Given her penname, "Pansy", by her loving father, she was born Isabella Macdonald in 1841. Her influence on a generation of young people was great, and began with her first book,"Helen Lester" just 24 years later in 1865. Her final tale—that of her own life— was finished by her beloved niece, Grace Livingston Hill, in 1931 after she went to live forever with her King, Jesus Christ.
“Probably no writer of stories for young people has been so popular or had so wide an audience as Mrs. G. R. Alden, whose pen-name, "Pansy," is known wherever English books are read.” —Rev. Francis E. Clark in World Wide Endeavor, 1895
In our great-great grandmothers’ day, “Pansy” was a world-wide writing phenomenon. She never set out to be an author—her first book was actually published without her knowledge—but by the time her family moved south to Winter Park in 1885 seeking health for their only son, she had been doing just that for two decades and would continue for nearly five decades more.
Isabella Macdonald Alden wanted to teach children. After attending several young ladies’ academies, she graduated from Oneida Seminary in New York in 1861 and began work in its Primary Department that same year. When a tossed-aside writing contest entry was sent in secretly by her best friend, the success of that prize-winning Sunday-school book turned into something unexpected—it became a calling. As she penned book after book it became clear that she was going to be a teacher, but on a much grander scale.
Grace Livingston Hill, described her aunt’s distinctive writing ability in the foreword of “An Interrupted Night.”
“With marvelous skill she searched hearts, especially of the easy-going Christian, whether minister or layman, young and old, and brought them awake and alive to their inconsistencies. She wove her stories around their common, everyday life, till all her characters became alive and real to those who read.”
It wasn’t long before the term “Pansy Book” became synonymous with good, wholesome stories that taught Christian life-lessons. They were in demand all over the world and by 1900 she was selling 100,000 books a year, quite a feat in that era. In the 19th century when owning a book was a luxury, the Sunday-school library bridged the literary divide for many children. They loved her little books and continually asked for more. Later, as those readers grew up, the Pansy Books grew with them. Longer novels appeared, many with stories that continued through multiple sequels and often addressing controversial questions of the day.
But books weren’t the only method used by our teacher. For 22 years, “The Pansy” magazine found its way into thousands of homes. The Gospel message was always present, but there was more. Through its pages, the writings of both Pansy and her extended family taught children all about the world around them—subjects like world history, geography, science, literature…even botany! Children could join the “Pansy Society” and each member was encouraged to work hard at overcoming a single fault “For Jesus’ Sake”, which was the Society’s Whisper Motto.
To say that she was loved by her readers is an understatement. When she opened Pansy Cottage to the ladies during an 1890 meeting of the Florida Association, it was said that “those who called at her door to take her by the hand and look into her face, received an inspiration for life. It was worth something to see the ‘study’ from which comes forth ‘The Pansy’ and the sweet, pure stories, to receive glad welcome in our homes.”
Friend and publisher Daniel Lothrop said of her influence:
“Pansy herself is a leader of children. She opens her mouth—they are eager to catch her lightest word. She raises her hand—instinctively up go theirs. The secret of such a power as that is sympathy, feeling together. Happy the writer who uses such power as that for helping, guiding, building up.”
And that’s exactly what Pansy’s unexpected calling came to be—helping her readers to know their Savior, guiding them along the narrow way and building up God’s Kingdom, one child at a time.
To God, nothing that an immortal soul can say appears trivial
because he sees the waves of influence
which are stirred years ahead by the quiet words.—from "Ruth Erskine's Crosses"
She was a woman of strong convictions, and her best friend Docia writes that "she talks to her many readers in story, setting forth an uncompromising hatred of vice in all its forms, and a love of truth and purity."
Her words still speak to readers today, sharing the timeless message of God's love through His son, Jesus Christ. Her characters are far from perfect, and their endings aren't always happy, but she weaves a story from their lives in an "everyday tone". In fact, many of her stories were inspired by everyday people. Her aim was to reach those without a Saviour.
I think if I could help to lead one person to understand and love the Lord Jesus Christ
as much even as I understand Him now, so that He would be that soul's eternal salvation,
it would be ambition enough to fill a lifetime.
—from "The Hall in the Grove"
It is our earnest prayer that the waves of influence found in Pansy's quiet words stir your soul to salvation.