Elsie Venner (1891)
by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
65940Elsie Venner1891Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Title page

This tale was published in successive parts in the "Atlantic Monthly," under the name of "The Professor's Story," the first number having appeared in the third week of December, 1859. The critic who is curious in coincidences must refer to the Magazine for the date of publication of the chapter he is examining.

In calling this narrative a "romance," the Author wishes to make sure of being indulged in the common privileges of the poetic license. Through all the disguise of fiction a grave scientific doctrine may be detected lying beneath some of the delineations of character. He has used this doctrine as a part of the machinery of his story without pledging his absolute belief in it to the extent to which it is asserted or implied. It was adopted as a convenient medium of truth rather than as an accepted scientific conclusion. The reader must judge for himself what is the value of various stories cited from old authors. He must decide how much of what has been told he can accept either as having actually happened, or as possible and more or less probable. The Author must be permitted, however, to say here, in his personal character, and as responsible to the students of the human mind and body, that since this story has been in progress he has received the most startling confirmation of the possibility of the existence of a character like that which he had drawn as a purely imaginary conception in Elsie Venner.

BOSTON, January, 1861.


This is the story which a dear old lady, my very good friend, spoke of as "a medicated novel," and quite properly refused to read. I was always pleased with her discriminating criticism. It is a medicated novel, and if she wished to read for mere amusement and helpful recreation there was no need of troubling herself with a story written with a different end in view.

This story has called forth so many curious inquiries that it seems worth while to answer the more important questions which have occurred to its readers.

In the first place, it is not based on any well-ascertained physiological fact. There are old fables about patients who have barked like dogs or crowed like cocks, after being bitten or wounded by those animals. There is nothing impossible in the idea that Romulus and Remus may have imbibed wolfish traits of character from the wet nurse the legend assigned them, but the legend is not sound history, and the supposition is nothing more than a speculative fancy. Still, there is a limbo of curious evidence bearing on the subject of pre-natal influences sufficient to form the starting-point of an imaginative composition.

The real aim, of the story was to test the doctrine of "original sin" and human responsibility for the disordered volition coming under that technical denomination. Was Elsie Venner, poisoned by the venom of a crotalus before she was born, morally responsible for the "volitional" aberrations, which translated into acts become what is known as sin, and, it may be, what is punished as crime? If, on presentation of the evidence, she becomes by the verdict of the human conscience a proper object of divine pity and not of divine wrath, as a subject of moral poisoning, wherein lies the difference between her position at the bar of judgment, human or divine, and that of the unfortunate victim who received a moral poison from a remote ancestor before he drew his first breath?

It might be supposed that the character of Elsie Veneer was suggested by some of the fabulous personages of classical or mediaeval story. I remember that a French critic spoke of her as cette pauvre Melusine. I ought to have been ashamed, perhaps, but I had, not the slightest idea who Melusina was until I hunted up the story, and found that she was a fairy, who for some offence was changed every Saturday to a serpent from her waist downward. I was of course familiar with Keats's Lamia, another imaginary being, the subject of magical transformation into a serpent. My story was well advanced before Hawthorne's wonderful "Marble Faun," which might be thought to have furnished me with the hint of a mixed nature,--human, with an alien element,--was published or known to me. So that my poor heroine found her origin, not in fable or romance, but in a physiological conception fertilized by a theological dogma.

I had the dissatisfaction of enjoying from a quiet corner a well-meant effort to dramatize "Elsie Veneer." Unfortunately, a physiological romance, as I knew beforehand, is hardly adapted for the melodramatic efforts of stage representation. I can therefore say, with perfect truth, that I was not disappointed. It is to the mind, and not to the senses, that such a story must appeal, and all attempts to render the character and events objective on the stage, or to make them real by artistic illustrations, are almost of necessity failures. The story has won the attention and enjoyed the favor of a limited class of readers, and if it still continues to interest others of the same tastes and habits of thought I can ask nothing more of it.

January 23, 1883.


I have nothing of importance to add to the two preceding Prefaces. The continued call for this story, which was not written for popularity, but with a very serious purpose, has somewhat surprised and, I need not add, gratified me. I can only restate the motive idea of the tale in a little different language. Believing, as I do, that our prevailing theologies are founded upon an utterly false view of the relation of man to his Creator, I attempted to illustrate the doctrine of inherited moral responsibility for other people's misbehavior. I tried to make out a case for my poor Elsie, whom the most hardened theologian would find it hard to blame for her inherited ophidian tastes and tendencies. How, then, is he to blame mankind for inheriting "sinfulness" from their first parents? May not the serpent have bitten Eve before the birth of Cain, her first-born? That would have made an excuse for Cain's children, as Elsie's ante-natal misfortune made an excuse for her. But what difference does it make in the child's responsibility whether his inherited tendencies come from a snake-bite or some other source which he knew nothing about and could not have prevented from acting? All this is plain enough, and the only use of the story is to bring the dogma of inherited guilt and its consequences into a clearer point of view.

But, after all, the tale must have proved readable as a story to account for the large number of editions which it has reached.

Some readers have been curious about the locality the writer was thought to have in view. No particular place was intended. Some of the characters may have been thought to have been drawn from life; but the personages mentioned are mostly composites, like Mr. Galton's compound photographic likenesses, and are not calculated to provoke scandal or suits for libel.

O. W. H.

BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August 3, 1891.

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