Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny is an 1861 novel by American author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Later dubbed the first of his "medicated novels", it tells the story of a neurotic young woman whose mother was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant, essentially making her daughter half-woman, half-snake.
The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed medical professor. He tells the story of a student named Bernard Langdon, who has to take some time away from his studies to earn money as a teacher. Langdon spends a short time teaching at a school in the village of Pigwacket Centre where he earns respect after taking on the school bully, Abner Briggs. After only a month, however, Langdon leaves to work at the Apollinean Female Institute in the town of Rockland. The owner of the institute is the profit-focused Silas Peckham and the schoolmistress is Miss Helen Darley, who is literally working herself to death. One of his students is the 17-year-old Elsie Venner, who purposely sits apart from the other students. She is known for being strange and quick to anger. She is only close to her father Dudley Venner, who she calls by his first name, and her governess, Old Sophy. She also has a friendship with the town physician Dr. Kittredge, to whom she reveals that she ran away from home to hide on the other side of the mountain, where the other town residents are afraid to go.
Elsie's half-Spanish cousin Richard "Dick" Venner pays a visit at the Venner estate. Like Elsie, his mother died when he was a child and the two cousins were playmates in their childhood. Elsie, however, was rough on her cousin and once bit him hard enough that he still has scars from it. Dick has since become a skilled horse-rider and a bit of a trouble-maker, though stories of his escapades are unclear. Rumors abound that Dick has come to town to ask his cousin Elsie to marry him; in fact, he intends to marry her so that he can inherit his uncle's estate.
Langdon is surprised to find a gift stuck in the pages of a book by Virgil on his desk at school. Pressed inside is an exotic-looking flower, known to be the type Elsie collects. Frightened yet intrigued that the girl has taken an interest in him, he resolves to climb the mountain and find her secret hiding-place. Climbing up several precipitous rock formations, Langdon finds the source of the exotic flower Elsie presented him. Investigating a cavern where he thinks Elsie hides out, Langdon is instead overtaken by a rattlesnake poised to strike. Just at that moment, however, Elsie appears and calms the snake merely by looking at it.
Intrigued, Langdon researches snakes, poisons, and the "evil eye". He cages a couple snakes and contacts his old professor for information. Doctor Kittredge recognizes the mutual interest between Langdon and Elsie, and recommends the former begin practicing with a pistol. In the meantime, Dick Venner subtly pursues a relationship with Elsie in order to become heir to the ample Venner estate but is jealous of Langdon and worries Elsie's father might marry Miss Darley. One night, Dick attacks Langdon with his lasso. Langdon shoots his pistol and kills Dick's horse but is injured. Dr. Kittredge's assistant appears, having been ordered to follow Dick and, after exposing the incident, Dick is run out of town.
Soon, Elsie admits her interest in Langdon. Though he admits he is concerned about her as a friend, she is devastated and becomes sick. During her illness, she calls for Miss Darley to attend to her. Miss Darley finally asks Old Sophy how Elsie's mother died, and it is implied that she was poisoned by a snake bite shortly before Elsie was born. Elsie slowly loses her mysterious nature and softens enough to tell her father she loves him. She dies shortly after.
Composition and publication
Holmes's medical background—he had studied medicine in Paris when he was young and was a professor at Harvard Medical School when the novel was published—was an important influence on the novel's storyline, as well as its overriding themes.
Elsie Venner was Holmes's first novel, originally published serially in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in December 1859 as "The Professor's Story". It was first published as a stand-alone novel in 1861. It was republished in 1883 and 1891.
Holmes wrote in the second preface to Elsie Venner that his reason for writing the work was "to test the doctrine of 'original sin' and human responsibility for the distorted violation coming under that technical denomination". The novel explores medical complexities, psychology, the origins of behavior and the certainties of religion. The novel bears a resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter", a tale which explored original sin several years before Elsie Venner was published. It is also often compared to Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860) in that both works discuss moral-theological questions in terms of psychology. Holmes himself referred to Elsie Venner as one of his "medicated novels", along with The Guardian Angel (1867) and A Moral Antipathy (1885), because of the characters' health or mental problems which are "diagnosed" in the text.
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