Published in 1988 as Introduction to A Daughter’s Devotion, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Mary Marston
If any single label can be applied to George MacDonald’s novels as a whole, it might well be the term “character studies.” It is MacDonald’s probing, insightful glimpses into human nature, and the responses of men and women as spiritual forces operate upon them that so distinguish MacDonald’s fiction.
Though MacDonald’s genius as a storyteller originates from his ability to skillfully weave character interaction and growth through a complex and sometimes mysterious plot, it is usually the characters themselves who linger longest in the memory after the events of the story have faded. Indeed, a lack of plot altogether hardly seems to diminish the impact a George MacDonald novel can have: the characters are equally real, their growth just as fascinating, and their responses to God just as imperative–even if nothing “exciting” happens to them.
In 1881, at the very height of his literary career, George MacDonald published a novel centered about the life of a simple shopkeeper’s daughter, whose name, and the book’s title, was Mary Marston, here reissued in the Bethany House series as A Daughter’s Devotion. The book followed the publication of Paul Faber Surgeon (renamed The Lady’s Confession), and one wonders if something of the same writing “mood” carried over from the one to the other, for they are very similar in certain ways. Both can be seen as “extended sower parables,” in which the broad range of human responses to the gospel is seen in the various individuals of the story–from those in whom the seed strikes no root, to those in whom it is choked out by worldly cares, to those whom Satan has in his grasp, to those others whose soil is rich and in whom God’s priorities flourish.
In Mary Marston, MacDonald sets up an intriguing array of diverse characters, gives us something of their background and their present situations, and then proceeds to let them live their lives in interaction with one another. The threads between them are occasionally loose; some of the main twelve to fifteen persons never cross paths with certain of the others. There is not a tightly woven plot that interconnects them all. Yet taken together, what follows makes fascinating reading. The individuals are so diverse, sometimes so petty and foolish, their intertwining relationships so humorous at times. And as we watch Mary, Tom, Hesper, Letty, Sepia, Joseph, Mr. Turnbull, Mr. Redmain, Godfrey, Mrs. Perkin, Mewks, and the others, we are able to observe the growth process at work–sometimes forward, sometimes backward, but there is always progression. As I read this book again recently, I found myself enjoying it not primarily for the story, but rather because of my engrossment with each of the many individuals. At the end I did not want to stop; I wanted to keep reading about them all. I didn’t care about their activities; I just wanted to know how they were doing–inside.
I found myself identifying with all the characters at different times. As I sat back and observed and analyzed, I could see pettiness within myself, false priorities, motives of self. What lessons I discovered here for my own life! We all get so unknowingly wrapped up in such small things (rings and dresses and how we look and what people think of us and the status of our bank accounts) that we lose sight of the priorities of the kingdom, which are eternal. I found myself hungry anew to rid myself of such trivial concerns, so that God’s life within me might live more fully.
A number of other factors struck my attention as I was working on A Daughter’s Devotion. Perhaps foremost, I noticed again how far in advance of his era MacDonald was. Over a hundred years ago he was writing about women in a manner most contemporary to the 1980s. MacDonald always gave women their full and respectful due. Like Jesus, he understood the role of women (and men and children and animals and nature) as God created them to function in the world, without the modern, perverted exultation of self-rights so rampant, not merely within the women’s movement but throughout all of society today. But in addition to respect, which MacDonald always gave women, he subtly makes a host of women’s issues primary ingredients in A Daughter’s Devotion: women in the workplace, the role of love and submission to an ungodly husband, a marriage where husband and wife both work, women as spiritual leaders over men, a marriage where the woman takes the lead in certain aspects of the relationship. No Victorian chauvinist was MacDonald! His lead character here is a woman who teaches and counsels the men of the story in very humble fashion. Indeed, it is Mary who is the “priest” (Christ’s representative) in one of the most powerful deathbed scenes since The Fisherman’s Lady. The development of these women’s themes, as we watch Mary mature and come into independence, are particularly interesting when we reflect on how many years ago this book was written.
Humble and obedient servanthood is again emphasized–as it is in all of MacDonald’s books–as the one true path to godliness, to relationship, to growth, and to true status and significance. Capturing perhaps the essence of her character, if not the book’s fundamental theme, when Mary suffers from typical Victorian snobbery at the hands of those above her on the social scale and those of her peers who do not understand the spiritual perspectives behind her decisions and attitudes, her view is: “What can it matter to me … whether they call me a lady or not, as long as Jesus says daughter to me?”
And there is an imaginative interpretation of the composition and meaning and spiritual power of music that is positively unlike anything I have ever heard before. To have written what he did, George MacDonald truly had to “feel” the emotion of music moving him deep in his soul. One doesn’t dream up something like that; it proceeds only from the heart!
In this age of succinct recipes for growth and compact formulas to supposedly unlock spiritual birth–in neither of which MacDonald placed much trust–the concept of “goodness” has come to connote almost the exact opposite in certain Christian circles. To listen to some zealous evangelizers talk, one would think that goodness has itself become a spiritual evil. Quoting “there is none righteous, no not one,” and “we are all sinners”–true, of course–we are told in no uncertain terms that “being a good person is not good enough.” Goodness, in fact, will lead us astray if we are not careful and blind us from a “saving faith.” Well, certainly it is not “enough”; fulfillment as a spiritual being is a multi-faceted process of deepening growth. Man must be properly related to God by living in His grace and obeying His commands, and this does truly involve more than being good and kind.
But goodness is a good thing. Over and over Jesus extolled the “good” man–saying not a word about his spiritual state in many cases. For Jesus, if a man was good, that was a good thing. Because where does goodness come from in the first place? Goodness cannot originate anywhere but in the goodness of God. That’s why goodness is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and why, in the New Testament, we are commanded to “be good” some thirty times, whereas we are commanded to “trust God,” “follow Jesus,” and “be righteous” less than half that many. According to the New Testament, only the commands, “love,” “pray,” and “be watchful” are more frequently stressed than “be good!”
In short, goodness is scripturally a good thing–a very good thing. Far from being a spiritual vice that will blind us from God’s truth and keep us from heaven (which some amateur fundamentalist theologians would have it), goodness is something Jesus commands of us as one of the supreme messages of His life. It is good to be a good person!
George MacDonald understood this truth clearly. He brought into his books none of the spiritualized baloney and pious fog of his day that still lingers in our own. He understood the Bible, and he understood God’s priorities. Whereas goodness in and of itself is not an end-all, he understood that it is an essential starting point toward Christlikeness.
Therefore, the notion that some of his characters are “too good” for believable fiction is at root a meaningless statement to make. It is precisely because MacDonald’s characters run the gamut from good to bad that they can serve meaningfully as models as we ourselves attempt to conform our lives to that supremely good Man who was and is the central figure in the most dramatic and exciting story ever told.
All this is by way of saying that in A Daughter’s Devotion we encounter a “good” lead character. Mary is a good young lady. Too good? Not for me. Why do we love Jesus? Because He possessed a tragic fatal flaw and was therefore a great Shakespearean hero? No. It is because He was the perfectly good man sent from God–God’s Son.
I like good heroes. How else can I learn to submit more and more of my daily life to the lordship of Christ than by surrounding myself with friends and acquaintances who help that process along, who show me how to yield in many diverse circumstances? Mary Marston, like so many of her colleagues in MacDonald lore, is my friend, and thus helps me toward that end.
Not every one of the people you will meet herein, however, views life from quite this perspective. MacDonald offered no syrupy fiction where all the characters in the end reform their ways, repent, and join the straight and narrow path. There is a realism here. These men and women are true to life. Not everyone repents. Not everyone responds equally to the seeds of gospel truth that are sown.
Hearkening back to The Lady’s Confession, Faber, though he is the lead character, by the end of the book has only come to the point where he is listening, thinking, and growing more open to truth. This is the most appropriate ending MacDonald could have given to such a parable on sin and man’s need for God. For in the end it always boils down to a choice. Each man and woman stands before God in the silence and emptiness of their own heart and must choose whether they will say yes or no to Him. With such endings, MacDonald emphasized that very point. In the same way that each reader must decide for himself what he think’s Faber’s choice will be, MacDonald is revealing the fact that each must make that choice for himself. Even MacDonald, as Faber’s creator, cannot make that determination for the doctor. The choice remains Faber’s alone.
Similarly, in this parable of seed sown, of different human soil, of responses to God, and of elevation or denial of self, all the individuals we get to know so well–Hesper, Tom, Letty, the Turnbulls, Mr. Redmain–must make choices that will determine in which direction their growth will progress. The variety of their responses–to Mary, to their fellow creatures, to husbands and wives, and to the still small voice of God in their hearts–illustrate once again that timeless truth of “the secret of the kingdom of God” which Jesus clarified in Mark 4:13-20: different people respond in different ways. And MacDonald will not take away from the impact of that truth by doctoring the responses of his people. As much as Mary longs to see a breaking of self in Mr. and Mrs. Redmain, she knows that in the end, each must decide for himself. Will we live our lives conscious of the invisible kingdom of God that surrounds and fills the world, or will we waste away these few precious earthly years consumed with how we look, what others think of us, with wealth and gain and importance and status? Will we live for others or for ourselves?
As interest in George MacDonald has grown in recent years, a variety of editions of his work have been released in many formats. Those of us who love MacDonald welcome this diversity, rejoicing to see MacDonald’s novels, fairy tales, and sermons penetrating into markets and lives where they previously had not been available. This Bethany series alone has found its way onto every continent in the world and has been translated into four languages other than English, including Chinese. MacDonald’s work was all published in the nineteenth century, making it public domain. And it is this that makes possible the truly worldwide impact of his message. Undoubtedly this republishing of MacDonald’s work will continue, and, as was the case in his own day, no doubt many distinctive editions, often of the same book, will continue to be released.
Since the very beginning of this project more than thirteen years ago, it has been my personal dream to see a uniform set of MacDonald’s novels available. This has been the commitment of Bethany House since 1981 when they gave that dream reality. Since that time, we have worked jointly to bring the novels out one at a time, hoping ultimately to see the entire set completed. However, as the Bethany series has expanded and as MacDonald’s popularity has increased, it has become inevitable that overlap between various publishers would occur, given that there are at present no less than fifteen publishers in the U.S. currently publishing George MacDonald titles.
Yet every publisher, every editor, every illustrator will bring his or her distinct interpretations to MacDonald’s work; occasional redundancy is but the inevitable outcome of each series’ uniqueness. In the case of The Princess and the Goblin and At the Back of the North Wind, both titles have been published by upwards of two or three dozen publishers over the years, and at this moment are available from at least six apiece. In the case of edited works (there are to my knowledge some seven or eight individuals who are editing MacDonald’s work for contemporary readers), every editor will view differently his task of being faithful to MacDonald’s original priorities. There is room for such diversity because the reading public responds differently to distinctive editions of any great author.
I view all this as an exciting outgrowth of MacDonald’s new burst of popularity as new generations of readers discover Scotland’s beloved nineteenth-century storyteller for themselves. Therefore, in whatever formats and editions you are enjoying the works of George MacDonald, all of us involved in making them available to you rejoice in the experience with you. MacDonald has spoken to each one of us; that is why we are burdened to share his work. I’m certain I speak for all editors and publishers of MacDonald when I say that we are with you in your adventure. We pray it is a fulfilling and fruitful one, and we all welcome your responses and thoughts.
May God bless you as you read … grow … learn … and enjoy!
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