Born 26 April 1821, Chillicothe, Ohio; died 30 January 1909, Elkton, Maryland
Also wrote under: Martha Farquharson
Daughter of James Brown and Maria Brown Finley
Both of Martha Finley's parents, first cousins of Scotch-Irish descent, died before she was twenty-five. Finley supported herself by teaching and writing. Beginning in 1856, Finley published more than 20 Sunday-school books under the name of Martha Farquharson for the Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia. (Farquharson is Gaelic for Finley.)
Popular success and financial security came with Elsie Dinsmore (1867). The tremendous popularity of this book, both in America and in England, led Finley to write a series of juvenile novels exploring the life of her heroine from childhood to old age. In 28 volumes, Elsie captured the religious and feminine devotion of the 19th-century reading public. By 1876 Finley was able to buy her own home in Elkton, Maryland, where she lived out her 80 years comfortably. The Elsie books alone earned her a $250,000. None of Finley's other works can compare in importance with the Elsie Dinsmore series, which has challenged psychologists and literary historians to define its formula of success. Despite what critics have seen as Finley's "amateurish craftsmanship, superficial moralizing, and lame scholarship," despite even the character of the heroine who, in the eyes of one critic, is "a nauseous little prig," Elsie Dinsmore captured the attention of more than 25,000,000 readers.
Some of the elements that attracted young readers to the Elsie books are easy to explain: This fairytale heroine is a blonde heiress, unjustly mistreated by the relatives who take her in while her father is in Europe and after her beautiful mother has died. Uncompromisingly moral, unfailingly sweet, Elsie reminds us of Cinderella and Snow White. The fundamentalist religious values that emerge in her meditations and the Biblical quotations render the fairytale acceptable to the Christian society of 19th-century America.
With Elsie's Southern heritage, Finley also provided a topical attraction. What could be more glamorous to her predominantly Northern audience immediately after the Civil War than the echo of a lost world—the world of plantations and delicate Southern ladies such as Elsie's mother had been, the world of black mammies such as "poor old Aunt Chloe," with her heavy dialect and unswerving devotion to young Elsie? Ruth Suckow, writing for an October 1927 Bookman article, goes so far as to suggest that when Elsie saves her Southern father, she is really saving the whole South and committing the rebels to the fundamentalist religious values of her creator, Finley herself.
The father-daughter theme which permeates the Elsie books has been seen as psychologically excessive. Elsie worships her father, and even though she does marry (a friend of her father's who is himself much older than she), after her husband's death she is once again with her devoted parent. Some have seen this theme as reinforcing the "father knows best" attitude prevalent in Victorian society, but in fact, Elsie gains power over the most powerful person in her life, her own father, by her religious devotion.
One might argue, as Suckow does, that Elsie represents the truth that "a woman craves a master," yet within the religious framework Elsie Dinsmore controls the lives of all around her. The 19th-century woman could hardly hope to achieve more than Elsie held out to her: beauty, riches, the love of her father, a husband, and children. Best of all, she exemplified victory after victory over the oppressors of the world, even over that all powerful demigod, her father. Only God was more powerful than Elsie Dinsmore—and He was on her side.
Cassella; or, The Children of the Valleys (1867). Elsie's Holidays (1869). An Old Fashioned Boy (1870). Wanted: A Pedigree (1870). Elsie's Girlhood (1872, 1997). Our Fred; or, Seminary Life at Thurston (1874). Elsie's Womanhood (1875, 1997). Elsie's Motherhood (1876, 1998). Elsie's Children (1877, 1998). Mildred Keith (1878, 1996). Signing the Contract and What it Cost (1878). Mildred at Roselands (1879, 1996). Elsie's Widowhood (1880, 1998). The Thorn in the Nest (1880). Mildred and Elsie (1881). Grandmother Elsie (1882). Mildred's Married Life (1882, 1998). Elsie's New Relations (1883). Elsie at Nantucket (1884). Mildred at Home (1884). The Two Elsies (1885). Elsie's Kith and Kin (1886). Mildred's Boys and Girls (1886). Elsie's Friends at Woodburn (1887). Christmas with Grandma Elsie (1888). Elsie and the Raymonds (1889, 1997). Elsie Yachting with the Raymonds (1890, 1997). Elsie's Vacation (1891, 1997). Elsie at Viamede (1892, 1997). Elsie at Ion (1893). The Tragedy of Wild River Valley (1893). Elsie at the World's Fair (1894). Elsie's Journey on Inland Waters (1894). Mildred's New Daughter (1894). Elsie at Home (1897). Elsie on the Hudson (1898). Twiddledetwit: A Fairy Tale (1898). Elsie in the South (1899). Elsie's Young Folks (1900). Elsie's Winter Trip (1902). Elsie and Her Loved Ones (1903). Elsie and Her Namesakes (1905).
Brown, J. E., "The Saga of Elsie Dinsmore," in University of Buffalo Studies (1945). Ely, W. A., The Finleys of Bucks (1902). Suckow, R., "Elsie Dinsmore: A Study of Perfection, or How Fundamentalism Came to Dixie," in Bookman (Oct. 1927). Zahn, B.,On the Banks of Big Elk Creek: The Life of Martha Finley, Beloved Author of the Elsie Books (1997).
American Authors (1894). DAB, III, 2. Indiana Authors and Their Books, 1816-1916, ed. R. E. Banta (1949). NAW. NCAB, II. Ohio Authors and Their Books, edited by W. Coyle (1962).
Baltimore Sun (31 Jan. 1909). NY (14 March 1936).
—THELMA J. SHINN