Isabella Macdonald Alden was born in New York in 1841. Her mother, Myra Spafford Macdonald, was the daughter of a distinguished scholar. Her father, Isaac Macdonald was well-educated and an advocate of social reform. In her younger years, her father tutored her at home instead of sending her to public school. It was her father who gave Isabella the nick-name “Pansy” and encouraged her to write beginning at a young age. At ten years old, Isabella had a story published by a local newspaper.
When she was old enough to leave home, she continued her education as a boarding student at the Oneida Seminary in upstate New York. There she met Theodosia Toll (later, Theodosia Toll Foster), who would become her roommate, life-long friend, and co-author (under the pseudonym, Faye Huntington). Later, Isabella attended the Seneca Collegiate Institute and finished her formal education at the Young Ladies Institute at Auburn, New York. After finishing her formal education, Isabella took a teaching position at her alma mater, where she met her husband, Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden. They were married in 1866.
Prior to her marriage, her friend Theodosia (or “Docia,” as she was often called) helped launch Isabella’s literary career. Docia submitted one of Isabella’s novels to a writing contest (against Isabella’s wishes). Isabella won the contest and in 1865 the winning novel, Helen Lester, was published under her pseudonym, Pansy. Isabella would use the Pansy pseudonym for all her published works.
As a new bride, Isabella devoted her energies to being the ideal pastor’s wife. She called on church members, cared for the sick, taught Sunday-school, orchestrated ladies’ prayer meetings and mission bands, and developed Sunday-school lesson helps that were widely used by Christian churches across the country.
With her husband, she instituted a weekly magazine for children, appropriately titled, “The Pansy.” The magazine was wildly popular. Children from all over the country subscribed and devoured the stories that described God’s plan for salvation and reinforced Christian behaviors. Producing the magazine was a family business, with each member contributing stories. Isabella’s husband, son, father and sisters all wrote for the magazine, as well as her best friend, Theodosia Foster.
Isabella was active in the Chautauqua movement of the late 19th Century. The movement was named for New York’s Chautauqua Lake, which was the site of the original assembly in 1874. John Vincent and Lewis Miller began the program as a training camp for Sunday-school teachers. Over the years, the religious focus of the program evolved to include non-denominational lectures and classes, concerts, plays and university-level courses. The program proved so popular that by the end of the century, hundreds of Chautauqua camps had sprung up across the country, offering similar programs.
Her Chautauqua experiences sparked Isabella’s interest in the temperance movement of the time. She was an officer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and she featured the WCTU’s work in her book, Judge Burnham’s Daughters.With all her activities and responsibilities, Isabella still found time to write novels. She was prolific, producing an estimated one-hundred books, as well as short stories and articles. Many of her books were based on personal experience or featured characters based on real people in her life. Her childhood friend, Theodosia Foster, was the inspiration for the main character in Docia’s Journal. Her own life served as the model for Marion Wilbur in the Chautauqua Girls series.
Her books were translated into several languages, including Japanese, Armenian, Norwegian and French, and sold around the world
Both Isabella’s husband and her son, Raymond, passed away in 1924. She lived with her daughter-in-law until her own death in 1930.
Isabella left behind a legacy of sincere, beautifully written books and stories that tell of Christ’s salvation and the joys of living a Christian life with strength and conviction. In her memoirs, she wrote:
“My very first little story books were written with a single distinct purpose in view, given over to the desire and determination to win souls for Jesus Christ. The longer I wrote and the older I grew, that was my central purpose.”
“I dedicated my pen to the direct and continuous effort to win others for Christ and help others to closer fellowship with him.”
Isabella Alden achieved much in her remarkable life. Most importantly, she accomplished her purpose and won souls for Christ through her timeless stories that are still relevant and meaningful for today’s readers.