Finley, Martha (1828–1909)

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Finley, Martha (1828–1909)

American author of stories and books for children, in particular the "Elsie Dinsmore" series. Name variations: (pseudonym) Martha Farquharson. Born Martha Finley on April 26, 1828, in Chillicothe, Ohio; died in Elkton, Maryland, on January 30, 1909; daughter of James Brown (a doctor) and Maria Theresa (Brown) Finley (a homemaker); educated at private schools in South Bend, Indiana.

Taught school (1851–53); published first children's stories with Presbyterian Board of Publication (1853); published Elsie Dinsmore and 27 subsequent "Elsie" books, all under name Martha Farquharson (1867–1905).

In All the Happy Endings,Helen Waite Papashvily wrote that, with the exception of Huckleberry Finn, Elsie Dinsmore is probably the best-known character ever to appear in American fiction. If Elsie has been known to millions, her author, Martha Finley, remains a shadowy character. Possibly because many members of her family criticized fiction writing as a frivolous pursuit, Finley was something of a recluse during much of her adult life. Despite her family's objections, however, Finley supported herself comfortably with her stories for the Presbyterian Board of Publication and her 28 books in the Elsie series, publishing a new volume every year or two between 1867 and 1905. Like many other poor but genteel women of the late 19th century, Finley found her livelihood in the market for sentimental and children's fiction.

Martha Finley was born into a middle-class, staunchly Presbyterian family. Her parents were first cousins, of Scotch-Irish descent, who claimed two eminent ancestors. Her paternal grandfather, Samuel Finley, had a distinguished military career in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Her great-uncle, also called Samuel Finley, had served as president of Princeton Theological Semi nary. Both of these connections emerge in the Elsie books, as the characters read endlessly about the military exploits of the Revolutionary era and as the male characters who go to college inevitably attend Princeton.

When Martha was eight, her family moved to South

Bend, Indiana, where she attended private schools and apparently progressed far enough in her education to be able to teach school in Indiana (1851–53) and Pennsylvania (1853). Sources disagree about why Finley left home at the age of 25. Some say she moved East due to the death of both parents. Papashvily claims that Martha left Indiana after her mother died and her father remarried and started a new family. The latter version seems reasonable, as Finley definitely had a half-brother Charles to whom she left most of her considerable estate.

Martha Finley attempted to supplement her teacher's earnings by writing for the Presbyterian Publication Board. She wrote Sunday school stories and pamphlets which at first she published anonymously and later under the pseudonym, Martha Farquharson (her ancestral name, the Gaelic form of Finley). The use of the pseudonym seems to have been due to her family's objections to her writing. Whether they objected to writing as a profession for everyone or only as a profession for women is not apparent.

It is hard to imagine her relatives being offended by the substance of her work, as her early publications included such titles as Ella Clinton; or "By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them," Clouds and Sunshine; or the Faith Brightened Pathway, and Elton, the Little Boy Who Loved Jesus. During her lifetime, Finley would produce nearly 100 didactic books for children, such as the heavy handed "Do Good Library" published in 1868, and featuring, among others, Anna Hand, the Meddlesome Girl; Grandma Foster's Sunbeam; Little Patience; Little Helper; Little Dick Positive; Loitering Linus; Milly, the Little Girl who Tried to Help Others; and Stupid Sally, the Poor House Girl.

Martha Finley had suffered a serious back injury in the early 1860s. For a while, she was unable to work and had to depend on relatives for support. Praying for a miracle, Finley developed the character and the story line for Elsie Dinsmore, which she offered to the Dodd Publishing Company in 1867. The publishers decided to divide the book into two, Elsie Dinsmore (1867) and Elsie's Holidays at Roselands (1868). The decision to make two volumes out of one accounts for the fact that Elsie's redemption of her father—the central fact of the entire series—is fully accomplished in the second rather than the first book.

Although Elsie Dinsmore was the most widely read of the series, it really only introduced the major characters and set the stage for further adventures. As the story begins, the heroine is a motherless child of eight, living with her absent father's family on their plantation somewhere "in the South." The year must be approximately 1845. Although a good and beautiful Christian child, Elsie is harassed or ignored by everyone in the house except her faithful mammy, Chloe. Her father's return does not improve things, as he too neglects his loving daughter except to command or rebuke her. The climax of the story occurs when Horace, Elsie's father's orders her to play a secular song on the piano on the Sabbath. When Elsie's conscience compels her to refuse, he commands the child to remain on the piano stool until she obeys. It is only after Elsie faints and hits her head that Horace realizes his unreasonableness, although he still does not accept Elsie's strict notions of morality. Father and daughter are happy and loving as the book ends, but much unfinished business remains.

The second volume, Elsie's Holidays at Roselands, provides the indispensable chapter of the story. If Finley had shown any sense of humor, the title might be considered ironic, as about half the book is taken up with Elsie's punishment when she refuses to obey her father's command to read a novel on the Sabbath. He undertakes a series of increasingly harsh measures to force her compliance—beginning with isolation from his company and culminating with the threat to dispatch Elsie to a convent school. The latter possibility drives Elsie to a complete physical and mental breakdown, verging on death. Seeing the results of his immovable attitude, Horace repents and becomes a fervent Christian. Elsie miraculously recovers, and father and daughter go on to enjoy a communion of spirit and what Finley apparently saw as an idyllic relationship. It is in Elsie's Holidays that the heroine reaches the high point of her redemptive role. Through her undeserved suffering, her father is saved.

With Horace Dinsmore's soul safely accounted for, Martha Finley devotes the next five volumes to Elsie's coming of age, courtship (including a narrow escape from a fortune-hunting scoundrel), marriage to her father's contemporary and best friend, Edward Travilla, the birth of eight children (each of whom seems to arrive as a surprise to all concerned), and Travilla's death. During those years, the Civil War occurred, but except for the deaths of several minor characters, it causes little change in the extremely affluent lives of Elsie's family.

After Elsie becomes a widow, the plots deteriorate further. Her daughter Violet marries a Captain Levis Raymond who assumes Mr. Dinsmore's role as wise father. The later volumes are almost totally didactic, consisting of lengthy lectures, attributed to Captain Raymond or Grandma Elsie, dealing with a bellicose version of American history or with Biblical texts.

Finley prefaced each of the earlier volumes in the Elsie series with a demurrer—each book, she asserted, was written in response to public demand, but it would end the series. The public must have continued to demand, however, for Finley continued to turn out Elsies, and after Elsie's Widowhood, she ceased to apologize for their publication.

At one level, Elsie appeared to embody the stereotyped female virtues—chastity, filial obedience, a world encompassed by her extended family, and an intense preoccupation with evangelical Christianity. Elsie seemed at first glance to be submissive in the extreme. Actually, she exerted great power over her family and friends through her virtuous example and preaching. In the patriarchal setting of the stories, Elsie, a female Christ figure, was the instrument of salvation for dozens of characters. The message that women could exert a profound influence for good in the domestic sphere, and through their converts, in the wider world, is not far below the surface of the Elsie books.

Elsie spent her time alone with her Bible and her God, and there she found that sweet peace and joy which the world can neither give nor take away; and thus she gathered strength to bear her troubles and crosses with heavenly meekness and patience.

—Martha Finley

The series is reputed to have been read by 25 million readers and to have earned Finley a quarter of a million dollars. A century later, the reasons for its popularity are more elusive. Elsie was a character with a mixed message. Her redemptive powers made her powerful indeed, yet outwardly her behavior was docile. She was said to be "an apt scholar," but she had no formal education. Elsie was "quite capable of earning her own living," but she did no work. Papashvily finds several explanations for Elsie's attraction. She maintains that women envied her life of wealth and luxury, meticulously described by Martha Finley. In a rapidly changing industrial and urbanizing society, the Dinsmore plantations provided an idyllic version of "home." The moral absolutism of the books was echoed in a defense of existing social and economic arrangements. "Showers of gifts fell upon the deserving wellborn—ponies, gold watches, sets of pearls, lengths of real lace, silver spoons, complete wedding outfits—Elsie's generosity never slackened. The poor received soup and a flannel and a Bible," Papashvily notes. It may be the combination of orthodoxy and recognition of women's intangible power that accounts for the success of Elsie Dinsmore.

Some aspects of the books are particularly troublesome to the modern reader. Religious intolerance, racial stereotypes, and dialect date the series. The relationship between Elsie and her father must have seemed peculiar even to an audience in the pre-Freudian age. For example, on 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."

The financial rewards from the Elsie series provided Martha Finley with economic independence and the resources to build a cottage in Elkton, Maryland. There she lived near her favorite half brother, Charles. While creating the Elsie series, Finley wrote other stories and novels, including "Little Books for Little Readers," the "Pewit's Nest" series, and the "Mildred" books (a seven-book spin-off of the Elsies). In addition, she wrote several novels for adults—the "Finley" and the "Honest Jim" series. Even though her work tended to be formula fiction, Finley's output was prodigious. Although all of her books sold well in the United States and England, none approached the popularity of the Elsie series, nor did Finley ever receive the attention of serious critics.

Martha Finley died at home of bronchopneumonia on January 30, 1909. Her will provided some further insights into her private life. Her half-brother Charles inherited most of her estate, but she also provided for a number of female relatives and her longtime maid, Mary White . She chose to leave nothing to some family members, apparently those who criticized her career as a writer. Perhaps most surprising, Finley's will revealed that she owned a women's bakery in Chicago.


Atwell, Mary Welek. "Elsie Dinsmore … Haunting the Minds of Millions of Women," in Women's Studies and the Curriculum. Edited by Marienne Triplette. Winston-Salem, NC: Salem College, 1983.

Brown, Janet E. The Saga of Elsie Dinsmore. University of Buffalo Studies, Vol. 17, no. 3. Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo, 1945.

Commire, Anne, ed. "Martha Finley," in Something about the Author. Vol. 43. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Kindilien, Carlin T. "Martha Finley" in Notable American Women. Vol. I. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Papashvily, Helen Waite. All the Happy Endings. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1956.


The Children's Literature Research Collection, University of Minnesota, has copies of twenty-six of the Elsie Dinsmore books and six of seven Mildred Keiths.

The Elkton Library, Elkton, Maryland, has a collection relating to Martha Finley and her work.

Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia