Isabella “Pansy” Alden is all but forgotten today. But her moralizing manuscripts taught countless Victorian-era children how to mind their manners, say their prayers, and fix their flaws.
f the Victorian era had an answer to J.K. Rowling, it might have been Isabella Macdonald Alden. Known to her readers as “Pansy,” she was an international publishing phenomenon whose children’s books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making her one of the genre’s most popular authors.
She also established herself as a literary celebrity in early Winter Park, where her ornate three-story home at the corner of Interlachen and Lyman avenues, known as “the Pansy Cottage,” became a hub of local culture.
Unlike Rowling, however, Alden didn’t agonize for years over a handful of monumental works. She ultimately wrote or edited some 200 books, most of them fewer than 75 pages in length, and even published a widely circulated magazine, The Pansy, which contained articles about world history, geography, science, literature and botany.
While Rowling explored mystical themes that some religious fundamentalists have condemned, Alden — steeped in the sentimentality of her age — imparted didactic and often treacly moral lessons that made her books particular favorites of church librarians.
“I dedicate my pen to the direct and continuous effort to win others for Christ and help others to closer fellowship with him,” she wrote.
Lack of magic and wizardry aside, Alden in her heyday was an industry unto herself. Children could join the “Pansy Society,” which encouraged members to work hard at overcoming a single fault “For Jesus’ Sake.”
She received hundreds of fan letters each week from her young readers, and responded personally to most of them. Awkwardly in today’s vernacular but charming in the 1880s, she called her young fans “pansies.”
Alden also produced Sunday school lessons for the Westminster Teacher, a weekly magazine published by the Presbyterian Church, and served on the editorial staff of religious periodicals such as Trained Motherhood and The Christian Endeavor.
Pansy even had her own board game, Divided Wisdom: A Game Based on Hymns and Bible Proverbs. She also endorsed the work of other authors, such as Dr. Mary Wood-Allen, whose 1905 facts-of-life tome What A Young Girl Ought to Know she praised as “just the book to teach what most people do not know how to teach, being scientific yet simple, and plain-spoken yet delicate.”
“She wove her stories around common, everyday [lives], until all her characters became alive and real to those who read,” wrote Grace Livingston Hill, Alden’s niece and a Rollins College physical education instructor. Hill later became an accomplished author in her own right (see page 40).
Yet, the so-called “Pansy books” and their creator are all but forgotten today, except by dedicated bibliophiles who collect early editions for their rarity rather than their literary quality. In fact, Alden’s works were out of print for decades until a Christian publishing house released a handful of edited and abridged titles in the 1990s.
But if the Pansy books don’t hold up particularly well as entertainment, they do hearken back to a simpler time, both in the United States and in the quaint Central Florida town where the author and her family spent many of their happiest and most productive years.
Isabella Macdonald Alden was born Nov. 3, 1841, in Rochester, N.Y. Her parents, Issac and Myra Spofford Macdonald, were politically progressive and instilled in their seven children a support of social reform. Precocious Isabella received schooling at home and showed an early propensity for writing.
Little else is known of Alden’s parents, although late in life she wrote that her father “in all his lifetime struggled with the handicap of a suffering body, and sometimes found it burdensome to meet the daily expenses of a large family.”
However, she added, “looking back, we all knew —and I, left here alone, the others having all reached home before me, know — that there could never have been a more faithful, conscientious, earnest, loving father and mother than God gave to us.”
Alden would also recall that as a child she “must have possessed a temper that was easily set aflame, and a will of my own that took careful training to educate.” However, young Isabella’s daily journal entries, many of which offer her thoughts on church sermons, give little evidence that she was difficult.
But those journals also contain some of her earliest pieces of fiction. Her first published story, Our Old Clock, appeared in a Gloversville, N.Y. newspaper when she was only 10. The byline read simply, “Pansy.”
The distinctive nom de plume, Alden recalled, was the result of a childhood attempt at creating a floral arrangement gone awry. In anticipation of a tea party, the youngster picked every pansy from the family’s flower bed, removed the stems, and placed the large, brightly colored blooms in her grandmother’s flower bowl.
The haphazard effect, apparently, was not what her mother had in mind, and she scolded her daughter until she began to cry. Her father, however, “kissed me, and told her he did not believe I meant to be naughty — and dressed me himself in my best white dress.”
Alden, who would be known as Pansy forevermore, later attended Whitestown Seminary (formerly the Oneida Academy), a Presbyterian-affiliated institution that supported abolition and admitted African-American students.
She graduated in 1861 and promptly joined the faculty, where she met Theodosia Maria Toll Foster. Charmingly nicknamed “Docia,” Foster would become her sometime collaborator and ultimately write more than 30 of her own books as “Faye Huntington.”
It was Docia who, in 1865, helped start the Pansy phenomenon by surreptitiously rescuing and submitting a manuscript that her friend had written and then set aside, believing it to be unworthy.
Helen Lester had been written at Docia’s urging in response to a contest sponsored by the Cincinnati-based Western Tract Society, which published and distributed evangelical materials. The organization had sought contributions for what it touted as “the best book of stories setting forth the principles of Christianity for children.”
In her autobiography, Memories of Yesterday, Alden recalls telling Docia, in no uncertain terms, that her decision to abandon the story was final. “If I can’t write a better story than that, it proves I ought never to write at all,” she said. “Tear the thing into bits and throw it into the grate with the other rubbish.”
Docia , who told her friend that she was “acting like a born idiot,” then appeared to drop the subject. Two months later, however, Alden received a $50 check and notification that her story had won first prize.
Chastened but delighted, Alden later recalled her reaction: “Shall I make an attempt at describing the hour of bewilderment, amazement, embarrassment, oddly mingled with delight, which followed the first reading of that letter?” She sent autographed copies of Helen Lester — and the prize money — to her parents.
To today’s readers, Helen Lester would seem, at best, pious and overwrought. Helen, known as “Nellie,” is a darling but imperfect child whose once-wayward older brother, Cleveland, undergoes a religious conversion that he is eager to share with his siblings and his wealthy, worldly, wine-sipping parents.
For example, while lecturing his sister, Cleveland intones: “Oh, Nellie, I want you to be a Christian. I don’t want you to grow up without loving this dear Savior who loves you so much. I want you to learn to pray; to learn to ask Jesus every day to take care of you; to help you to love him more than anybody else.”
Shortly after Helen Lester appeared, the young author met Gustavus Rossenberg Alden, a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of New York City-based Auburn Theological Seminary.
The couple married in 1866 and moved to Almond, N.Y., where Rev. Alden pastored a church. Other assignments would take them to Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
As she assisted her husband in his work, Alden found constant inspiration. “Whenever things went wrong,” she recalled, “I went home and wrote a book to make them come out right.”
Grace Livingston Hill, daughter of Alden’s sister, Marcia Macdonald Livingston, and her husband, Rev. Charles Montgomery Livingston, adored her “Auntie Belle.” Later, even after Hill’s own fame eclipsed that of her aunt, she remembered the woman the world knew as Pansy with unbridled affection.
“As long ago as I can remember, there was always a radiant being who was next to my mother and father in my heart, and who seemed to be a sort of combination of fairy godmother and saint,” wrote Hill.
She thought her aunt was “beautiful, wise and wonderful; I treasured her smiles, copied her ways and breathlessly listened to all she had to say, sitting at her feet worshipfully.”
Alden seemed to truly find her niche after the publication in 1870 of Ester Ried Asleep and Awake. Ester, who toils grudgingly at her family’s New York boardinghouse, believes herself to be “a Christian in name only” until she visits a cousin, Abbie, who teaches her to base her life on God’s word.
The book begat a series featuring the same character and her relatives, with the final installment published in 1906. Like Helen before her, Ester comes to realize that carefully reading the Bible and following its precepts is the only prescription for her attitude problem.
“That is what has been the trouble with me,” she tells herself in Asleep and Awake. “I’ve neglected my duty…well, the first opportunity then that I have — or no — I’ll stop now, this minute, and read a chapter in the Bible and pray; there is nothing like the present moment for keeping a good resolution.”
In 1874, on the heels of the success of Asleep and Awake, Alden founded The Pansy, a monthly magazine for which subscriptions cost $1 a year or 10 cents per copy. It was described by the publisher, Boston-based D. Lothrop & Company, as “a finely illustrated monthly, containing 35 to 40 pages of reading matter from the pens of the best writers especially prepared for the boys and girls of the world.”
The editor was identified only as “Pansy,” but by then it was a well-known name in the world of children’s literature. At its peak, The Pansy had more than 5,000 subscribers and would continue for 23 years.
On March 30, 1873, in New Hartford, N.Y., the Aldens’ only son was born. Raymond Macdonald Alden was in frail health, however, and doctors advised a move to Florida for its warmer climate. Like many New Englanders, they were attracted to sophisticated Winter Park.
By 1886 the family had relocated and Raymond was attending the Preparatory Department at Rollins College. He spent five years at Rollins, but eventually transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D in English in 1898.
Raymond taught English at Penn, as well as Columbian University (now George Washington University), Harvard and Stanford. He would later chair the English department at the University of Illinois and become one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Shakespeare. He would be awarded an honorary degree in literature from Rollins in 1910.
Alden, meanwhile, enjoyed her stature as a local celebrity and became involved in a variety of community betterment causes. And promoters were eager to tout the fact that one of the country’s most well-known authors, who could have lived anywhere, had selected “the bright New England town on the Florida frontier.”
Indeed, an 1888 brochure listed Alden among the literary luminaries who called Winter Park home, and described Pansy Cottage as “a center of literary, religious and civic activity.” Despite their Presbyterian roots, the Aldens joined the city’s First Congregational Church, which had founded Rollins and attracted a socially prominent congregation.
Hill, then 21 and not yet married, moved to Winter Park with her parents and was known as “Miss Livingston” to the Rollins students to whom she taught “club swinging, fencing, free work, wand, dumb-bell and hoop exercises” as well as basketball and “Greek posture” classes.
She would remain in Winter Park only until 1891, but would later occasionally reference the community and the college in her own works of Christian-themed romantic fiction.
Unquestionably, the family lived well, thanks to Alden’s prolific output and worldwide sale of her books, which had been translated into French, German, Russian and even Japanese.
“Cottage,” for example, was a bit of a misnomer for the Alden home. A lavish, three-story Victorian masterpiece built from virgin pine, it was replete with verandas, turrets and every architectural flavor of gingerbread. Almost every room had a fireplace
Adding to the family’s coffers, Alden became a popular Chautauqua speaker. Chautauqua was a grassroots adult-education movement named for the New York lake around which the first meetings were held. She was even inspired to write a series of books, Four Girls at Chautauqua, in 1876.
Although Chautauqua initially was religious in nature and its meetings held only at its New York compound, it eventually expanded to include secular topics, with large-scale gatherings held throughout the country spotlighting speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and subject-matter experts.
The Aldens, who also had homes in Philadelphia and Chautauqua, attended an 1887 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle gathering in 1887 that was dubbed “The Pansy Class” in honor of Alden’s stature in both the literary and religious worlds.
Locally, Rev. Alden was elected to the Rollins Board of Trustees while his wife continued to churn out books and tracts, and helped to found the Winter Park Public Library and the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The WCTU was one of Alden’s favorite organizations. The abstinence drive it championed seems rigid and puritanical by modern standards, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, per-capita alcohol consumption was far higher than it is today and was blamed for such problems as spousal abuse and child abandonment. In addition, the WCTU was involved in such social issues as suffrage and public health.
In 1889, Alden and the Winter Park WCTU formed a “juvenile temperance organization” that two years later was combined with the local Pansy Society and renamed the Loyal Temperance Legion. Members received badges and kudos from the author, who was as popular with children as she was with their parents.
By 1906, the Aldens’ time in Winter Park had come to an end. They sold Pansy Cottage and moved to Philadelphia to be near their son. The books continued, albeit at a slower pace, including Four Mothers at Chautauqua and the final installment of the Ester Ried series.
At the age of 83, Alden suffered the loss of her husband and her son, whose deaths were separated by only six months. Distraught and in declining health, she moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to live with her five grandchildren.
A concerned Hill suggested that Alden might want to revisit Ester Ried, but Alden demurred. “I am not capable of writing a story suited to the tastes of present day young people,” she wrote. “They would smoke a cigarette over the first chapter and toss it aside as a back number. I haven’t faith in them, nor in my ability to help them.”
Jean Kerr, whose biography of Hill describes Alden’s final days, wrote: “Lonely for those who had gone before her and saddened by the godless trends of the modern world, she found her escape in her memories of the golden days that were past: memories of Chautauqua assemblies, of satisfying work and pleasant associations.”
Disillusioned but unwilling to cap her pen for a final time, Alden began work on her autobiography. Memories of Yesterday was incomplete when she died on Aug 5, 1930, at the age of 89.
Although her passing received national coverage, critics had already dismissed her work as antiquated. Wrote one: “Isabella Alden has suffered the fate of all those who survive beyond their own day and attract attention only as anachronisms on the modern scene.”
In 1981, Elizabeth Eschbach wrote in the Orange County Historical Quarterly: “Somewhat simplistically by today’s worldly sensibilities, Alden’s books emphasized the perils of popular amusements, the evils of worldly temptations, necessity of abstinence and self-sacrifice and the trials of leading a good Christian life.”
Isabella Macdonald Alden made the news again in December 1993 when Winter Park City Commissioner Rachel Murrah was shopping on Park Avenue for a red holiday coat and noticed a book in Talbots’ display window.
The book, which was meant purely for decoration, was an early edition of Esther Ried Asleep and Awake. Recognizing the author’s name, Murrah persuaded the store to donate it to the Winter Park Public Library.
“What do you call this? Serendipity?” said Renae Bennett, then the library’s historian, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re thrilled.”
The items on display in the Winter Park Talbots, like those in the 339 other Talbots across the country, had been bought in lots from antique dealers through the company’s Boston headquarters. The fact that a Pansy book ended up in its Winter Park store was an extraordinary coincidence.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was a reminder from Pansy that, simplistic or not, she still had something to say.
Kimberly Mould has researched and written about the lives of significant people in Winter Park’s past as part of a project sponsored by the Winter Park Historical Association. The project was funded by a grant from the Florida Humanities Council Scholar/Humanist Fellowship. Daena Creel lives in Aspers, Pa., and maintains a website dedicated to the work of Isabella “Pansy” Alden and her niece, Grace Livingston Hill. Archival images in this story are courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections at the Cornell Library. Thanks to archival specialist Darla Moore and department head Wenxian Zhang for their assistance. Illustrations from Alden’s and Hill’s books are courtesy of Creel, whose informative website can be found at isabellamacdonaldalden.com. Stories written by Mould and Creel have been combined, along with new material, for this story and the following story on Hill.
Pansy’s niece combined religion with romance in her writing. And her P.E. classes at Rollins drew students—and spectators.
In 1886, Winter Park was in bloom. Lavish resorts were opening their doors, the well-to-do were building seasonal cottages, new businesses were flourishing along Park Avenue and fledgling Rollins College was welcoming its second class of students.
It was into this optimistic environment that 21-year-old Grace Livingston—a blossoming beauty herself and the niece of famed children’s book author Isabella “Pansy” Alden—followed her parents, Rev. C.M. Livingston and Marcia Macdonald Livingston, who was Isabella’s sister.
Afflicted with a respiratory condition, Grace’s father had been given a leave of absence from his pastorate in Wellsville, N.Y., to see if a “more congenial climate” could restore his health.
Isabella and her husband, Rev. G.R. Alden, encouraged the Livingstons to join them in Winter Park, where their invalid son, Raymond, had grown stronger—and they had made a happy home.
The two families spent a great deal of time together, working in what might be called the family business. Everyone—including Grace and young Raymond—wrote stories or regular columns for Isabella’s children’s magazine, The Pansy.
Loring Chase, one of the founders of Winter Park, noted that “literary merit seems to belong to almost every member of the family, and thousands have been delighted with the pen pictures of not only Dr. Alden and Pansy, but of Rev. and Mrs. Livingston, Miss Grace Livingston and Raymond Alden. They all work industriously to give to the youth of our land good moral reading, as the excellent reputation of their writings attest.”
While the move to Florida did wonders for Rev. Livingston’s throat, it left him with a very disappointed daughter. Grace longed for summers on the shore of Chautauqua Lake, where she had attended popular camp meetings that combined religious instruction with cultural and literary offerings.
The meager salary of a pastor on leave from his church made a trip home prohibitive, so Grace decided to earn the money herself. It only seemed natural that she, too, could publish a novel—and for its subject, she chose her beloved Chautauqua.
A Chautauqua Idyll tells the story of “the birds and the trees and the running brooks” deciding to have their own Chautauqua-style meetings. The unique imagery and simplicity of Grace’s writing caught the attention of her aunt’s publisher, and once the contract was signed, there was enough money available for the Livingstons to make the journey.
Grace would publish several more volumes during her years in Winter Park. A daily devotional called Pansies for Thoughts combined passages from her aunt’s “Pansy” books with Scripture verses for each day of the year.
She also wrote a delightful children’s book, A Little Servant, and contributed chapters to two family efforts: A Sevenfold Trouble and The Kaleidoscope, which included a chapter contributed by a Rollins professor and would-be but ultimately unsuccessful suitor, Frederick Starr.
It wouldn’t be long before Grace found herself teaching at Rollins. Admired for her athleticism, she was asked in 1889 to join the faculty as an instructor in calisthenics and heavy gymnastics—at no salary.
She readily accepted, later writing that “the days spent in Winter Park with the dear Rollins students will ever stand out as a sweet and delightful experience.”
The new Lyman Gymnasium, where her classes were held, was an attraction unto itself. But Grace’s sessions also began to draw large crowds of spectators. According to the Florida Times-Union, “the system of calisthenics and gymnastics...is very pretty, and from 5 o’clock each afternoon the guests’ galleries are thronged with a delighted audience.”
It’s no wonder the galleries were full. Rollins was one of the few places in the 1890s where a woman instructor led vigorous physical education classes, one of the most notable and entertaining of which was “Greek posing” for young men.
But that wasn’t nearly as shocking as what Grace proposed for her women’s classes.
In a letter to the college four decades later, she recalled an 1891 incident that she considered to be “exceedingly amusing in the light of present-day freedom and daring in the matter of dress, or rather undress.”
She wanted her female students to wear uniforms. She suggested dark blue serge suits with long-sleeved, sailor-collared blouses. The controversy arose over the “divided skirt”—think culottes—which would be fastened just below the knee. Grace described them as “very neat and graceful, worn with long black stockings and gymnasium sneakers.”
It was hardly a revolutionary concept. At the time, many girls who participated in athletics of one kind or another, primarily riding, wore split skirts, which allowed for greater freedom of movement while preserving modesty.
“I was to appear formally before the faculty to talk over the matter of costume for the gymnasium work, and it never occurred to me that it was going to be a difficult task to get what I had requested,” Grace wrote.
After all, she had “been brought up in a most conservative manner as to attire, and I was heartily in accord with my father and mother on the subject. So I was much amazed to find that all but two or three of the faculty were very doubtful, and failed to give way at my eager description of its modesty and appropriateness.”
Grace “waxed eloquent” about the proposal, noting that the gym uniforms were, in fact, more conservative than much of what her students donned outside of class.
Seeing that her arguments were making little headway, she shocked the prim professors by making an audacious offer: “Why, I have it on now and I can show it to you. I’ll step into the hall and take off this skirt and come back and let you see how it looks.”
One of the female teachers “tried to protest, but I whisked into the hall before they could stop me and walked back in my gymnasium dress, and in reality it was a pretty graceful affair. Even now it might be thought so. But the affect on the troubled faculty was astounding.”
Grace watched as the attendees “sat in a circle with downcast eyes, hands in their laps, feeling perhaps that a great crisis in college affairs was upon them. Only the two brave ladies who had been privileged to see the skirt before, and were in hearty accord with me about it, looked up with serene countenances and smiled upon me.”
The others, she recalled, began to cast “furtive sideways glances, first at my toes, and then cautiously letting their frightened eyes travel upward till they got the whole effect. They one by one drew sighs of relief, and permitted their eyes to resume a normal outlook on the world once more.”
Dr. Edward Hooker, the college’s first president and minister of the First Congregational Church, finally broke the awkward silence. “I think,” he said, “that this dress is much more modest than the garb that is worn in social life. I can see nothing whatever objectionable in it. In fact, I heartily approve it.”
Thus ended the “great crisis,” and soon thereafter girls could be seen hurrying across the campus wearing the sensible, graceful garb. “Nobody thought any more about it,” Grace wrote.
Rev. and Mrs. Livingston left Florida in 1892 after receiving a call to pastor a Maryland church. Grace went with them and a few months later married Rev. T.G.F. Hill. It was as Grace Livingston Hill that she would become familiar to generations of readers.
But there’s no doubt that Grace kept Winter Park close to her heart, and in her writing, she sometimes hearkened back to her Florida sojourn. Among her books with Florida settings, two stand out.
The Story of a Whim (1903), a gentle romance, appeared first as a serial in The Golden Rule magazine. Its setting among the orange groves in fictional Pine Ridge, Fla., was no doubt inspired by the fact that Rev. Alden owned 12 acres of citrus between Winter Park and Maitland.
In Lo, Michael (1913), Rollins itself serves as the backdrop. As the book opens, an angry mob is gathering outside the Manhattan home of Delevan Endicott, president of a failed bank. A shot rings out and a newsboy, nicknamed Mikky, throws himself in the bullet’s path to save the life of Endicott’s young daughter, Starr.
In gratitude, Endicott sends the unpolished but angelic lad to a small school in Florida, unnamed in the book but clearly based on Rollins.
Years later, Endicott and Starr travel to the college town for a visit. Grace’s memory of Winter Park’s early days is sprinkled throughout the narrative, and readers can almost see the Dinky Line station in the twilight or Rogers House across the way:
Starr, as she walked on the inside of the board sidewalk, and looked down at the small pink and white and crimson pea blossoms growing broad-cast, and then up at the tallness of the great pines, felt a kind of awe stealing upon her. But here in this quiet spot, where the tiny station, the post office, the grocery and a few scattered dwellings with the lights of the great tourists’ hotel gleaming in the distance, seemed all there was of human habitation; and where the sky was wide and even to bewilderment; she seemed suddenly to realize the difference from New York.
Now an enthusiastic and exemplary student, Mikky gives his benefactor and his pretty daughter a tour of the campus—and modern readers a glimpse at Rollins life over a century ago:
“That’s the chapel, and beyond are the study and recitation rooms. The next is the dining hall and servant’s quarters, and over on that side of the campus is our dormitory. My window looks down on the lake. Every morning I go before breakfast for a swim.”
Finally, he shares a Florida sunset with the girl he saved so long ago:
Starr followed his eager words, and saw the sun slipping, slipping like a great ruby disc behind the fringe of palm and pine and oak that bordered the little lake below the campus; saw the wild bird dart from the thicket into the clear amber of the sky above, utter its sweet weird call, and drop again into the fine brown shadows of the living picture; watched, fascinated as the sun slipped lower, lower, to the half now, and now less than half.
Grace’s charmed life took a tragic turn in 1899, when her husband died suddenly after just seven years of marriage. With her mother and two daughters, ages 2 and 6, to support, she took a cue from her aunt and redoubled her effort at writing.
In less than a decade, despite a failed second marriage to Flavious Josephus Lutz, a church organist 15 years her junior, she was a best-selling author with a lifetime contract from J.B. Lippincott Co.
Her ability to appeal to secular audiences by combining romantic themes with an ever-present gospel message was key to her ongoing popularity.
New Grace Livingston Hill books appeared three times a year for much of her career and have never been out of print. Prior to the advent of talkies, four were adapted as films.
She ultimately wrote more than 100 novels and dozens more short stories, with book sales steadily approaching the 100 million mark today.
Grace died in 1947 at 82. Her final book, Mary Arden, was completed by her daughter, Ruth Livingston Hill.
Outside of the Christian realm, her books never received much critical praise. Many called them “formula” or “fluff” or even “out-and-out escapism.” But that never bothered Grace:
“I have had no desire to find favor with critics. I knew my Lord could look after these things wherever He wanted my work to reach lost souls.”