Helen Lester

Isabella Alden’s first novel, Helen Lester, was published in 1865 when she was 24 years old.

The original book included a few illustrations. This one depicts the moment in the story when Helen’s older brother leads her to the Christ.

Helen Lester was a great success and launched Isabella’s writing career, but it almost wasn’t published!

You can read more about how Helen Lester came to be—-and read the book for free! Just click here.

Isabella’s Last Novel

Much has been written about Isabella’s first book, Helen Lester, and how it came to be published.

Less has been written about her last novel, An Interrupted Night. Here’s an interesting fact about the book: in the same way her first novel Helen Lester was published with the help of her best friend, Theodosia Toll Foster, Isabella’s last novel was published with the help of her beloved niece, Grace Livingston Hill.

Isabella Alden

Here’s how it happened. In 1924 Isabella was 82 years old. During that year she suffered great loss: her dear sister Marcia, her husband Ross, and her son Raymond all died within months of each other. Isabella’s writing took a back seat as she made her way through that difficult time.

Ross and Isabella Alden with their son Raymond in 1916

Two years later, in 1926, Isabella was seriously injured in an automobile accident in Palo Alto, California, where she was residing. She lived with the pain of her injuries for years afterward.

Then, in 1929, due in part to those old automobile accident injuries, Isabella fell and broke several bones including her hip. From that point on, Isabella was confined to a wheelchair and in constant pain.

Still, despite everything she had been through, at the age of eighty-seven she had one more story to tell.

Between intervals of constant pain and visits from friends and well-wishers, Isabella began writing her last novel. But even with her best efforts, she struggled to complete the story because, as she said, her body . . .

. . . was unfit for the work that needed to be accomplished.

Finally, determined to get her promised manuscript into the hands of the publisher, Isabella called upon her niece Grace Livingston Hill for help.

Grace Livingston Hill, 1915.

By that time, Grace was a successful novelist in her own right. Still, Grace said of her aunt’s request:

I approach the work with a kind of awe upon me that I should be working on her story! If, long ago in my childhood, it had been told to me that I should ever be counted worthy to do this, I would not have believed it. Before her I shall always feel like the little worshipful child I used to be.

But Grace took up the task, and helped her Aunt Isabella — by then confined to her bed — finish the book.

The novel was titled An Interrupted Night. Isabella said the story was based on actual facts, told to her by one of the people characterized in the story as “Mrs. Dunlap.”

The cover for Isabella’s 1929 novel, An Interrupted Night.

The novel was published by J. B. Lippincott Company in 1929 and received very favorable reviews.

One particular review, found in the Fort Lauderdale News on July 12, 1929, begins with this this sentence:

Old readers must have gaped with surprise and thought that their glasses were at fault when they read that a new book by Pansy, Mrs. G. R Alden, will be published soon by Lippincott’s. Shades of sainted grandmothers and all the dear old ladies of the Presbyterian fold, who reveled and doted upon Pansy when they were little girls!

That’s quite a beginning to a book review, isn’t it? Although the review begins with a rather sarcastic tone, it ends on a more respectful note. You can read the entire review by clicking here or on the image below.

Because it’s still protected by copyright, we can’t make An Interrupted Night available to you, but copies of the book do surface in libraries and book stores on a fairly regular basis.

If you find a copy of An Interrupted Night, you’ll be treated to a marvelous story about Mrs. Dunlap and her efforts to convince a young woman to abandon her plans to elope with a man who seems, on the surface, to be her ideal mate.

It’s a Pansy story in the truest sense, with a wonderfully sweet ending, engaging dialog throughout, and important life lessons for her characters —and readers! — to learn along the way.

This is the last post in our Blogiversary Celebration! Leave a comment below or on Isabella’s Facebook page to be entered in a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card! We’ll announce the winner tomorrow.


Pansy’s Gentlemen

In The Ester Ried Series, Isabella chronicled the transformation of a young man named Jim Forbes. Jim first appeared in The King’s Daughter as a member of a wild bunch of boys who showed up at church for the sole purpose of terrorizing the Sunday-school teachers.

Dapper young men in bowler and derby hats-1910

Homer Nelson, who was in charge of the Sunday-school classes, described Jim and his friends:

“Oh, they swear outrageously, and smoke profusely, and gamble whenever they get a chance, not often for money, for they have very little of that article about them; but for raisins, or pins, or straws, or anything that is convenient, and they use liquor freely, every one of them.”

But by the end of The Ester Ried books, Jim was a different person. In fact, he came to be so well regarded, his friends at church gave him a gift: “a dainty and elegant, and altogether perfect gold watch and chain.”

A young gentleman with his gold watch and chain. From OldFamilyPhotos.com
A young gentleman with his gold watch and chain. From OldFamilyPhotos.com

Jim was astonished to receive the watch, not only because of its beauty and cost, but because of what it represented. In the times in which Isabella lived, a man who carried such a watch and chain was considered a gentleman of the first order.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, true gentlemen followed a very strict code of dress that was based, in large part, on the model promoted by Britain’s Lord Chesterfield, who famously said:

“I cannot help forming some opinion of a man’s sense and character from his dress.”

A Victorian Gentleman, by Vittorio Matteo Corcos, 1890.
A Victorian Gentleman, by Vittorio Matteo Corcos, 1890.

Isabella agreed whole-heartedly. In her books, Isabella dressed her gentlemen in neat, conservative, well-fitting suits. Even the wealthy men who populated her stories (like Edward Stockwell in The Ester Ried Series, Judge Burnham in The Chautauqua Books, and Mr. Burton in Christie’s Christmas) dressed in a way that did not call attention to themselves or their wealth.

Dressing in the “height of the fashion,” Isabella believed, was better left to dandies and pretenders.

A Paris dandy, circa 1890.
A Paris dandy, circa 1890. His multiple watch chains, quizzing glass, elaborate buttons, and overly-shiny shoes would have been considered vulgar by American standards.

There were essential elements of a gentleman’s attire. In addition to a well-fitting coat and trousers, a gentleman always appeared in a waistcoat and tie.

Portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge, by John Singer Sargent, 1890.
Portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge, by John Singer Sargent, 1890.

Even when they were relaxing around the house or engaging in leisure activities, men wore coats, ties, and waistcoats.

Captain John Spicer, dressed to go fishing, by John Singer Sargent, 1901.
Captain John Spicer, dressed to go fishing, by John Singer Sargent, 1901.


Portrait of the artist's brother, dressed for riding, by Arthur Hacker, 1882.
Portrait of the artist’s brother, dressed for riding, by Arthur Hacker, 1882.

Another essential element of a gentleman’s appearance was an appropriate amount of facial hair. Beards and moustaches were considered to be a symbol of masculinity.

Self-portrait, by James Wells Champney.
Self-portrait, by James Wells Champney.

Isabella’s men wore beards and moustaches, as well. In Helen Lester, Helen’s dashing older brother Cleveland returned home from Europe looking very handsome and “heavily bearded.”

Portrait of Leon Delafosse, by John Singer Sargent, 1898.
Portrait of Leon Delafosse, by John Singer Sargent, 1898.

And charming Ralph Ried wore a full beard in The Ester Ried Series of books.

Undated photo of young man with a full beard and moustache. From Pinterest.
Undated photo of young man with a full beard and moustache. From Pinterest.

Coats, ties, waistcoats, and beards—they were all essential to a man’s attire in Isabella’s world, but a popular 1866 book on “etiquette and true politeness” carried this reminder:

Gentility is neither in birth, manner, nor fashion—but in the MIND. A high sense of honor—a determination never to take a mean advantage of another—an adherence to truth, delicacy, and politeness toward those with whom you may have dealings—are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of A GENTLEMAN.

A 1901 photo of a fashionably dressed gentleman.
A 1901 photo of a fashionably dressed gentleman.

You can click on the links below to find out more about Isabella’s books mentioned in this post.

The Ester Ried Series

Helen Lester

The Chautauqua Books



Like Mother, Like Son

Isabella Alden’s first published book Helen Lester was written as an entry to a contest . . . which she won! Isabella’s prize was a check for $50 and publication of her book Helen Lester in 1865.

Raymond Alden in an undated photo
Raymond Alden in an undated photo

Her son, Raymond, was also a writer. Like his mother, he began writing at a young age. As an associate professor at Stanford University in California he authored several text books. He also contributed stories to The Pansy magazine, which his mother edited; and in 1909 his Christmas book for children, Why the Chimes Rang, was published.

The 1909 cover of Why the Chimes Rang by Raymond Alden
The 1909 cover of Why the Chimes Rang by Raymond Alden

Forty years after his mother took her first writing prize, Raymond entered a writing contest. In 1905 he submitted a short story titled “In the Promised Land” to a writing contest sponsored by Collier’s Weekly magazine. His short story took third prize in the national contest and Raymond was awarded $1,000. That was a substantial prize—the equivalent of $26,000 in today’s economy.

Article in The Los Angeles Herald, February 13, 1905
Article in The Los Angeles Herald, February 13, 1905

Raymond’s story was published in the June 1905 issue of Collier’s Weekly, and you can read it, too. Click here to read Raymond Alden’s prize-winning story, “In the Promised Land.”

Click here to read an earlier post about Isabella’s prize-winning book Helen Lester.

Free Read: The Book that Started it All

It’s hard to imagine a world without Isabella Alden’s wonderful books and stories; but, left to her own devices, Isabella never would have become a published writer.

Advertising Card 1919

From a young age she had been taught to let her imagination soar. She began keeping a diary at the age of six, filling it with records of daily events and bits of stories. And even before she could write, Isabella’s mother encouraged her to make up little stories—perhaps from a picture Isabella would show her, or out of a few toys or some flowers. “Make a story out of it for mother,” was a most familiar sentence.

Out of those beginnings, Isabella developed her writing skills, and she continued to craft stories for the amusement of her friends and family. Her talent showed in school assignments, too; her compositions always earned good grades and won her recognition and prizes.

It was at school that Isabella Alden met her good friend, Theodosia Toll, nicknamed Docia. They were students together at Oneida Seminary in New York. After they graduated, Isabella returned to the school as a teacher; and since Docia’s family home was nearby in a neighboring town, the young women saw each other often.

Laude-Calthrop-Old-LettersAfter the close of one particular school year, Docia arrived to help Isabella pack up her things. Isabella was leaving the next morning to spend the long vacation at her family’s home, some eighty miles away.

While Isabella packed, she tasked Docia with sorting through the papers and books she had stored in a large trunk. As Docia went through the trunk, she came across a story Isabella had written as an entry for a writing contest. Here is Isabella’s description of what happened next:

“Why, Belle!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Here is that story you were to send to Cincinnati! Didn’t you do it after all?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said.

“But you promised!”

“No, not exactly. I said I would, if I didn’t change my mind, and I changed it.”

“Well! I think you were a perfect simpleton! It might have taken the prize. I thought it was the best thing you had written. What do you want done with it? Oh, say! Don’t you believe! The time for sending manuscripts isn’t up yet! Here is the printed slip that tells about it. There are seven days yet. Now do be sensible and send it on. Just think what fun it would be if it should win the prize!”

Then I appeared in the doorway and spoke with decision.

“I’ll do no such thing. If I can’t write a better story than that, it proves that I ought never to write at all. Tear the thing into bits and throw it in the grate with the other rubbish. I’ll set fire to them tonight.”

Luckily, Docia saw the promise in that story and instead of tearing it to bits so it could be set on fire, she submitted it to the contest under Isabella’s name.

Postman 1909Two months later, Isabella was shocked to receive a letter from the Western Tract & Book Society in Cincinnati, congratulating her on her win. Enclosed with the letter was a check for fifty dollars!

After she got over the initial shock of winning a prize for a story she thought she had burned, Isabella realized that Helen Lester was something to be proud of—especially once the contest judges explained the reason the story won:

“In the opinion of the carefully chosen committee of award, it met the condition imposed by the grand old Christian gentleman who offered the prize. It was to be given for the manuscript that would best explain God’s plan of salvation, so plainly that quite young readers would have no difficulty in following its teachings if they would, and so winsomely that some of them might be moved to take Jesus Christ for their Saviour and Friend.”

Original 1865 Cover of Helen Lester
Original 1865 Cover of Helen Lester

And how did Isabella spend that fifty-dollar prize money? She made two packets, each containing “the enormous sum of twenty-five dollars.” She placed one of the packets inside a bound volume of her first book, Helen Lester. On the fly leaf she wrote:

“Presented to my honored father.”

The second packet went into another copy of the book; and on the fly leaf she wrote:

“To my precious mother.”

Then, in both books she wrote those “wondrous words that must have trembled with excitement, and ought to have been written in capitals”:

“From the Author.”

Book 3Helen Lester was published in 1865 and with it, Isabella’s writing career was launched. The following year she published another children’s book, Nanie’s Experiment; Jessie Wells was published in 1867, quickly followed by Tip Lewis and His Lamp. After that, she published multiple titles each year, demonstrating both her talent and her discipline as a writer.

Since then, her stories that explain salvation through Christ and the rewards of abiding faith in God have enlightened and entertained generations of readers around the world.

Cover_Helen Lester resized

You can read Helen Lester for free. Click on the cover to begin reading.

You can learn more about Isabella’s friendship with Docia by clicking here.