7 – The Maiden’s Bequest

 Published in 1985 as Introduction to The Maiden’s Bequest, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Alec Forbes of Howglen


When George MacDonald wrote Alec Forbes of Howglen in 1865 (here titled The Maiden’s Bequest), one cannot help but think he enjoyed himself. The setting for Glamerton is the Scottish village of Huntly where MacDonald himself grew up. As is the case in most of MacDonald’s books, a good deal of autobiography found its way into the pages. How many of the escapades of Alec and his friends had their roots in MacDonald’s own childhood, we have no way of knowing. But we sense pure delight at the whole idea of being young. In Alec Forbes, MacDonald offers his readers a picture of the love he had for the young at heart, those who could find a way to enjoy life whatever their surroundings.

It is no secret that MacDonald often sought to convey his attitudes and even spiritual doctrines through his writing. Thus in their original editions his novels often contained cumbersome digressions from the actual story. But little of these doctrinal treatises are to be found in Alec Forbes. Indeed, it is the smoothest flowing, most cohesive of all MacDonald’s novels. Every character is crucial to the development of the plot; every incident follows the next in logical progression. Therefore, Alec Forbes might be termed more entirely “story” than most of the other books. There is less point, more plot; less meaning, more movement; fewer lessons, more laughs. In short, though the principles of truth are reflected just as strongly, it is not as heavy a book as, for instance, The Musician’s Quest. One imagines the author taking great pleasure in the task of piecing it together, without attempting any particular message and concerned merely to offer his readers an enjoyable source of entertainment.

This new edition of Alec Forbes has–similarly to the other books in the Bethany House MacDonald Reprint Series–been edited and trimmed for publication. In addition, the Scottish dialect of the original has been “translated” into more current usage. As a sample, here is a random selection from the original–perhaps for some of you not impossible to decipher, but sure to slow down the text.

“Gin it hadna been for the guid wife here, ‘at cam’ up, efter the clanjamfrie had ta’en themsel’s aff, an’ fand me lying upo’ the hearthstane, I wad hae been deid or noo. Was my heid aneath the grate, guidwife?”

“Na, nae freely that, Mr. Cupples; but the blude o’t was. Mr. Forbes, ye maun jist come doon wi’ me. I’ll jist mak’ a cup o’ tay till him.”

“Tay, guidwife! Deil slocken himsel’ wi yer tay! Gie me a sook o’ the tappit hen.”

” ‘Deed, Mr. Cupples, ye’s hae neither sook nor sipple o’ that spring.”

“Ye rigwiddie carlin!” grinned the patient.

“Never a glaiss sall ye hae fra my han’, Mr. Cupples. It wad be the deid o’ ye. And forbye, thae ill-faured gutter-partans toomed the pig afore they gaed.”

“Gang oot o’ my chaumer wi’ yer havers,” cried Mr. Cupples, “and lea’ me wi’ Alec Forbes. He winna deave me wi’ his clash.”

It is interesting to note that the original Alec Forbes of Howglen was of average length compared with MacDonald’s other novels. However, in edited form it is the longest by a substantial amount. The reason for this is as already mentioned, there are fewer extraneous digressions. Thus, in one sense The Maiden’s Bequest is nearer its original Alec Forbes than the others in this series, precisely because the first edition was so skillfully woven together, every part playing its own integral role in the whole.

Alec Forbes of Howglen epitomizes a great range and depth of distinctive features. It was MacDonald’s second Scottish novel (following David Elginbrod, 1863–The Tutor’s First Love), along with Robert Falconer, 1868 (The Musician’s Quest), that formed the triad for which MacDonald was best known as a novelist. MacDonald’s reputation as a 19th-century literary figure was largely based on these three works and they were considered by most as MacDonald’s best fiction. They established the cornerstone of his achievement. In discussing this period of his life and these particular novels as they related to his broadening literary talents, Ronald MacDonald commented that his father was “well into his stride” in Alec Forbes and “fully extended” by the time of Robert Falconer.

Of course one can scrutinize Alec Forbes like any work, and there are a good many things that can fruitfully be discussed. But on the other hand, this book can be viewed as a good, fun story. One of MacDonald’s great skills as a writer was his ability to work in many diverse genres with equal mastery, from fantasy to poetry, from essays to literary criticism, from romance to history to children’s stories. We know, in addition, that together with his wife he wrote for, and acted upon the stage. In Alec Forbes MacDonald tried his hand at good old-fashioned theatrical soap  opera. Here is melodrama at its finest, complete with villain, mortgage, humor, inheritance, tragedy, foreclosure, romance, and … but of course I can’t tell you the ending!

Whether you enjoy it better or not as well as other MacDonald’s you may have read will depend primarily upon the story itself. But looking at it purely from a literary standpoint, those familiar with the body of MacDonald’s work praise its unity as a piece of literature because of the tight consolidation of its elements. Rolland Hein calls it “the most delightful of all the novels.” Richard Reis says, “I consider Alec Forbes of Howglen MacDonald’s best novel.” And MacDonald’s son Greville calls it “perhaps the most successful, as fiction, of all his efforts.”*

Therefore, sit back and enjoy the story of little Annie Anderson and her childhood friend Alec Forbes.This is the stuff of which rainy nights and crackling fires and cozy chairs are made–if you have a cup of tea beside you, so much the better! Here is the sparkle of life–the pains and wonders of childhood, the delights of the seasons, the exuberance and sheer pleasure of youth, the awe of dawning maturity, the uncertainty of spiritual yearnings, the heart-tugging agony of first loves.

As always, I sincerely hope you enjoy your experience with my friend of a century past, George MacDonald. Both I and the publisher welcome your comments.

Michael Phillips, One Way Book Shop

1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501