's best friend.
- Grace Raymond Travilla - Youngest daughter of Grace and Captain Levis Raymond, and stepdaughter of Violet Raymond. She marries Harold Travilla, her physician and her stepmother's younger brother.
- Chloe (no surname given), sometimes "Aunt Chloe" or "Mammy" - Elsie's nurse since infancy. Describes herself as "only a poor old black sinner, but de good Lord Jesus, He loves me jes de same as if I was white".
O. Henry wrote a parody of the Elsie books called "Elsie in New York" . In this short story, Elsie (ostensibly a different Elsie, but the similarity to Finley's Elsie is overwhelmingly obvious) is portrayed as a naive young woman who has gone to New York to work for her father's former employer. Elsie is constantly presented with opportunities for honest work and relationships on her first day in the city, but always prevented by the minions of Society and Morality, such as the police or fictional activist groups like the 'Association for the Prevention of Jobs Being Put Up on Working Girls Looking for Jobs.'
When she finds her father's former boss, he is a lecherous rich playboy. There the story stops, allowing the reader to fill in the rest. The story pokes fun at Elsie Dinsmore's take on the world, where as long as one has faith, and follows the lead of those in moral authority, one will be rewarded.
Elsie's childhood friends
In the first two books Elsie plays with and visits several friends and neighbors and their children. Most of them had died by the time Christmas with Grandma Elsie was written. Herbert died of a broken heart when Elsie rejected his marriage proposal.
- Herbert Carrington
- Lucy Carrington Ross
- Mary Leslie
- Flora Arnett
- Caroline (Cary) Howard
- Mildred Keith
- Sophie Allison
- Isabel Carleton
- Harold Allison
Elsie Dinsmore in popular culture
The Elsie series is mentioned in Emily Climbs (1925), the second book of a series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, better known for Anne of Green Gables. The eponymous heroine is told derisively to "go and read the Elsie books!"
The Elsie series is mentioned in Chapter 19 of Jo of the Chalet School (1926) the second book of a school series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. Josephine Bettany, the main character, an avid reader, lies injured in bed after a skating accident. When Jo complains that she has read everything she has, Dr. Jem offers her the Elsie books. Jo accepts them doubtfully, proclaiming that they were about an 'awfully good little girl' and there were 'dozens' of them, but is soon digging eagerly into Elsie's saga. (The books featured include Elsie Dinsmore, Elsie's Holidays at Roselands, Elsie's Girlhood, Elsie's Womanhood, Elsie's Motherhood, and Elsie's Children.) Ultimately, Josephine decides to carry on the series by writing about Elsie's children (Eddie, Harold, and Herbert).
In the 1938 film "Man-Proof," starring Myrna Loy and Franchot Tone, Tone's character sarcastically remarks "Elsie Dinsmore's in love," commenting on Loy's stated plan to seduce her friend's husband, with whom she'd had a previous relationship.
Approximately 25 minutes into the classic play and film The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), Sheridan Whiteside, played by Monty Woolley, refers to his secretary Maggie as Elsie Dinsmore in the following line, said in a sarcastic tone: "Come back at eight-thirty. We'll play three-handed (cribbage) with Elsie Dinsmore."
Elsie is mentioned in Maud Hart Lovelace's book Betsy in Spite of Herself (1946). When Betsy's friend Tib buys them Sunday-evening theater tickets, Betsy remembers how Elsie Dinsmore would have handled what she considered a somewhat shocking proposal, then dismisses it--"[she] had never thought much of Elsie Dinsmore."
Approximately 80 minutes into the 1951 movie People Will Talk (in the "railroad" scene), Mrs. Praetorius breaks into tears and compares herself in her current emotional state to "a kind of idiot Elsie Dinsmore."
In the 1954 novel The Bad Seed by William March, the homicidal 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark reads Elsie Dinsmore "as though she hoped to find there an understanding of those puzzling values she saw in others--values which, though she tried her best to stimulate them, were so curiously absent in herself." Approximately 31 minutes into the 1956 film adaptation (in a scene taking place one day after the mysterious drowning of her classmate), Rhoda Penmark, played by Patty McCormack, proudly announces that she will be reading her new book, Elsie Dinsmore, which she has won at Sunday School.
In Shirley Jackson's "The Sneaker Crisis", one of her essays about her home and family life, her daughter Jannie tries to help solve the mystery of her brother's missing sneakers. She cites an incident in Elsie Dinsmore as a reason she should get partial credit for their recovery.
"Pa's dead and gone and I haven't stopped hating him. What kind of unnatural daughter's that make me? A girl is supposed to love her father." "Sure, in those Elsie Dinsmore stories or someplace. We all grew up on that stuff, and it poisoned our souls." (479-480)
A derisive remark of criticism is: "Don't be such an Elsie Dinsmore!"
List of the original books
The originally published books, in order of publication, were:
- Elsie Dinsmore (1867) - online at Project Gutenberg and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Holidays at Roselands (1868) - online at Project Gutenberg and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Girlhood (1872) - online at Project Gutenberg and in the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Womanhood (1875) - online at Project Gutenberg and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Motherhood (1876) - online at Project Gutenberg and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Children (1877) - online at Project Gutenberg and as audio at LibriVox
- Elsie's Widowhood (1880) - online at Internet Archive
- Grandmother Elsie (1882) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie's New Relations (1883) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie at Nantucket (1884) - online at Project Gutenberg
- The Two Elsies (1885) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie's Kith and Kin (1886) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie's Friends at Woodburn (1887)- online at Internet Archive
- Christmas with Grandma Elsie (1888) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie and the Raymonds (1889)- online at Internet Archive
- Elsie Yachting with the Raymonds (1890) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie's Vacation (1891) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie at Viamede (1892) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie at Ion (1893) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie at the World's Fair (1894) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie's Journey on Inland Waters (1895) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie at Home (1897) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie on the Hudson (1898) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie in the South (1899) - online at Project Gutenberg
- Elsie's Young Folks (1900) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie's Winter Trip (1902) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie and Her Loved Ones (1903) - online at Internet Archive
- Elsie and Her Namesakes (1905) - online at Internet Archive
A Life of Faith
The series was later reissued as Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith.
- Elsie's Endless Wait
- Elsie's Impossible Choice
- Elsie's New Life
- Elsie's Stolen Heart
- Elsie's True Love
- Elsie's Troubled Times
- Elsie's Tender Mercies
- Elsie's Great Hope
- Hart, Moss and Kaufman, George S. The Man who Came to Dinner. Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1939, p. 19.
- A Life of Faith Books, discussion material, dolls and other premiums. (dead link)