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Biographical sketches on Martha Finley agree that she was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in April, 1828, the daughter of Dr. James Brown Finley and his wife and first cousin, Maria Theresa Brown Finley, and that she lived a quiet life. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—her biographers seem to have considerable trouble agreeing on much else about her life.

She was born either April 26 or April 28 and lived in Circleville, Ohio, until she was six or eight, when the family moved to South Bend, Indiana. Except for a year at school in Philadelphia, she lived in South Bend until 1853, when she was twenty-five, possibly teaching in Indiana schools from 1851-1853. In 1853, her parents or father died, and she moved either to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, to teach, or to New York for a year. In 1854, she either moved to an unspecified town in Pennsylvania, to write for the Presbyterian Publishing Board. Martha Finley is best known for her Elsie Dinsmore series, melodramatic and sentimental fiction focusing on Elsie’s trials and the solace offered her by her religious beliefs.

Originally written under the pseudonym “Martha Farquharson” (Gaelic for “Finley”), the series lasted for 28 volumes, published over a period of 38 years. Much has been written about the series, discussing everything from its tear-soaked heroine and her relationship with her father to its enduring popularity during the 19th century. Elsie, however, was only a little over a quarter of Ms. Finley’s total works. A second series, Mildred Keith, ran for seven volumes and chronicles the life of Mildred Keith and her family as well providing glimpses of Elsie Dinsmore’s early years.

Mildred is a slightly more realistic character than Elsie, with spunk and independence and without Elsie’s perpetual penchant for tears and Biblical quotations. Martha Finley also wrote more than fifty short books or pamphlets, primarily for children, which were published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication and/or the Presbyterian Publishing Committee. The majority of these appeared between 1856 and 1876 in series or as individual volumes. Their titles and publishers suggest that they, too, were didactic literature, with a strong emphasis on religion. Much of Martha Finley’s writing was quickly forgotten, but Elsie persevered for over seventy-five years. In 1945, the first 12 volumes were still in print in the United States and England and had sold over 5,000,000 million copies.

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