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George MacDonald is a man who changes lives. The friend who first handed me MacDonald’s Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood, the fictional memoir of the Reverend Henry Walton, Vicar of Marshmallows, discovered it decades ago, in its delicious three-volume 1867 first edition (ah, for those halcyon days!) when he was a graduate student in Germany. His newly wed wife was also a graduate student who had recently given birth to their first child. Their financial resources were perilously strained and, as neither of them had read Erasmus on the merits of books versus food, were deemed insufficient for three-volume, leather-bound novels, however enchanting. There was nothing for it but to sit on the floor of the bookshop and read the book there. When he turned the final page several weeks later, he rose stiffly to his feet, went home, and announced his intention to become a minister. MacDonald had shown him the allure of devotion.
George MacDonald was born in rural, pre-industrial Scotland in 1824, into circumstances which today would be judged grinding poverty but which MacDonald remembered with delight. He became a Congregationalist Minister after university but soon found himself without a congregation, his unorthodox, radical views being regarded as almost blasphemous. Unlike most of his Calvinist brethren, he chose not to preach of God’s wrath and eternal Hellfire, but of His infinite love and the mercy of divine grace. It was a vision difficult to sell to parishioners living in a bleak and forbidding climate, and in a world before the pain-killing blessings of chloroform. Unable to support himself and his growing family in the pulpit, MacDonald knew he still had something to say, and turned to writing.
MacDonald published fifty-three books: sermons, novels, poetry, literary criticism and fairy-tales for children, and as one would expect from such a prodigious output, his work is uneven. Some of his novels are heavy with Scottish dialect as thick as porridge, which is beautiful when read aloud, but can be hard work for readers without an ear for this lovely music. Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood is a fine introduction to MacDonald for it is one of his most philosophically accessible as well as most readable books. Because the novel is heavily autobiographical, we meet MacDonald as a writer, as a thinker, and as a man. To spend time with him is to grow in mental health.
Since this is the first-person reminiscence of an elderly vicar, we may expect, and either welcome or skip over, a little sermonizing, but what in lesser writers would be insipid platitudes, in MacDonald are eternal verities. They are so deeply and honestly felt, so audible, and so joyously offered, that they cannot help but resonate in an open heart and mind. Like the finest teachers, he never pushes. He leads. His tone is gentle, and while his belief rests on a foundation of bedrock he is never self-righteous. He hates what is hateful, but is ashamed to glimpse in his own heart a contempt for those who act hatefully. A becoming and heartfelt humility is ever present. He welcomes intelligent and thoughtful inquiry, believing that the legitimate end of argument is not victory but Truth, and that the ability and willingness of the agnostic to express doubt is actually a duty. It is a hallmark not of intellectual weakness or spiritual blindness, but of honesty.
MacDonald’s vision of goodness encompasses not merely what is good in man, but what is good in everything around him. At his best, his ability to conjure rural beauty is not unworthy of Thomas Hardy.
The slanting yellow sunlight [on a great bed of white water-lilies] shown through the water down to the very roots anchored in the soil, and the water swathed their stems with coolness and freshness, and a universal sense, I doubt not, of watery presence and nurture. And there on their lovely heads, as they lay on the pillow of the water, shone the life-giving light of the summer sun, filling all the spaces between their outspread petals of living silver with its sea of radiance, and making them gleam with the whiteness that was born of them and the sun.
MacDonald lifts the commonplace into the realm of the sacramental. When the Reverend Walton arrives in his new parish, friendless and wet, on a dreary, dark, rainy winter day, he is feeling sorry for himself. He has been greeted only by a row of pollards, a form of tree he particularly dislikes but in which he ultimately recognizes the virtues of strength and resilience:
Pollards always made me miserable. In the first place, they look ill-used; in the next place, they look tame; in the third place, they look very ugly. I had not learned then to honour them on the ground that they yield not a jot to the adversity of their circumstances; that, if they must be pollards, they still will be trees; and what they may not do with grace, they will yet do with bounty; that, in short, their life bursts forth, despite of all that is done to repress and destroy their individuality. When you have once learned to honour anything, love is not very far off.
Walton is a man easily contented. He is content with a soft breeze at his study window, a comfortable chair to read in, a good book bound in vellum or full calf (even he is not immune to this most laudable form of covetousness), and good work to do. Our fallen nature being what it is, there is plenty of good work for him to do. His is the world of Victorian Melodrama: assignations on Dark and Stormy Nights, an Ageing and Once-Grand Manor House, scene of Dark Deeds, witness to Shameful Secrets, complete with Hidden Passages, a Mysterious Pool, a Scholarly Recluse, a Proud, Imperious Mistress, and a Beautiful Daughter, her large dark eyes ‘burning as if the lamp of life had broken and the oil was blazing’, betrothed to a Scoundrel she does not love, for of course she is in love with Our Hero, the vicar. Just beyond the confines of The Hall, we have the Fallen Woman, the Self-Important Church Warden, the Star-Crossed Young Lovers, and the Common Villagers, none of whom is common in MacDonald’s hands. It is Walton’s mission to mend what is broken, foster what will grow, nurse what will heal, and pray for what will die. He will, mostly, succeed.
Walton moves through his parish with the compelling confidence of utter belief, tempered with a genuine simplicity, a dread of becoming a ‘moral policeman’, and a humility that is born not of personal inadequacy but of a deep understanding of his place as servant and disciple, which shields him from the slightest taint of sanctimony. His humility is the conscious choice of a thinking man, awake, alert and alive, his mind in first-class fighting trim. It is not his place to judge – except when he judges himself – only to serve. In serving the daily needs of his parish there are victories and defeats, and the inevitable friction of a small community where the vicar is forced occasionally, though unwillingly, to take sides, but Walton is so quick to forgive that his forgiveness almost precedes his rebuke, softening it into a gift: an offer of wise counsel.
One of his parishioners, the local carpenter Thomas Weir, has suffered a crushing, life-changing disappointment: his only daughter has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Consequently, Weir has lost his faith in God’s benevolence, and has turned his jaundiced eye on the deficiencies he suddenly sees in the world around him. The Reverend Walton, who knows that a man might have a better reason for staying away from church than a vicar has for going, allows the hostility that arises from this good man’s sorrow to have its head and expend itself. Weir, himself a master craftsman, expresses the quite understandable opinion that if God did create the world, he has made rather a bad job of it. This prompts Walton, who has been watching him work, to suggest that the coffin he is making is perhaps not Weir’s best work either. Taken aback, and a little offended, Weir reminds the vicar that the coffin is unfinished, and that his work should be judged not by what it is now, but by what it will be, and what it is for. The comparison to their world becomes obvious. Their conversation ends in a respectful détente. When the tale is told, they will be friends.
Not every parishioner in Marshmallows is in need of the young vicar’s ministrations, as he soon learns. Having broken the ice with the village’s hard-nosed sceptic, Walton seeks out Old Rogers, the retired seaman who had been the first to welcome him to Marshmallows, his face a study in ‘roughness without hardness’, and ‘endurance rather than resistance’. Walton soon sees that this ‘simple’ man has been placed in his path not to be instructed by him but to teach him, to show him what his own Christian faith actually looks like when it walks and breathes. Rogers, his heart uneasy, confesses that whenever he has a moral question to decide, he asks himself what He would do in the same situation, and if he can see his way clear to that, that’s what he does, no matter what anyone says. He wonders if perhaps he is too stubborn and obstinate. Walton, chastened, and a little ashamed that he had presumed to instruct a better man than himself, says simply, ‘Stick with that.’
Because he has such a firm grasp of goodness, MacDonald is supremely sure-handed in its representation. One need only recall Oscar Wilde’s quip about the death of Little Nell to realize how seldom even the greatest writers have been able to create a convincing portrait of goodness: a portrait that is whole and deep and powerful rather than spiritually priggish or insipid. As C. S. Lewis, who regarded MacDonald as his master, pointed out in his Preface to Paradise Lost, no writer can create a better man than himself, as no stream can rise higher than its source. The depiction of evil requires him to be less than he is. The depiction of goodness requires all of the man, usually more than he is. To create evil characters, one need only release the brake of conscience or societal taboo, and the demons rush forth. But to create a better man than himself, a writer has to rise like a winged creature. He has not the resources.
It is easy to believe that MacDonald was a man without enemies, as all those who left an account of him attest. He is the most unapologetic of apologists, yet his goodwill is as infectious as laughter. You may disagree with him, but tread lightly. MacDonald grasped goodness as Newton grasped mathematics. He may be wrong, but he sees further up and further in than most of us, and with immense clarity. For a time, his fame, and his fees for speaking engagements, could rival even that of Charles Dickens; his ability to draw crowds of thousands to hear him lecture on William Blake is surely a testament to the miraculous. It took the weary cynicism of two world wars to destroy his popularity. MacDonald lived to see the birth of the twentieth century, but fortunately, not its ugliness. We are poorer for his good fortune. The twentieth century could have used a bit more goodness.