12 – The Gentlewoman’s Choice

Published in 1984 as Introduction to The Gentlewoman’s Choice, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Weighed and Wanting

 

              It fell to one of George MacDonald’s lesser known novels, Weighed and Wanting, published in 1882, to manifest more fully than any of his other works one of the strongest driving forces in MacDonald’s spiritual vision: the theme of godly service to the poor. Certainly MacDonald stresses the necessity for Christian charity and sacrifice in a number of his other books, notably The Vicar’s Daughter, Robert Falconer, and Sir Gibbie, and infuses nearly everything he wrote with the imperative of actively living one’s faith. However, in Weighed and Wanting (here republished as The Gentlewoman’s Choice in the Bethany House series of MacDonald reprints), this is the dominant theme throughout the story.

            Hester Raymount, a sort of feminine counterpart to Robert Falconer and one of MacDonald’s few leading ladies who carries a book all on her own, wants to grow beyond the threshold of her own salvation. As she takes her first steps in this direction, she struggles with the question of how to live out that faith toward those around her. Her eventual capacity to choose the life God has marked out for her comes only with much soul-searching along the way. The quest of Falconer’s heart had primarily to do with the truth of the gospel, but Hester’s choices are concerned with what obedience to the gospel means regarding her fellowman.

            Hester’s family is a so-called religious one, yet without deep convictions. Hester has grown up in an environment where the words of life were present but had not penetrated into action. It is this empty shell of pseudo spirituality, exemplified by Hester’s father, and the negative fruit revealed in the character of one of her brothers, which has been “weighed” and found “wanting” in the end–the unconverted heart that gives only lip service to a faith in God, but which puts self-interests first when the test comes.

            Hester, however, rising above her parental training, chooses a different road–reminiscent of Falconer and the adult Sir Gibbie in their ministrations to the forsaken masses of the city–and ultimately discovers her fulfillment in the path of selflessness, the path of laying down one’s life in service to God and his people. In so doing, she exemplifies one of the most profound lessons MacDonald emphasizes in nearly all of his books–letting God use you where you are, with the talents you possess, to help and minister to those around you. Also, in so doing, Hester helps raise her family to an increased consciousness of God.

            The gift that God wanted Hester to use in his kingdom was a simple one–her voice raised in song, along with her piano playing. Singing was not considered, in the late 19th century, a great “witnessing” tool in comparison with the mighty proclamations of the well-known evangelists and preachers of the day. Yet Hester’s music was the tool God had given her, and was the tool he wanted her to use for him. He had given her the gift, and she faithfully put it to use. That was all God required of her–nothing more. God was able to work by his Spirit in the lives around Hester as she obediently used these gifts for his glory. In our own lives, God’s tools are the things he has placed in our hand.

            In addition to MacDonald’s constant theme of living one’s faith in active ministry, a number of sub-themes capture our attention in The Gentlewoman’s Choice as well. One is particularly struck with MacDonald’s forerunning social convictions on marriage and his significant position on the role of women in positions of ministry–ideas far in advance of his time. In a Victorian era in which women were often relegated to a subservient role, Hester stands firm and tall as a woman of God who comes to know where she is going and confidently occupies that role without fear. Similarly, MacDonald reveals that his views of marriage ran counter to the accepted Victorian norms. “You have very different ideas,” says one of Hester’s acquaintances, “from such as were taught in my girlhood concerning the duties of wives. A woman, I used to be told, was to fashion herself for her husband; fit her life to his life, her thoughts to his thoughts, her tastes to his tastes.”

            “Absurd indeed,” answers MacDonald to the notion of Hester marrying the man in question according to such a pattern. He concludes the discussion: “Instead of walking on together in simple equality, in mutual honor and devotion, each helping the other to be better still, the ludicrous notion would instead have the woman–large and noble though she might be–come cowering after her husband–spiritual pigmy though he might be–as if he were the god of her life.”

            But even more memorable, again like the paths of ministry marked out for Robert Falconer and Mary St. John, Hester’s story speaks to those he does not lead into marriage in their ministries, confirming that often God lays out a single road for his children.

            In one sense, this book capsulizes MacDonald’s urgent message to the Christian body. He urges us to worry less about doctrine, theology, and the forms and trappings of religion. Instead he advises us to do the work God has put before us. In that sense, The Gentlewoman’s Choice is one of the least theological of MacDonald’s works. It illustrates that faith without works is no faith at all–it will be weighed, and in the end found to be lacking substance or value. MacDonald summarizes this theme at the book’s close with the words, “Let every man or woman work out the thing that is in him. Whoever uses the means that he has, great or small, and does the work that is given him to do, stands by the side of Jesus and is a fellow worker with him.”

            This, then, is Hester’s pilgrimage into a faith of her own; as she confronts the options before her, as she contemplates the future course of her life, and as she makes the choice and puts that faith into action.

            Michael Phillips

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