Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Through the Golden Gates

How did I wind up planning a day trip to a woodsy conference center whose heyday was in the mid-19th-century, for the sole purpose of walking through their legendary Golden Gates with other likeminded weirdos? If you know me at all, you’re probably saying “Uh-huh. Sounds like something she’d do.” 

I pin the blame on Isabella Alden (aka “Pansy”), one of Victorian America’s most popular and revered Christian authors. Pansy’s work, unlike that of most of her peers, stands the test of time (notwithstanding the more-than-occasional Temperance plot points). Her warm, earnest, witty novels are richly detailed and beautifully written, crafted to awaken settled, snoozing Christians. Pansy doesn’t flinch at killing off main characters, beloved or not, and exposing the fetid underside of her world. Anything to sound the alarm for the smug churchgoing set. She’s become, hands down, my favorite author of any era. 
My first encounter with Pansy was also my first encounter with Chautauqua (the Victorian-Edwardian Sunday School rallying center and present-day hangout for bougie suburbanites who love NPR). Once I met four maidens who encountered their Savior during one momentous summer in Pansy’s Four Girls at Chautauqua, I was smitten. I needed more. NEEDED. I stalked Ebay for Pansy’s books, buying e-versions when print copies weren’t available. I hounded the patient author of the Isabella Alden tribute blog (it’s perfectly marvelous!). I devoured Pansy’s The Hall in the Grove, Steven’s Mitchell’s Journey, Four Mothers at Chautauqua, and Eighty-Seven—more of her lovingly penned homages to the nation-spanning, artsy-booksy phenomena known as Chautauqua. 
What started as a lark became an obsession. Since I live only a few hours down the freeway from the place itself, I took a day trip last summer. (The account of that visit can be found here on the Isabella Alden blog pages.) There I discovered that the Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle (CLSC), the reading club Pansy lauded and lionized in several of her books, still lived. In fact, it’s America’s longest running book club!   
Well, the friendly archivist informed me that CLSC members could choose any 12 books from their historic booklist, originated in 1878 by Chautauqua founders. This list formed the correspondence school curriculum that provided a well-rounded, college-level education, aimed at mostly unlettered but self-motivated store clerks, housewives, and uppity chambermaids. Oh, bliss! I selected 12 Victorian-era texts and plunged in (see my list here). Any reader who completes their list in the allotted year is encouraged to join their “classmates” at Chautauqua for a traditional parade through the grounds, clad in white and bearing banners from former classes (I’ve got my eye on the Class of 1887 banner; that’s the Pansy Class, named for my favorite author herself!). The parade winds up at the Hall of Philosophy (aka The Hall in the Grove) via those legendary Golden Gates.  I’ll be walking in Pansy’s footsteps! 
To adhere to the all-white graduation dress code and in homage to my Victorian book choices, I contemplated wearing my genuine 19th century petticoat (so handy when I was a Shakespeare-in-the-Park costume mistress). What could be more appropriate? But that kind of whimsy could quickly turn my semi-serious pursuit into a cosplay moment. And really, my inspiration has been less reenactment and more cultural immersion. 
As my year’s reading progressed, I was floored by the rigor of the original 4-year CLSC courses. Members were TESTED on what they’d read, including languages (primarily German, French, and Latin!!), hard sciences, higher mathematics, history, astronomy, literature, and the arts. Today’s relaxed requirements, apparently simplified for a weak-brained contemporary audience, are to read 12 books. Period. Are we smarter or dumber these days? Pop quiz: Can you do long division in your head? Name the Roman emperors in order? Know any planet’s distance from the Sun? Me, neither. But Victorian CLSC grads were expected to. 
Readers can always tell when an author is in love with her subject. For Pansy, every dawn-struck hillside and shoreline sunset, every chiming bell and steamship whistle, each fern-wreathed tree stump and Auditorium bench, every Doric column in the “Hall in the Grove” is a talisman. Here’s a good example of the love she lavishes on her favorite place: “It is impossible to describe to you the delight that was in the boy’s tones as the gleaming pillars of the Hall of Philosophy rose up before him; something in the purity and strength, and quaintness, seemed to have gotten possession of him. Whether it was a shadowy link between him and some ancient scholar or worshipper I cannot say, but certain it is that Robert Fenton, boy though he was, treading the Chautauquan avenues for the first time, felt his young heart thrill with a hope and a determination, neither of which he understood, every time he saw those gleaming pillars.” (The Hall in the Grove)
And through Pansy, I’ve come to love it, too. Only I realize I love a Chautauqua that exists only in her books—a place where Christ’s was the moving Spirit, where truth was sanctified by its relationship to the Fountain of Wisdom, where learning was a means to an end, and that end was to become better equipped to serve the One who created and loves His complex, beautiful, needy world. 
“The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” Isaiah 50:4


  1. Congratulations from one like-minded weirdo to another! I've enjoyed reading every one of your posts, and look forward to reading about your walk through the Golden Gate. Blessings to you! Jenny

  2. And thank YOU, Jenny, for being the one to start me on this wonderfully fulfilling journey! I feel very blessed and sweetly humble, to think of walking in Pansy's (and GLH's) footsteps! XO

  3. Karen, this is AWESOME!! I had no idea! I have a few of the Reading Circle books published by Chautauqua, and an author's first edition Eighty Seven (the edition printed in England). I would still love to have an original The Browns at Mt Hermon. That one sent me across the country to visit Mt Hermon in the Redwoods near Santa Cruz, California, for a Christian Writer's conference and peruse the historical library there, finding out the story of Isabella's part in the founding of that wonderful place. Thanks, Jenny, for posting all those Isabella Alden books on Kindle for 99 cents, at just the time when I needed to get through a very devastating time. I think I was in bed for two weeks, reading one after another (getting paid for it, since I was on a sabbatical). It was such a lifesaver. I gradually got my equilibrium back. It was one of those times when Jesus just lifted me up and carried me.

    1. Hi, Vicky and thanks! It's fascinating and wonderful to enter Isabella's world, isn't it? XO

  4. "Only I realize I love a Chautauqua that exists only in her books—a place where Christ’s was the moving Spirit, where truth was sanctified by its relationship to the Fountain of Wisdom, where learning was a means to an end, and that end was to become better equipped to serve the One who created and loves His complex, beautiful, needy world."

    Pansy must be rolling over in her grave (so to speak) at what Chautauqua has become.

    "present-day hangout for bougie suburbanites who love NPR"

    1. Sadly, she saw it coming! You can sense her worries and fears in Four Mothers at Chautauqua, as some of the characters lament the passing of many fine early days traditions, I think! Thanks, Sallie!

  5. Hi Karen! Do we know where Mrs. Alden’s house was at Chautauqua? I go every summer and would like to find the site.

    Kat MacMurray
    CLSC Class Of 2013

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  7. Hi, Kat! She lived in a few different cottages through the years--check out this blog for lots and lots of details about Pansy's Chautauqua experience. I'm pretty sure I read at least one post in there that recorded her various residences. Thanks for reading!