Isabella Alden was a prolific author, a Sunday school teacher, a mother, and a dedicated minister’s wife who was devoted to the members of her husband’s congregation.
In the few leisure hours she had, she was a great reader, and one of her favorite authors was Susan Warner. Isabella was such a fan, she even mentioned Susan Warner’s books in her own novels.
For example, in her book What They Couldn’t, Professor Landis has his eye on his neighbor, Miss Mary Cameron.
He believes Mary to be a troubled young woman, whose face wears the clear signs of unrest. He wants to help her, but unhappy Mary avoids him as much as possible—until the day they meet by accident at the public library.
Professor Landis strikes up a conversation and asks Mary what books and authors she likes to read.
“Tell me if you ever indulge in one of my favorites. Do you read Miss Warner?”
The professor is, of course, talking about Susan Warner. Miss Warner’s first novel, The Wide, Wide World, was published in 1850, and told the story of young Ellen Montgomery, who must rely on her Christian faith when she is sent to live with unkind relatives who lead a more worldly lifestyle.
The Wide, Wide World was a run-away best-seller—a fact that’s even more remarkable when you consider that the book was published at a time when most people, women in particular, did not often read novels.
In Isabella’s novel What They Couldn’t, Mary Cameron considers herself too sophisticated to confess to enjoying the simple stories of Christian faith that Susan Warner wrote. She scoffs at the mention of Susan Warner’s name and repeats some of the criticisms Isabella often heard and read about Susan’s work:
“You cannot mean the old-fashioned Miss Warner, with her interminable ‘Wide, Wide World’ and ‘Queechy’ and ‘The Hills of —’ something or other!” she said.
“Ah, but I do! She is the very Miss Warner, with her ‘Say and Seal’ and her ‘Old Helmet,’ and all the other creations of her earnest brain. I am glad to find you familiar with her.”
“I am not. You give me too much credit. It was a spasm of my childhood, long since passed. Professor Landis, it is not possible that you can intend to seriously commend her writings!”
“Because she is not worthy of it. From a literary point of view, which I supposed a teacher would feel bound to consider, I am sure she is of no account; and as for her characters — It is the same person always, whether in masculine or feminine dress, and the most improbable one imaginable.”
When Isabella wrote those lines, she was repeating criticisms that had often been leveled against Susan Warner’s novels. Susan Warner’s books were regularly maligned by reviewers as old-fashioned, with weak, unnatural characters who were too good and perfect to be believed.
But then, Isabella did something remarkable. In What They Couldn’t she turns those criticisms around by having her character, Professor Landis, ask Mary Cameron this question about Susan Warner’s books:
“Are the characters you have mentioned better than the Pattern?”
“The pattern?” she repeated in genuine bewilderment. This young woman was so unused to meeting a religious thought in ordinary conversation that her mind did not take in his meaning.
“Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ. He came among us for that purpose, among others, you remember. Has Miss Warner succeeded in imagining a human being superior to him?”
“Of course not. But she has tried to make a human being like him; and that makes the whole unnatural.”
“I beg pardon, but what is a copy worth unless one strives to attain to it?”
Isabella understood Susan Warner’s reasons for writing her books as she did. Unlike other Christian authors of the same period, who wrote moralistic fiction, Susan Warner’s books were inspirational; Susan hoped to encourage readers not just to achieve salvation through Christ, but to emulate Christ in their every-day lives.
She certainly influenced Isabella. Isabella often used the same theme Susan Warner used in The Wide, Wide World—a child sent to live with strangers—in her own books.
One example is Line Bryant, who goes to live with a wealthy family in the city when a series of mishaps takes her far from home in Isabella’s novel Twenty Minutes Late. Although Line has been raised with good principles, she learns what it means to follow Christ by the example set by the family that takes her in.
Many of Isabella’s novels are based on that theme; The Man of the House and Reuben’s Hindrances are two other examples of stories involving children who learn from older friends or acquaintances about salvation through Jesus.
Susan’s Writing Career
Under the pen name “Elizabeth Wetherell” Susan Warner wrote about thirty novels, many of which were best-sellers and went into multiple editions.
One of those books was The Old Helmet, which remained popular for decades after its initial publication in 1864.
Thirty years later, Isabella mentioned The Old Helmet in her novel, Her Associate Members.
Once again, Isabella brought up the topic of Susan Warner’s books in a conversation between her heroine, Chrissy Holmes, and a friend from church:
“I am going to see if you do not, after all, like some of my favorites. Do you ever read Miss Warner’s books?”
“What has she written? I hardly ever notice the name of the author.”
“Miss Warner has written a large number of books. ‘The Hills of the Shatemuc’ was one of my favorites, and ‘The Old Helmet’ was another.”
In Isabella’s novel John Remington, Martyr, she described how John—newly ordained and assigned his first church—believed that the right books placed in the hands of his congregants could teach Christ’s principles just as well as any sermon he could deliver:
Great care was taken to select and circulate attractive religious books through the parish. And here one had need of great discernment to fit the right book or tract to the right person. If sure that James’ “Anxious Inquirer” or Baxter’s “Call” or Bunyan’s “Come and Welcome” would not be read by certain persons, then there was a wide field to choose from to secure an excellent religious story, from “Pilgrim’s Progress” down to Miss Warner’s “Queechy” and “Old Helmet.”
Isabella’s Flawed Characters
Isabella may have been inspired by Susan Warner’s books, but she did not copy them. One major difference between Isabella’s novels and Susan’s works was in the characters they each created.
Isabella wasn’t afraid to create a heroine who was less than perfect. In that way, her stories were probably more believable than Susan Warner’s, and her characters were more natural and relateable to readers of her time.
Susan Warner’s book My Desire provides an example. In the book, Miss Desire Burgoyne is just blossoming into Christian womanhood. She lives a quiet life in the country with one of her sisters; but when her wealthy eldest sister invites her to spend time with her in the city, Desire’s Christian faith is tested at every turn. Then she makes the acquaintance of Maxmillian Iredell, who is also a Christian. Soon, Desire finds herself falling in love for the first time, even as she must face one of the hardest tests for a Christian: forgiving the very person who cruelly betrayed her.
My Desire is a touching and heart-felt story, but critics once again claimed that Susan Warner made Desire Burgoyne a little too perfect to be believed.
Isabella had her own perfect characters. In The Chautauqua Series of books, Flossy Shipley is beautiful and wealthy, and she always knows exactly what to say and do. Just like Desire Burgoyne, Flossy’s new-found Christian faith is tested in many unforeseen ways when the people she loves most, wrong her. Luckily, Flossy meets godly Evan Roberts, who supports her in her Christian journey, and helps her forgive the people who tried to discourage her from following Christ.
Elsie Chilton contends with the same dilemma in Isabella’s novel, John Remington, Martyr. Elsie’s wealthy, influential father expects her to marry the man of his choice, even though Elsie is increasingly attracted to Earle Mason, a man dedicated to performing good works in Jesus’ name.
When Fiction Follows Fact
Isabella’s novel Interrupted is about a young woman named Claire Benedict. Born to wealth and privilege, Claire is forced to go to work to avoid living in poverty when her father encounters financial hardships and dies unexpectedly.
That story is very much like the story of Susan Warner’s life.
Susan and her sister Anna were born in New York (which is also Isabella’s home state) to wealthy parents. But when her father suffered significant financial losses, they sold their mansion in town and moved to an old farmhouse on Constitution Island, near West Point.
The change was a hard one for the family. They no longer had household servants and coachmen to see to their needs and drive them about. They no longer shopped at expensive stores and mingled with the cream of society. Instead, they had to learn to make their own clothes and grow their own food.
Susan and her younger sister Anna did not suffer their hardships alone; the sisters became devout Christians and sought ways to serve Christ in their everyday lives. They began to hold Bible studies for cadets at the nearby United States Military Academy. They continued those Bible studies with the cadets for over forty years.
Susan also began to express her Christian faith with her pen. It was while she was living on Constitution Island that Susan wrote The Wide, Wide World. The book was published in 1850 and became an instant run-away best seller.
Two years later she published Queechy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot were outspoken fans of the book.
She went on to write about thirty novels, including The Hills of Shatemuc (in 1856), The Old Helmet (1863), Daisy (1868), Pine Needles (1877), My Desire (1879), and The End of a Coil (1880), just to name a few.
When Susan Warner died in 1885, West Point honored her by ensuring she was buried on the grounds of the military academy, along with America’s most respected military leaders, historic heroes, astronauts, and Medal of Honor recipients.
Fittingly, Susan and her sister Anna are interred next to the Cadet Monument in a quiet corner of the cemetery.
The military academy also ensured Susan’s home on Constitution Island was preserved, after the Warner sisters willed the land and house to West Point. Today the home is a museum that houses many artifacts related to Susan’s life and work.
Did you know you can read many of Susan Warner’s books for free?
Amazon has many of Susan Warner’s novels available as free e-books, and you don’t have to own an Amazon Kindle to read them! Click here to see a full list of her available novels in print and e-book formats.
Barnes and Noble also has many Susan Warner e-books priced as low as 99 cents. Click here to see a complete list.
More about Susan Warner
You can read more about Susan Warner’s interesting life and discover how her family home became a popular museum by visiting this website:
There’s also a Wikipedia page dedicated to Susan Warner, which you can find here:
And this article describes Susan’s loving and faithful ministry to the young cadets at West Point:
Finally, this website gives examples of the many fan letters Susan Warner received from readers of her novel, The Wide, Wide World:
Have you read any of Susan Warner’s books?
How do you think they compare to Isabella Alden’s novels? Which Susan Warner book is your favorite? Please share your thoughts!
4 thoughts on “Pansy’s Favorite Author: Susan Warner”
I’ve always been curious about this author, so thanks so much for the lovely introduction. I feel like I’ve seen a photo feature about Susan and Anna on Constitution Island, perhaps in the old Victoria magazine? I especially love the idea of her teaching West Point Cadets the Bible for 40 years! I wonder if she ever realized that perhaps that’s why the Heavenly Father moved her and her sister to that Patmos–to bring hope and God’s love to generations of soldiers! Love this! Thanks so much, Jenny!
I wondered the same thing, Karen! Susan and Anna Warner were very much loved by the cadets they taught. I hope you get a chance to try one (or more!) of Susan’s books. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! —Jenny
Thank you for this post. I’d never heard of this author, but she sounds like someone who I would enjoy reading. I have downloaded her books and look forward to experiencing some thoughtful and enjoyable hours!
I’m so glad you downloaded her books, Lisa. I hope you enjoy them! —Jenny