Author Profile: Isabella “Pansy” Macdonald Alden

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Given her penname, “Pansy”, by her loving father, she was born Isabella Macdonald in 1841. Her influence on a generation of young people was great, and began with her first book, “Helen Lester” just 24 years later in 1865. Her final tale—that of her own life— was finished by her beloved niece, Grace Livingston Hill, in 1931 after she went to live forever with her King, Jesus Christ.

“Probably no writer of stories for young people has been so popular or had so wide an audience as Mrs. G. R. Alden, whose pen-name, “Pansy,” is known wherever English books are read.” 
— Rev. Francis E. Clark, Founder of the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor

How Pansy Became Pansy

Isabella Macdonald Alden was the youngest of the Macdonald clan, and her “pet” name was given to her by her father, Isaac Macdonald, after a very young little girl tried hard to help her mother make the table look pretty for guests invited to tea. 

While her mother was napping, Isabella, or “Belle” as she was called, went out to pick pansies for the table. She picked every pansy in the pansy bed, and as she puts it, “picked the stem carefully from every one! …Of course nobody would want ugly old stems laid on the pretty white tablecloth! Stems were to grow on so the pansy wouldn’t get in the dirt.” 

Of course, when mother awoke, there was much misunderstanding and poor Belle was scolded for what she had done. Father came to her rescue and intervened, explaining that she must not have understood that she had done wrong. And so, as Pansy tells the tale, the tearful child was “kissed, and told that Mother did not believe I meant to be naughty…and dressed me herself in my best white dress.” 

The pansies, which were to be tied in bunches, were instead placed in Grandmother’s precious flower bowl that was used only on stately occasions. They were tucked in among ferns all around the edge and she wrote that they “looked to me like hundreds of pansies peeping their bright faces out from the fern leaves! They were perfectly lovely! Who thought anything about their stems! And my familiar name “Pansy” dates from those stemless ones of the long ago.”

She was a writer from an early age, and her first story was printed in the local paper. In order to keep her identity private, the family decided to use the name “Pansy” for the story, and she wrote as Pansy for the next eighty years.

Isabella Alden’s Works: At The Beginning

Her first published book, “Helen Lester,” happened almost by accident. Isabella had grown into a young woman and was a Primary School Teacher. She wrote a story in response to a contest advertised in the papers of the day. The American Reform Tract and Book Society was looking for “the best book for a holiday gift, or premium treasure, for children…written in a style and language adapted to children and its leading purpose must be to win them to Christ.”  Later she had second thoughts about sending it.

She was packing her things to go home during the school’s summer break. Coming across the contest entry, she asked her best friend, Docia, to just toss it into the fire. Instead, Docia submitted the entry without Isabella’s knowledge. Much to her surprise, Isabella won the contest and its $50 prize (worth nearly $1000 today!) and it was published in book form. 

Pansy went on to write hundreds of books, short stories, and articles in her lifetime. She edited her own weekly magazine, “The Pansy,” spoke at churches and Bible Conferences, taught classes on the Chautauqua circuit, was a pastor’s wife, a mother, and a grandmother, too! It’s said that she answered every letter that was written to her and she read the writing of countless fans who wanted her opinion of their own work. She was driven by one thought:

“If I shall succeed in helping some hearts to realize, what the intellect already understands, the all-important fact that Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday, to-day and for ever,’ the object of my writing will have been attained…I dedicated my pen to the direct and continuous effort to win others for Christ and help others to closer fellowship with Him.”

Isabella “Pansy” Alden: The Teacher

Isabella Macdonald Alden wanted to teach children. She never set out to be an author. After she graduated from Oneida Seminary in New York, she went right to work in its Primary Department that same year. When “Helen Lester” won the literary contest, her writing turned into something unexpected—it became a calling. As she penned book after book it became clear that she was going to be a teacher, but on a much grander scale.

Grace Livingston Hill described her aunt’s distinctive writing ability in the foreword of “An Interrupted Night.”

“With marvelous skill she searched hearts, especially of the easy-going Christian, whether minister or layman, young and old, and brought them awake and alive to their inconsistencies. She wove her stories around their common, everyday life, till all her characters became alive and real to those who read.”

“Pansy Books”: Her Impact and Influence

It wasn’t long before the term “Pansy Book” became synonymous with good, wholesome stories that taught Christian life-lessons. They were in demand all over the world and by 1900 she was selling 100,000 books a year, quite a feat in that era. Her stories most often began as serials in the Christian newspapers of the day and were later printed in book form.

But books weren’t the only method used by our teacher. From 1874 to 1896, Pansy and her husband were the editors of “The Pansy,” a weekly children’s magazine. “The Pansy” found its way into thousands of homes. The Gospel message was always present, but there was more. Through its pages, the writings of both Pansy and her extended family taught children all about the world around them—subjects like world history, geography, science, literature…even botany! Children could join the “Pansy Society” and each member was encouraged to work hard at overcoming a single fault “For Jesus’ Sake”, which was the Society’s Whisper Motto.

Her children’s stories most often appeared first in “The Pansy” and were later printed in book form for use in Sunday School libraries or in the homes of readers who didn’t subscribe to the magazine. In the 19th century when owning a book was a luxury for many children, the Sunday-school library bridged the literary divide. They loved her little books and continually asked for more.

As her readers grew up, the Pansy Books grew with them. Longer novels appeared, often addressing controversial questions of the day. Across the decades the Sunday School books were constantly republished in new versions, bright and ready for those early readers to share the same Gospel truths with their own children and grandchildren.

To say that she was loved by her readers is an understatement. During the years that the Alden family lived in Winter Park, Florida, she opened her Pansy Cottage to visitors during an 1890 meeting of the Florida Association. One of the attendees wrote that “those who called at her door to take her by the hand and look into her face, received an inspiration for life. It was worth something to see the ‘study’ from which comes forth ‘The Pansy’ and the sweet, pure stories, to receive glad welcome in our homes.”

Friend and publisher Daniel Lothrop said of her influence:

“Pansy herself is a leader of children. She opens her mouth—they are eager to catch her lightest word. She raises her hand—instinctively up go theirs. The secret of such a power as that is sympathy, feeling together. Happy the writer who uses such power as that for helping, guiding, building up.”

And that’s exactly what Pansy’s unexpected calling came to be—helping her readers to know their Savior, guiding them along the narrow way and building up God’s Kingdom, one child at a time.

To God, nothing that an immortal soul can say appears trivial 
because he sees the waves of influence 
which are stirred years ahead by the quiet words.
— from “Ruth Erskine’s Crosses” —

She was a woman of strong convictions, and her best friend Docia writes that “she talks to her many readers in story, setting forth an uncompromising hatred of vice in all its forms, and a love of truth and purity.”

A Family of Authors

Two inseparable sisters, Marcia and Isabella Macdonald, are at the heart of this family of authors. Marcia Macdonald married Rev. Charles Livingston in 1855 and Isabella Macdonald married Rev. G.R. Alden in 1866, and the Livingston and Alden families were very close.  Not only did they enjoy each other’s company, they often wrote together.

Much of “The Pansy” was written by the Alden and Livingston families.  As you delve into the pages of a volume of “The Pansy,” you will find that Pansy may have contributed a story or two, or perhaps a serial each week or so. But she and her family members used several pseudonym to spread out their many contributions. Pansy also wrote as “I.M.A.” or used her mother’s maiden name, Myra Spafford. Rev. G. R. Alden often wrote pieces and poems as “G.R.A.”  or “Uncle Ross.” Their son, Raymond, wrote as “Paranete” and even as “Elizabeth Abbott.” Isabella’s sister, Marcia, wrote as “Mrs. C.M. Livingston” and Rev. Livingston, Isabella’s brother-in-law, made contributions as “C.M.L.” or “Uncle Charles.” Niece Grace Livingston also wrote for the paper, contributing her first stories in the early 1870’s.

The entire family circle and a few close friends (including Isabella’s best friend, Docia) collaborated on two books: A Sevenfold Trouble in 1889 and The Kaleidoscope in 1892. Both books began as serials in “The Pansy.” A Sevenfold Trouble tells its story in alternating chapters from seven authors’ perspectives, while The Kaleidoscope is a collection of stories told abouta single picture of a girl and her cat—and each author’s idea of what they were up to.

Isabella Macdonald Alden: A Lasting Legacy

Her words still speak to readers today, sharing the timeless message of God’s love through His son, Jesus Christ. Her characters are far from perfect, and their endings aren’t always happy, but she weaves a story from their lives in an “everyday tone”. In fact, many of her stories were inspired by everyday people. Her aim was to reach those without a Saviour.

I think if I could help to lead one person to understand and love the Lord Jesus Christ
as much even as I understand Him now, so that He would be that soul’s eternal salvation,
it would be ambition enough to fill a lifetime.
— from “The Hall in the Grove” —

It is our earnest prayer that the waves of influence found in Pansy’s quiet words stir your soul to salvation.

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