Monday, February 11, 2008

Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee

What I'm drinking: House Specialty Chai

Mrs. Elizabeth Prentiss is best known for her best-selling novel, Stepping Heavenward. More devoted readers may be familiar with Aunt Jane’s Hero and the thick biography compiled by her husband, More Love to Thee: The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss. The biography by Sharon James is a welcome addition to this collection as both an introduction to the life of a godly writer and a commentary on her achievements.

Elizabeth Prentiss was a nineteenth-century Christian who was familiar with both blessings and heartaches from the hand of God. She was raised in a Christian home, enjoyed a blissful marriage with her husband and was talented with a pen, yet she experienced the mundanity of housekeeping, severe illness, and the loss of precious young children. Although her most popular work, Stepping Heavenward is not entirely biographical, the voice of its heroine came naturally to a woman who was candid with her own experience. For this reason, the universal response of women since its original publication has consistently been “‘It seems to be myself that I am reading about.’” (James, 145) The Prentiss family was familiar with grief and grace, with noble intentions and apparent failure, but all these were recognized without bitterness as lessons in the school of Christ. Readers who have experienced frustration and disappointment in the home or in relationships will find encouragement with Mrs. Prentiss’s perseverance and zeal for her Lord.

The length of the original biography, More Love to Thee, can be daunting. Drawing heavily from this material, however, Mrs. James places her findings from other primary and secondary documents, including family histories, in historical and literary contexts. Using quotations from letters and summaries of events, she creates a beautifully smooth narrative. The text comes alive with Mrs. Prentiss’s voice while Mrs. James gently asserts her own observations on her subject’s character and the strengths and weaknesses of Mrs. Prentiss’s literary work. Future reading of these works will be illuminated by such insights into her life and convictions.

My only consolation in finishing Sharon James’s biography is that I am motivated to indulge in the complete More Love to Thee with better understanding, and to locate the other novels by Elizabeth Prentiss that reflect her life experiences and spiritual growth. Those who are already enamored with her greatest bestseller, Stepping Heavenward, or are familiar with Aunt Jane’s Hero, will learn greater appreciation for the trials she faced and the God she so humbly served through them. Those who have not yet been introduced to her extraordinary fiction will be eager to follow the discovery of this godly woman with their own creative expressions of life and faith.

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