Alden, Isabella MacDonald

views updated

ALDEN, Isabella MacDonald

Born 3 November 1841, Rochester, New York; died 5 August 1930, Palo Alto, California

Wrote under: Pansy

Daughter of Isaac and Myra Spafford MacDonald; married Gustavus R. Alden, 1866; children: Raymond

The sixth of seven children born to a well-educated merchant, Isabella MacDonald Alden was tutored by her father, who required from her a daily journal of criticism and stories. While a pupil and teacher at the Oneida seminary, she won a Christian tract society's contest with her didactic novel, Helen Lester, published in 1866 under "Pansy," a childhood pet name given by her father. That same year she became the wife of Gustavus R. Alden, a Presbyterian minister. In 1874, a year after the birth of their only child, Raymond, she began to edit Pansy, a popular Sunday-school weekly.

Alden wrote more than 120 books emphasizing private religious commitment, Bible study, and a moral duty to improve the lives of the poor. She wrote and edited several Presbyterian publications, taught and directed Sunday schools, and occasionally lectured on temperance. She served as a teacher and organizer of the Chautauqua movement from its founding in 1874. One of her best novels, Four Girls at Chautauqua (1876), not only promoted the summer resort of Christian education, but introduced the four female characters whom Alden developed in a series of novels closing with Four Mothers at Chautauqua (1913).

Alden's most popular novel, Ester Reid (1870), portrays an earnest young woman committing her life and good manners to Christ, to Sunday school, and to social progress as three facets of one work. Sequels expanded the application of Christian principles of prayer and social service among middle class urban women. Alden consciously aimed at making religion attractive through realistic female characters who improve the personalities around them with good intentions, prayer, and persistent effort. Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On (1882), an extended complaint against dull-witted or fashionably bored church members, emphasizes that women are called to moral duty, a responsibility superior to that of men. Alden never explores a domestic clash of values, however, and her men support their wives' efforts from a distance.

Alden's popular series on the life of Christ culminates in Yesterday Framed in Today (1898), which places the events of Jesus' life in a modern city. Thoughtful readers are asked to recognize themselves as one prominent character, who abandons ambitions to join the rabble following the new master, or as another, who plots against him with influence and intellect.

Though Alden's books in English and several translations sold more than 100,000 copies annually, they were rarely reviewed, especially in the 1870s and 1880s, when she was doing her most original work. The little critical attention they received resigned them to Sunday school use. Whether The Nation condemned the "goodiness" and "uncomfortable amount of religious slang" in Ruth Erskine's Crosses (1879), or The Chautauquan praised the "wholesome homeliness" of Why They Couldn't (1896), each reviewer overlooked Alden's fictional development of the strong American female personality. Her heroines repeatedly overcame male patronizing with courteous intensity and worked great changes by persistent and thoughtful attention to the effects of small detail. Though they may overprize the work ethic, Alden's books are valuable records of cultural values and domestic artifacts. When things went wrong, Alden once claimed, she righted them in a book; this theory accounts for both the weakness and the strength of her realistic portrayals of good women.

Other Works:

Tip Lewis and His Lamp (1867). Julia Reid: Listening and Led (1872). The King's Daughter (1873). The Chautauqua Girls at Home (1878). Links in Rebecca's Life (1878). A New Graft on the Family Tree (1880). Next Things (1880). Mrs. Harry Harper's Awakening (1881). Ester Reid Yet Speaking (1883). Judge Burnham's Daughters (1888). The Prince of Peace: or, The Beautiful Life of Jesus Christ (1890). Ruth Erskine's Son (1907). An Interrupted Night (1929). Memories of Yesterdays (completed by G. L. Hill; 1931).


Hill, G. L., foreword to Isabella MacDonald Alden's An Interrupted Night (1929). Logan, M. S., The Part Taken by Women in American History (1912).

Reference Works:

American Women, F. E. Willard and M. A. Livermore (1897). National Cyclopedia of Amerian Biography (1892 et seq.). NAB, 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

NYT (6 Aug. 1930, 7 Aug. 1930).


About this article

Alden, Isabella MacDonald

Updated About content Print Article