Agnes Repplier, "Little Pharisees in Fiction,"
Scribner's Magazine, December 1896

--excerpt discussing the Elsie Dinsmore series

Now if, as the Ladies Home Journal informs us, "there has been no character in American juvenile fiction who has attained more wide-spread interest and affection than Elsie Dinsmore," then children have altered strangely since I was young, and "skipping the moral" was a recognized habit of the nursery. It would be impossible to skip the moral of the "Elsie" books, because the residuum would be nothingess. Lucy Fairchild and Daisy Randolph are hardened reprobates compared with Elsie Dinsmore. It is true we are told when the first book opens that she is "not yet perfect;" but when we find her taking her well-worn Bible out of her desk—she is eight years old—and consoling herself with texts for the injustice of grown-up people, we begin to doubt the assertion. When we hear her say to a visitor old enough to be her father: " Surely you know that there is no such thing as a little sin. Don't you remember about the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day?" the last lingering hope as to her possible fallibility dies in our dejected bosoms. We are not surprised after this to hear that she is unwilling to wear a new frock on Sunday, lest she should be tempted to think of it in church; and we are fully prepared for the assurance that she knows her father "is not a Christian," and that she "listens with pain" to his unprincipled conjecture that if a man leads an honest, upright, moral life, is regular in his attendance at church, and observes all the laws, he probably goes to heaven. This sanguine statement is as reprehensible to Elsie as it would have been to the Fairchild family; and when Mr. Dinsinore—a harmless, but very foolish and consequential person —is taken ill, his little daughter pours out her heart "in agonizing supplication that her dear, dear papa might be spared, at least until he was fit to go to Heaven."

A few old-fashioned people will consider this mental attitude an unwholesome one for a child, and will perhaps be of the opinion that it is better for a little girl to do something moderately naughty herself than to judge her parents so severely. But Elsie is a young Rhadamanthus, from whose verdicts there is no appeal. She sees with dismay her father amusing himself with a novel on Sunday, and begs at once that she may recite to him some verses. Forgetful of her principles, he asks her, when convalescing from his tedious illness, to read aloud to him for an hour. Alas ! "The book her father bade her read was simply a fictitious moral tale, without a particle of religious truth in it, and, Elsie's conscience told her, entirely unfit for the Sabbath." In vain Mr. Dinsinore reminds her that he is somewhat older than she is, and assures her he would not ask her to do anything he thought was wrong. "'But, Papa,' she replied timidly,"—she is now nine—"'you know tho Bible says, "'They measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves are not wise.'" This text failing to convince Mr. Dinsmore, he endeavors, through wearisome chapter after chapter, to break Elsie's heroic resolution, until, as a final resource, she becomes ill in her turn, makes her last will and testament, and is only induced to remain upon a sinful earth when her father, contrite and humbled, implores her forgiveness, and promises amendment. It never seems to occur to the author of these remarkable stories that a child's most precious privilege is to be exempt from serious moral responsibility, that a supreme confidence in the wisdom and goodness of his parents is his best safeguard, and that to shake this innocent belief, this natural and holy creed of infancy, is to destroy childhood itself, and to substitute the precocious melancholy of a prig.

For nothing can be more dreary than the recital of Elsie's sorrows and persecutions. Every page is drenched with tears. She goes about with "tear-swollen eyes," she rushes to her room "shaken with sobs," her grief is "deep and despairing," she " cries and sobs dreadfully," she " stifles her sobs "—but this is rare—she is "blinded with welling tears." In her more buoyant moments, a tear merely "trickles down her cheek," and on comparatively cheerful nights she is content to shed "a few quiet tears upon her pillow." On more serious occasions, "a low cry of utter despair broke from her lips," and when spoken to harshly by her father, "with a low cry of anguish, she fell forward in a deep swoon." And yet I am asked to believe that this dismal, tear-soaked, sobbing, hysterical little girl has been adopted by healthy children as one of the favorite heroines of "American juvenile fiction."

In all these books, the lesson of self-esteem and self-confidence is taught on every page. Childish faults and childish virtues are over-emphasized until they appear the only important things on earth. Captain Raymond, a son-in-law of the grown-up Elsie, hearing that his daughter Lulu has had trouble with her music teacher, decides immediately that it is his duty to leave the navy, and devote himself to the training and discipline of his young family, a notion which, if generally accepted, would soon leave our country without defenders. On one occasion, Lulu, who is an unlucky girl, kicks—under sore provocation—what she thinks is the dog, but what turns out, awkwardly enough, to be the baby. The incident is considered sufficiently tragic to fill most of the volume, and this is the way it is discussed by the other children—children who belong to an order of beings as extinct, I believe and hope, as the dodo:

"'If Lu had only controlled her temper yesterday,' said Max, 'what a happy family we would be.'

"'Yes,' sighed Grace. 'Papa is punishing her very hard and very long; but of course he knows best, and he loves her.'

"'Yes, I am sure he does,' assented Max, 'So he won't give her any more punishment than he thinks she needs. It will be a fine thing for her, and all the rest of us, too, if this hard lesson teaches her never to get into a passion again.'"

Better surely to kick a wilderness of babies than to wallow in self-righteousness like this!

One more serious charge must be brought against these popular Sunday-school stories. They are controversial, and, like most controversial tales, they exhibit an abundance of ignorance and a lack of charity that are equally hurtful to a child. It is curious to see women handle theology as if it were knitting, and one no longer wonders at Ruskin's passionate protest against such temerity. "Strange and miserably strange," he cries, "that while they are modest enough to doubt their powers and pause at the threshold of sciences, where every step is demonstrable and sure, they will plunge headlong and without one thought of incompetency into that science at which the greatest men have trembled, and in which the wisest have erred." But then Ruskin, as we all know, was equally impatient of "converted children who teach their parents, and converted convicts who teach honest men," and these two classes form valuable ingredients in Sunday-school literature. The theological arguments of the Elsie books would be infinitely diverting if they were not so infinitely acrimonious. One of them, however, is such a masterpiece of feminine pleading that its absurdity must win forgiveness for its unkindness. A young girl, having entered the church of Rome, is told with confidence that her hierarchy is spoken of in the seventeenth chapter of Revelations as "Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth." "But how do you know," she asks, not unnaturally, "that my church is meant by these lines?" "Because," is the triumphant and unassailable reply, "she and she alone answers to the description."

This I consider the finest piece of reasoning that even Sunday-school books have ever yielded me. It is simply perfect; but there are other passages equally objectionable and a little less amusing. In one of the stories, Captain Raymond undertakes to convert a Scotch female Mormon, which he does with astonishing facility, a single conversation being sufficient to bring her to a proper frame of mind. His most powerful argument is that Mormonism must be a false religion because it so closely resembles Popery, which, he tolerantly adds, "has been well called Satan's masterpiece." The Scotch woman who, unlike most of her race, is extremely vague in her ideas, hazards the assertion that Popery "forbids men to marry," while Mormonism commands it. "'The difference in regard to that, said Captain Raymond, 'is not so great as may appear at first sight. Both pander to men's lusts; both train children to forsake their parents; both teach lying and murder, when by such crimes they are expected to advance the cause of their Church.'"

Alas for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!

I would the pious women who so wantonly and wickedly assail the creeds in which their fellow-creatures find help and hope would learn at least to express themselves — especially when their words are intended for little children to read -- with some approach to decency and propriety.

Back to main page