A Stranger in New York

If you’ve read Isabella’s novel Ester Ried’s Namesake, you probably remember Esther Ried Randall’s reaction when handsome Professor Langham invited her to join a party he was organizing.

His plan was to drive a group of friends to the city to spend the day, then treat everyone to an evening show at the theater.

A 1908 theater poster for Guiseppe Verdi’s opera, “Aida.”

Poor Esther! She wanted so much to drive to town and spend a day shopping and seeing the sights; but her loving Christian parents had taught her that good Christians did not attend theater performances.

“Beverly” was a popular play in 1904. It was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by George Barr McCutcheon. Renowned artist Harrison Fisher created the poster artwork.

With her parents’ scruples in mind, Esther declined the professor’s invitation, saying:

“I may as well tell you plainly that I do not attend the theater.”

“Oh, is that all? As a rule I think I may be said not to do so myself. But isn’t it drawing the line rather closely, being in fact what might be called Puritanical, not to go at all?”

There was an amused smile on his face and a note of amused toleration in his voice. Still, Esther might have answered him quietly but for that word “Puritanical.” Over that she flamed.

Doris Farrand struggled with the same issue when her boyfriend Richard invited her to attend a play with “a splendid moral lesson” in the book Doris Farrand’s Vocation.

In 1898 “The Sorrows of Satan,” based on the best-selling novel by Marie Corelli, was a moralistic play with a Faustian theme.

When Doris declined his invitation, Richard couldn’t understand her reason; neither could Doris’s sister, Athalie, who told Doris:

“It seems narrow-minded to object to [theater-going] these days. Why, Doris, the very best people go to this particular play.”

“The Curse of Drink” was a 1904 temperance play that portrayed one man’s addiction to drink, and it’s affect on his family.

Doris’s boyfriend was a seminary student; he was studying to be a minister. Surely, he argued, he was a better judge of what was right and wrong; surely Doris should trust his judgment and go with him to the theater.

“Alice Sit by the Fire” was a sweet, wholesome play written by J. M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan” and “The Little Minister.” Actress Mary Shaw starred in the 1907 production.

But in the end, Doris stood firm in her decision to remain at home, which didn’t please Richard at all.

Esther Randall also stayed at home, and struggled with the idea of living by her parents’ “hated scruples.” She felt she was missing out on all the fun in life, merely because her mother and father had some old-fashioned ideas.

Esther’s best friend told her:

“You live in a little narrow space all hedged about with ‘Thou shalt nots’ or ‘I must nots,’ and that seems to be all there is of your religion.”

Esther couldn’t have agreed more!

In the book, Isabella describes Esther’s struggles in a very compelling way. Isabella understood what it was like to be young and want to go where her friends went and do that they did.

“The Shoemaker” was a heart-warming 1907 play that promised it’s audience “tears and laughter.”

But as a Christian, Isabella was very aware of the example she set for her family, friends, and acquaintances.

And because her husband was a minister, Isabella knew members of the congregation scrutinized her behavior—some did so to take inspiration, and others to find fault.

Whatever their reasons, Isabella knew people watched her, and she was careful to set what she hoped was a good and clear example of Christian living.

She often mentioned Romans 14:15-16 as her guide:

For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

Therefore, do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.

Isabella knew those verses weren’t just about food; they applied to anything a Christian might do or say that could influence others.

This innocuous-looking ad for a new play, “A Stranger in New York” appeared in an 1890 Brooklyn, New York newspaper.

She knew that if a non-believer—or a new or struggling Christian—should see her entering a theater to see a morality play, that non-believer might assume that she went to other plays, as well, and that she considered any theater production to be acceptable.

This poster for “A Stranger in New York” may look innocent by today’s standards; but in 1890 it was quite risqué. Ladies did not lift their skirts to show their ankles; nor did they allow men to put their arms around them in a familiar manner.

Isabella didn’t want to run that risk, so she made it a rule in her life not to attend the theater for any reason.

Another poster for “A Stranger in New York.” The image includes every possible element that was contrary to Christian standards of the time: women wearing short skirts and scandalously revealing leotards, cigars, wine, and flirtatious behavior.

She wasn’t alone in setting that standard. In 1892 Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent (a co-founder of Chautauqua Institution) published a short book titled Better Not.

In his book Bishop Vincent explained why Christians should ask themselves hard questions about their actions, and whether those actions were harmful or helpful to a soul who may follow their lead.

Isabella agreed with Bishop Vincent’s position, and even mentioned his book Better Not in her story of Esther Ried Randall’s struggle with “scruples.”

She hoped that young Christian women who read Esther’s story would be inspired to keep those two verses in Romans foremost in their minds whenever they planned an evening entertainment with friends and family.

You can read Bishop Vincent’s book Better Not for free! Click here to find it on Google Books. Then click on the red “Ebook – Free” button to read it on your phone or table, or to download it as a pdf.

And you can click on the book cover to find out more about Ester Ried’s Namesake (Book 7 in the Ester Ried Series).

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