9 – The Lady’s Confession

Published in 1986 as Introduction to The Lady’s Confession, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Paul Faber, Surgeon


            By this time, those of you who have grown to love the novels of George MacDonald through the edited editions in the Bethany House series probably know how seriously I take my work. As I have shared in Introductions to other books in the series, each story is a whole new experience in my spiritual walk, giving me new awareness and expanded vistas of growth and insight.

            In the spirit of this candor concerning my own reactions, therefore, I must confess that the first time I read MacDonald’s Paul Faber, Surgeon (now The Lady’s Confession), I was disappointed. It cannot be helped, I suppose, that we all have favorite books–and this one was not one of mine!

            However, in the process of editing The Curate’s Awakening, to which this book is a sequel, I became so caught up in the character of Thomas Wingfold that I resolved to complete the entire Wingfold trilogy. How glad I was, therefore, as I began work on this book, to discover that in my first reading some years ago I had missed entirely the meaning of the story. All at once, as I have experienced many times with other MacDonald books, I found myself swept up with the theme, characters, and spiritual truths which struck right to the root of my thinking. “How could I not have appreciated this book?” I asked myself with something akin to shock. “How could I have been so blind? These truths are incredibly profound.”

            And yet perhaps my original lack of understanding should not surprise me. For the themes of this book are indeed like those concerning which Paul wrote, “Their minds have been blinded with a veil over them” and “the wisdom of God is a hidden mystery which the world cannot know.” “The deep things of God” found here follow appropriately after The Curate’s Awakening and expand upon its theme of salvation. For now that Wingfold has passed through his crisis of doubt and emerged as a gloriously maturing man of God, MacDonald focuses his attention on the next likely candidate for conversion, the village doctor and atheist, Paul Faber. Faber and Wingfold become close friends and the stage is set for many illuminating discussions.

            However, now MacDonald probes still deeper into the essence of sin itself, man’s need, and the nature of man’s heart in relation to God. Faber is the classic example of a “good” man, more kindly and compassionate and loving than many so-called Christians. He sees no need for God. But his very goodness is also his downfall. For with his goodness comes a fierce pride which, as the story unfolds, reveals the spiritual and even moral bankruptcy of mere “goodness.” No human being is good enough. We are all sinners.

            But not only does The Lady’s Confession offer a parable of pride on the individual level, but on the church level as well. Pride exists within the human heart to keep individuals from God’s salvation. And pride also exists within church bodies, keeping them from unity with each other and with God. Faber’s perceptive criticisms of Christians are especially disgraceful in that love and unity among them are the trademarks Jesus has given us to demonstrate to the unbelieving world that the gospel is true. In exploring the unbelieving heart of Faber, therefore, MacDonald also brings to light the impact of spiritual pride and division between Christians.

            If this is a parable of salvation, it is equally a parable of unity in the Body of Christ. Scripturally the two are intrinsically linked. The only way, according to Jesus, that the world will come to know His Father is through the love Christians demonstrate, toward one another and to the world. When people see division, unbelief is the result. The breaking down of church and doctrinal walls–one of the strongest themes running through many of MacDonald’s books–is the fabric of this story which centers around an Anglican curate, an atheist, a Congregationalist minister, the minister’s doubting daughter, a believing dwarf who acknowledges no particular church alliegance, the rector of the Church of England, and “the lady” caught between them all, not knowing what she believes.

            Though the walls between the Anglican and dissenting church groups in the town remain firmly in place, when the walls crumble and love and unity begin to flow, the whole town–the believers and unbelievers alike–is swept into the redemptive current. So strong is the force of love that no unbelief can stand where true unity between brothers and sisters exists.

            First published in 1879, Paul Faber, Surgeon may have provided the germ for Thomas Hardy’s classic published twelve years later, Tess of the D’urbervilles, for the plots are remarkably parallel except for the endings. Though he gave no indication as to his reasons, George MacDonald once commented that he thought Paul Faber, Surgeon the best of his novels.

            The Lady’s Confession is the ninth in the ongoing George MacDonald Classic Reprint Series from Bethany House Publishers. As you may know from other introductory material I have written, when the series began several years ago George MacDonald was a name few in this century had ever heard. Only a handful of his books were then in print–none of them his full-length novels. Bethany House believed in the concept, took the project in hand, and, because of their fine artwork, their commitment to promotion, and the excellence of their editorial staff, have succeeded in accomplishing in our generation what George MacDonald himself did in his. Never since his own lifetime have George MacDonald’s books enjoyed such a widespread audience. I would like to publicly thank Bethany House Publishers for the Spirit-led dedication and diligence in this effort. Now that MacDonald is once again “popular,” many additional editions of his books are being released, for which all MacDonald loyalists are grateful. But it remains the original Bethany House series which has paved the way, so to speak, and opened the door to this new wave of interest. And I personally, and all who love MacDonald’s books, will always remain in their debt.

            My own personal vision has always been to slowly work toward the release of all of MacDonald’s novels, working on them at a rate which enables me to diligently represent the original author, to whom and to whose Lord I desire above all to be faithful in my editing. Sales and promotion have never been my primary concern, but a true representation of the originals, in language understandable for today’s reader. I take both encouragement and guidance from a statement made by MacDonald himself concerning an edited edition of Letters From Hell by Valdemar Thisted (1886). In the book’s preface MacDonald wrote:

           “… The present English version is made from this German version, the translator faithfully following the author’s powerful conception, but pruning certain portions, recasting certain others, and omitting some less interesting to English readers, in the hope of rendering such a reception and appreciation as the book in itself deserves, yet more probable in this country.”

            And such remains my present goal as well.

            Finally, I encourage you to remember the driving motivation in George MacDonald’s life: to turn his readers toward his Lord. In obedience to his Master do we most faithfully carry out the vision of George MacDonald’s life and the message of his books.

            God bless you all!

            Michael Phillips, One Way Book Shop

            1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501