Martha Finley: Sharing Faith Through Literature

Miss Martha Finley

Miss Martha Finley

Every person – every writer – has a belief system and a world view which will influence their actions, thoughts, and writing. That belief system and worldview can be rooted in various religions or philosophies – Christian, humanist, feminism, naturalistic, etc. etc. etc. If you are a discerning reader, it is important to know what the worldview and belief system the author held to so you can evaluate their writing carefully.

Martha Finley – the American authoress featured today – firmly proclaimed her belief in God and the Bible throughout her life and her writing. Though her stories are almost unknown in modern times, she was one of the best selling authors of the 19th Century. Her stories follow young women and their families through adventures, joys, and trials, and were an inspiration to thousands of ladies in a bygone era.

The Authoress

Born on April 26, 1828, Martha Finley was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She spent her youth in Ohio and Indiana and received a good education through private schooling.

At the age of twenty-five her parents passed away, and Miss Finley took teaching positions in New York and later Pennsylvania. Miss Finley was single for her entire life; she was a respected teacher and church member. In 1853, she began writing and her stories, short books, and articles were published by religious publications boards.

By the mid-1860’s, Miss Finley was an invalid, living in “genteel poverty” and earning a very small sum through her writing. With plenty of time, she picked up her pen, reimagined her nieces as characters for a story, and wrote the first novel Elsie Dinsmore in 1867. The book was wildly popular, and Miss Finley wrote a total of 28 books in the “Elsie Series” during the next forty years. She also produced a companion series about a young woman named Mildred Keith and numerous religious articles. Miss Finley sold more books than any other writer of juvenile literature in her era with the exception of Miss Louisa M. Alcott. Martha Finley died on January 30, 1909.

Elsie DinsmoreHer Voice

Miss Finley’s writing voice advocated for very traditional Victorian role models and strong Christian faith. Her stance against religions outside of Christianity and her strict examples of faith and believer’s life were not popular with youth literature reviewers, even in the mid-19th Century.

However, an audience was waiting. An estimated 25 million readers poured over the Elsie books, enjoying encouragement for their Christian lives and worldview. Miss Finley wrote to encourage and share the truths she believed.

Her Style

Miss Finley’s best known publications are the Elsie Dinsmore Books. In this series, she follows the life of the heroine from about age 8 through grandmotherhood. Highlighting Biblical principles, familial relationships, and positive character qualities, the books depict some historical aspects of life in the upper-class American South.

One amazing thing about Miss Finley’s writing style was her ability to “keep track of characters.” With large families and a host of friends introduced throughout the series, each character plays an important part and sometimes they’ll disappear for a few books, then re-appear for a new situation or adventure or surprise.

Quotes from The Elsie Dinsmore Series

“O Miss Allison! I do love Jesus, and want to be like Him always.” (Elsie Dinsmore)

Do you love me, my own papa?” she asked in a voice so low and weak he could scarcely catch the words. “Better than life,” he said, his own voice trembling with emotion… (Elsie’s Holiday)

An artist's depiction of Elsie Dinsmore (no known restrictions)

An artist’s depiction of Elsie Dinsmore (no known restrictions)

“Be patient, darling, and try to trust both your heavenly and your earthly father. You know that no trial can come to you without your heavenly Father’s will, and that He means this for your good. Look to Him and he will help you to bear it, and send relief in His own good time and way.” (Elsie’s Girlhood)

He put her hand into Travilla’s, and turned to go. But she clung to him with the other. “Your’s too , papa,” she said looking up into his sad face with eyes that were full of tears, “always your own daughter…” (Elsie’s Girlhood)

Then folding her hands and lifting her eyes to the clear blue sky above, she led them in a prayer so simple and childlike, so filial andloving in spirit and expression, that the dullest understood it, and felt that she spoke to One who was very near and dear to her. (Elsie’s Womanhood)

Then mamma…was quite at their disposal for the extra half hour or so; ready to listen or to talk; her sweet sympathy and tender love encouraging them to open all their young hearts to her, telling her of any little joy or sorrow, trouble vexation or perplexity. (Elsie’s Womanhood)

“Oh Lucy,” she exclaimed with tearful earnestness, “if I can but train my children for God and heaven, what a happy woman shall I be!” (Elsie’s Children)

“But I don’t deserve to be praised, or let off from punishment, because of confessing, for I shouldn’t have done it if Grandma Elsie hadn’t talked to me about the duty of it, and persuaded me to take courage to do it because it was right.”     “Bless her for it! the dear, good woman!” the captain said with earnest gratitude. (Grandmother Elsie)

Conclusion

With sweet characters walking through the trials of the world or strained relationships, the Elsie Dinsmore books present refreshing literature for those who appreciate wholesome and entertaining stories. Following a young woman, her family, and friends for decades of life, this series is a literary masterpiece of varying characters, motivations, and conflict

Though Miss Finley’s writing and the Elsie Dinsmore Series have not been particular favorites of literary critics because of their strong religious stance, the books were extremely popular with the young and family reading audience. Miss Finley crafted characters and messages that resounded with readers who valued Biblical truth.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Have you read any of the original, unabridged Elsie Dinsmore books?  If you’re thinking of starting the series, I’ll warn you: the first two books are a little tough, but I promise it gets much happier by Book 3. 😉

Elsie Dinsmore Quote

 

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to Martha Finley: Sharing Faith Through Literature

  1. Jim Hodges says:

    Hmmmm. They’re not covered by copyright any more…

    • Indeed…maybe some new recordings for the girls? I have the first three books on cassette tape, and I think it’s time to update the technology since I don’t even have a cassette player anymore. LOL

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