A Brief Biography of George MacDonald

Excerpt from George MacDonald (Twayne Publishers, 1972) by Richard Reis


Although Greville MacDonald’s exhaustive biography of his father has relieved me of any obligation to chronicle MacDonald’s life at length, it does seem appropriate to review the facts of his career briefly. The son’s biography is, naturally, the source of most of these facts; and it is sufficiently authoritative not to require correction. George MacDonald and His Wife is invaluable as a source of information, as a repository of letters unpublished elsewhere, and, to a lesser extent, for its earnest but rather inexpert critical commentary. I must stress, however, that the biography displays the faults of many such works by the sons of notable fathers. Greville MacDonald insists that his father was the best writer and the wisest man who has ever lived and that he has been maligned and misunderstood by the ignoramuses who fail to concede the point. It is very likely, indeed, that there may have been some glossing over of useful facts in the son’s anxiety to portray the father in the best possible light. This filial piety seems to have inspired Robert Lee Wolff’s speculative efforts to throw some light upon the darker places in MacDonald’s psyche.

Details of MacDonald’s early life are of greatest significance for a critical understanding of his works. Many of his novels, especially, are in part autobiographical; and, as is often the case with autobiographical authors, the novels focus on his upbringing and on his earliest encounters with the world of practical affairs. Therefore, we need to know that MacDonald was born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, in 1824, and that he grew up there and in the nearby Pirriesmill, where his father established a somewhat larger farm not long after George was born. His boyhood was set in a traditional rural atmosphere, compounded of Calvinist hellfire, oatcakes, horsemanship, agricultural virtues, and exploration of neighborhood ruins and wildernesses. Reminiscences of such adventures, portrayed with vigor and immediacy, occur again and again in MacDonald’s most convincing realistic novels, constituting a large part of his charm as they do of Dickens’s. It should not be supposed, though, that MacDonald’s own family was conventionally Calvinistic: his father was a nonsectarian Christian of the sort which values the Bible more than what anybody says about it. Nevertheless, the prevailing sternness of Presbyterian Scotland was always there, an oppressive, ubiquitous force.

Greville MacDonald maintains that George’s father was infinitely noble and that his relations with his son were exemplary. C.S. Lewis adds that this rare rapport between father and son must account for MacDonald’s ideal of the transcendent Fatherhood of God. George, if we are to believe Greville, never asked his father for anything without getting what he asked; for he never asked for anything undeserved or unobtainable. Lewis correlates this enviable if improbable circumstance with one of George’s remarks on prayer: “He who seeks the Father more than anything He can give, is likely to have what he asks, for he is not likely to ask amiss.”…

At sixteen MacDonald entered a public school in Aberdeen, winning a bursary (scholarship) to the University of Aberdeen a year later, in 1840. At the university he embarked upon a scientific curriculum, but in 1842 he ran out of money and had to leave school to accumulate some savings. It is quite possible that the temporary rustication was due, in part at least, to some degree of overindulgence in alcohol and at the city’s brothels, although again Greville MacDonald naturally does not discuss the question. But in Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865), a largely autobiographical novel, MacDonald clearly implies that his hero fell into a deplorable course of hinted-at-vice while at the university.

Whatever the reason for MacDonald’s leaving his studies in 1842, that summer one of the most important events of his life certainly occurred. According to Greville MacDonald, his father “spent some summer months in a certain castle or mansion in the far North, the locality of which I have failed to trace, in cataloguing a neglected library…. The library, wherever it was, and whatever its scope, added much to the materials upon which his imagination worked in future years.” While it is often unwise to interpret passages of ostensible fiction as autobiographical, Greville MacDonald does not hesitate to cite from The Portent (1864), one of his father’s romances, a description of his experience in this northern library; the passage, which follows, is almost certainly autobiographical: “I found a perfect set of our poets, perfect according to the notion of the editor and the issue of the publisher, although it omitted both Chaucer and George Herbert. … But I found in the library what I liked far better, many romances of a very marvellous sort, and plentiful interruption they gave to the formation of the catalogue. I likewise came upon a whole nest of German classics …; happening to be a tolerable reader of German, I found these volumes a mine of wealth inexhaustible.”

The English poets, the literature of romance, the works of the German Romantics – these are the most profound and permanent influences upon MacDonald’s own works. Together they set in motion his change from an ordinary young Scotch scientist to a religious mystic and votary of the imagination. As Lewis suggests, the profound effect of this experience can be traced throughout MacDonald’s works: “The image of a great house seen principally from the library and always through the eyes of a stranger or a dependent (even Mr. Vane in Lilith never seems at home in the library which is called his) haunts his books to the end. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that the ‘great house in the North’ was the scene of some important crisis or development in his life.”

The same experience, whatever its nature, figures in the lives of almost every protagonist in MacDonald’s most autobiographical novels; but no explicit account of what happened that summer exists. Professor Wolff is sure that MacDonald must have fallen in love with the daughter of the house but that she eventually dropped him because she thought his social status inferior. Such circumstances do appear now and then in the novels; but Wolff, although he makes a plausible case, builds upon conjecture. Wolff adds that this experience caused MacDonald to develop a permanent…hatred for rich noblemen, basing this conclusion upon the fact that aristocratic villains are found in most of MacDonald’s stories. Wolff conveniently chooses to ignore the equally indisputable fact that upper-class villains are a staple of Victorian fiction, often no doubt designed to appeal to a lower-class reader’s jealousy – a commercial consideration which MacDonald, who needed the widest possible market, surely would not ignore. In any case, MacDonald always depicts libraries as places of high excitement, sources of thrilling secrets, the settings for dramatic encounters between heroes and villains or for love scenes.

When MacDonald returned to the university in 1843, he entered a period of inward ferment and outward gloom, marked by religious doubts; and he also began writing Romantic poetry after the manner of Byron. His studies prospered and he received his master’s degree in chemistry and in natural philosophy (physics) in 1845. Several years of indecision followed, during which MacDonald earned a meager living as a private tutor in Fulham, a district of southwest London. Several of his heroes, who also spend some years as tutors, usually undergo at the time spiritual crises. Precisely what inward struggles MacDonald went through we do not know, but he decided sometime in 1847 or 1848 to become a minister. Probably a good deal of his personal religion had been worked out by this date.

Also during this period he met Louisa Powell, to whom he became engaged in 1848; but they could not afford to marry. In the fall of 1848 MacDonald entered Highbury College, London, a struggling Congregationalist divinity school, to study for the ministry. Just after he graduated in 1850, new problems arose before he could take over his first parish in Arundel, Sussex. In December he was stricken with the first of his serious tubercular attacks; thereafter, his lungs troubled him. MacDonald’s father died of a tubercular bone infection; his two beloved brothers succumbed while young; and the disease killed in childhood four of MacDonald’s eleven children. In later years, he grimly referred to tuberculosis as “the family attendant.”

While he was convalescing, difficulty arose between him and Louisa Powell. From Greville MacDonald’s perhaps deliberately obscure account, Louisa resented the fact that the mystic considered earthly love as inferior and as perhaps contradictory to his love of God. Whatever the exact nature of the crisis, it led to his starting work on his first major literary attempt, a long dramatic poem entitled Within and Without (not published until 1855). The work, which presents an account of a love misunderstanding presumably similar to his own, displays most of the faults of his poetry – a smooth facility of versification combined with a lack of vigor of expression found in his best fiction. Reading MacDonald’s poetry is often a pleasantly musical experience in which the reader has trouble remembering or caring about what has been said.

By the time MacDonald assumed the ministry of the church at Arundel in the spring of 1851, his trouble with Louisa was resolved, and the marriage took place. At about the same time care the first of his published works, a translation of Twelve Spiritual Songs of Novalis, which was privately printed in Edinburgh. It is important to note that at this time MacDonald was only an occasional writer; he considered his true calling the ministry. Soon enough, however, he was forced to make literature his career, somewhat against his will.

In May, 1853, came the deciding crisis of George MacDonald’s life. He was forced to resign his pulpit under pressure from his congregation, the elders of which resented his unorthodoxy. Presumably, they were shocked at his preaching that the heathen would be saved. Though suddenly unemployable in his profession, MacDonald felt that his vocation was genuinely a summons from God and, like Jonah’s, inescapable. But he now had no money, and he had a wife and an infant daughter to support. This blow and his economic need, and his determined reaction to each, decided MacDonald’s fate. He resolved to earn a living as a writer if he could and to incorporate into his works the urgent religious message which he felt called upon to disseminate, pulpit or no pulpit. For most of the rest of his life he had to live by writing, supplementing his slender income with whatever odd jobs and subsidies he could find. In addition to his literary work, he lectured, wrote hack reviews, edited a children’s magazine while it lasted, and later was the impresario of dramatic performances acted by himself and his family.

MacDonald’s literary career began painfully and slowly. Not until 1855 could he find a publisher for Within and Without, and the growing family’s poverty meanwhile was extreme. But the poem’s appearance promptly started him on the way to the reputation and popularity which he consolidated during the succeeding decade. Charles Kingsley wrote to him; Lady Byron, the poet’s widow, became his friend and patron. She was a moral and religious uplifter and philanthropist; her gifts and bequests to the MacDonald family actually kept them from starvation until the father’s writing began to produce an income of sorts.

Phantastes, his first prose book and the first of the symbolic works, appeared in 1858. It was generally ignored or abused, although several fairy stories of about the same time were better received. The first of MacDonald’s conventional novels, David Elginbrod, was published in 1863 and immediately became celebrated for the epitaph of the hero’s ancestor:

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:

Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God;

As I wad do, were I Lord God,

And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.

The rest of MacDonald’s life is not so important to his fiction as his early years, for his religious and artistic consciousness never changed appreciably through the remaining decades of his life. Already in Phantastes and David Elginbrod he was a mystic of a sort, had worked out the tenets of his personal religion, and had displayed a mastery of symbolic technique scarcely equaled in his era. In realistic fiction he never needed to improve upon David Elginbrod, nor did he especially try. It was popular, it paid, it got its message across; its author was satisfied – no doubt too easily.

During the 1860s, David Elginbrod was followed by a rush of realistic novels in the same mode, usually but not always written partly in lowland Scots dialect. MacDonald’s reputation, friendships, and family multiplied steadily. By 1872 he was sufficiently famous to capitalize upon his renown with a lecture tour in the United States. In thus following the example of Dickens, he netted over a thousand pounds. Meanwhile, MacDonald was befriended by John Ruskin and was intimately involved in Ruskin’s strange love affair with Rose La Touche. For a time Rose lived with the MacDonald family, which was charged by her parents with the girl’s protection. According to Greville MacDonald, his father even went so far as to interrogate the more famous man, including a frank question as to Ruskin’s potency.

In 1873 MacDonald was granted a civil list pension of one hundred pounds a year by Queen Victoria, and he acquired a residence in Bordighera in the Italian Riviera, where he wintered thereafter for the sake of his lungs. His novels, which continued to come out almost annually through the 1880’s, were increasingly popular. From time to time, whenever he got far enough ahead of his bills to afford a sure failure, he indulged his less popular taste for fantasy, and he went on writing fairy tales for children which are still classics.

MacDonald became a close friend of “Lewis Carroll,” who had his doubts about the value of Alice in Wonderland and tested it on the MacDonald children, accepting their favorable verdict before trying to publish it. Upon Tennyson’s death in 1892, MacDonald was apparently considered for the laureateship on the basis of the considerable body of poetry which he had by then produced; but the idea never received very serious support, and the vacant post went to Alfred Austin – hardly a better poet than MacDonald.

The frequency of MacDonald’s publications understandably began to decline by 1890, when he was sixty-six years old. His last work, the story “Far Above Rubies,” appeared in 1898. In 1897 MacDonald’s chronic eczema became severe and damaged his health generally; in 1900 he apparently suffered a stroke and lost the power of speech. After a long illness George MacDonald died in 1905, leaving behind him a record of grim struggles, of the nobility with which he bore them, and of the reverence in which he was held by everyone who knew him.