George MacDonald (1824-1905), Scottish Victorian novelist, began his adult life as a clergyman and always considered himself a poet first of all. His unorthodox views resulted in a very short career in the pulpit, after which he turned to writing in earnest. He initially attracted notice for poetry and his adult fantasy, Phantastes. Once he turned to the writing of realistic novels in the early 1860s, his name became widely known throughout Great Britain and the U.S. Over the next thirty years he wrote some fifty books, including, in addition to the novels, more poetry, short stories, fantasy, sermons, essays, and a full-length study of Hamlet. His influential body of work placed him alongside the great Victorian men of letters and his following was vast.
MacDonald died in 1905 and his reputation gradually declined in the 20th century. Most of his books eventually went out of print as his name drifted from memory. A brief flurry of interest in his work was generated in 1924 at the centenary of his birth, resulting in several new editions of certain titles and the first major biography of his life, George MacDonald and His Wife, by his son Greville MacDonald.
C.S. Lewis Acknowledges His Debt to George MacDonald
Obscure though his name gradually became, however, MacDonald was read and revered by an impressive gallery of well-known figures, both in his own time and in the years since. A few of these include G.K. Chesterton (who called him “one of the three or four greatest men of the 19th century”), W.H. Auden (who said that MacDonald was “one of the most remarkable writers of the 19th century”), Oswald Chambers (“…how I love that man!”), and most notably C.S. Lewis. In spite of such a following, however, MacDonald’s reputation gradually declined throughout the 20th century.
Lewis acknowledged his spiritual debt to MacDonald as so great that he published an entire anthology of quotations by MacDonald (George MacDonald, an Anthology, 1947) in hopes of turning the public toward his spiritual mentor in large numbers. In the Introduction to that volume Lewis wrote: “I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself…I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” The clearest evidence of the reality of this remark can be found in Lewis’s classic The Great Divorce (1945) in which a fictionalized MacDonald acts as the narrator’s guide.
Lewis’s efforts, however, were but modestly successful, and for the most part only in literary circles. Notwithstanding Lewis’s laudatory words, MacDonald’s name continued to fall out of the public consciousness. Even C.S. Lewis was not able to spark widespread interest in the man he called his master. Most of MacDonald’s books eventually went out of print as his name drifted from memory. By the 1960s nearly all his work, except for a few stories and fairy tales, was out of print. His inclusion, however, along with Lewis and his “inkling” friends, in the newly established Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College promised that he would never be forgotten.
The MacDonald Renaissance of the 1980s
A resurgence of interest in this forgotten Victorian, primarily in the United States, began to mount in the 1970s and 1980s, given initial impetus by the work of Wheaton professor Dr. Rolland Hein, and then exploding into public view from the efforts of MacDonald redactor and biographer Michael Phillips. Phillips’ work resulted in new generations of readers discovering anew the treasures in MacDonald’s work, and led to a renewed publication of MacDonald’s books on an unprecedented scale not seen since his own lifetime.