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Isabella Macdonald Alden (Pansy)

Isabella Macdonald Alden's life was a literary one, shaped first by her father and then by her religion. The daughter of well-educated parents, she was born November 3, 1841, in Rochester, New York. She was the sixth of seven children, and was initially home-schooled by her father, who also gave her her nickname. She developed her writing skills early: as a child, she kept a daily journal, which her father critiqued, and had her first story, "Our Old Clock," published in the village paper when she was only ten. Later, she attended school in New York, at the Oneida Seminary, the Seneca Collegiate Institute, and the Young Ladies Institute.

The Oneida Seminary played a pivotal role in her life, for it was there that she first met Theodosia Toll (Faye Huntington), the woman with whom she later co-authored several works -- and who helped start Alden's writing career through the publication of her first book, Helen Lester, in 1865. As Alden explained in her autobiography, "Docia" had encouraged her to enter the manuscript in a competition. Alden replied "I'll do no such thing. If I can't write a better story than that, it it proves I ought never to write at all. Tear the thing into bits and throw it into the grate with the other rubbish." Instead, Docia submitted the manuscript without telling Alden, who learned of it only when she was awarded first prize in the competition.

Alden also met her husband, Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden (a descendant of John Alden), while teaching at Oneida Seminary; the two married on May 30, 1866. Rev. Alden's work took the couple to various parts of the country, including New York, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. After her marriage, Alden divided her time among writing, participating in church activities, teaching at several of the Chautauqua sessions, and raising her son Raymond, who was born in 1873. (According to one source, Rev. Alden also had a daughter, Anna, from his first marriage, who lived with Docia Toll's family.) By 1900, the Aldens had three residences: a home in Philadelphia (near their son, who was then an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania), a summer residence in Chautauqua, New York, and a winter home in Winter Park, Florida.

Throughout her life, Isabella Alden combined her writing and her religion. She did much work with Christian periodicals, writing serialized stories for the Herald and Presbyter from about 1870 until 1900; editing The Pansy, a Sunday juvenile, from 1874-1894; editing the Primary Quarterly and producing the primary grade Sunday School lessons for the Westmister Teacher for twenty years; and working on the editorial staff of Trained Motherhood and The Christian Endeavor.

From 1865 to 1929, Alden also authored approximately 100 books, coauthored 10 more, and edited or coedited several others. Most of her works are didactic fiction, heavily salted with religious principles, which concentrate on translating Biblical precepts into acceptable Christian behavior in a modern world. Several of her books, such as Ester Ried (her most popular work), were based on personal experiences; others, such as the Chautauqua Girls series, were motivated by her interest in the Chautauqua movement (and the first volume, Four Girls at Chautauqua "is said to have given an important impetus to the success of [the Chautauqua] experiment".)[1] Pansy and her niece, Grace Livingston Hill, even make a brief appearance in the final chapter of the last book in the series, Four Mothers at Chatauqua. Other elements in the Chautauqua books may also have been semi-autobiographical; for example, one of the girls writes articles for the paper, marries a minister, and works with the primary grades in the Sunday School.

Memories of Yesterday

Alden's books were enormously popular during the late nineteenth century; in 1900, sales were estimated at around 100,000 copies annually. Some titles were translated into several languages, including French and Japanese. None too surprisingly, her books were also a staple in many Sunday School libraries. [2]

After the deaths of her husband and son in 1924, Alden moved to Palo Alto, California, where she made her home with her daughter-in-law. She continued writing until shortly before her death on August 5, 1930, leaving an unfinished autobiography, Memories of Yesterday, which was completed and edited by her niece, Grace Livingston Hill.

In the 1990s, edited and abridged editions of some Alden's works have appeared in two series issued by Christian publishers, The Pansy Collection, published by Creation House, and the Grace Livingston Hill Library ("Novels by the mentor of America's favorite storyteller"), published by Living Books.


[1]"Alden, Isabella Macdonald." Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971.

[2] For an illustration of the popularity of Alden's work with nineteenth-century readers -- and of the methods used in Sunday School libaries --, see Norman J. and Angela E. Williamson, "Mamie Pickering's Reading," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9.1-2 (Spring - Summer 1984). Most of the titles mentioned in the article are by Alden, though not always identified as such.

Biographical Sources

Alden, Isabella M. [Pansy] Memories of Yesterday. Edited by Grace Livingston Hill. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1931.

"Alden, Isabella Macdonald." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol 42.

"Alden, Isabella Macdonald." National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 10. 1900; rpt. University Microfilms, 1967.

"Alden, Isabella Macdonald." Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971.

"Alden, Isabella (Macdonald.)" Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children.

"Alden, Mrs. Isabella Macdonald." A Woman of the Century. Ed. Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore. Charles Wells Moulton, 1893.

Coddington, Annie HanChett. Home School for Girls. Speakers, NY: Chicadee Down Press, 1996.

Cole, Deborah. "About the Author." [Introduction.] In The King's Daughter by Isabella Macdonald Alden. Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1992.

"Isabella M. Alden, Noted Author, Dies." [obituary] New York Times, August 6, 1930.

"Isabella MacDonald Alden." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Lina Mainero. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

"Understanded [sic] of the People." [editorial] New York Times, August 7, 1930.

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