(I’m gonna try to keep track of my reading here a bit more. I keep finding myself wanting to make exactly the the kind of throwaway points that blogging is great for, but they usually need the context of whatever I was reading at the time. Also, I’d rather type than copy out quotes in a Moleskine.)
Yesterday I finished with George MacDonald and His Wife, a double biography, though heavily concentrated on George, the novelist, fairy tale writer, translator of the German Romantics, and lay theologian whose work has inspired a Tori Amos musical and also basically C.S. Lewis’s entire life.
The book was published in 1924 by MacDonald’s son Greville and seems not to be available online. It’s the kind of fat, shamelessly biased memorial they used to do before everyone foolishly decided that biography should be exhaustive, impartial, and judicious, i.e. boring. It’s also full of excerpts from letters written between MacDonald and his family, or between the MacDonalds and their friends, which include such notables as Lady Byron (the poet’s scorned first wife), Lewis Carroll, and John Ruskin. (The MacDonalds seem never even to imagine that Ruskin’s notorious obsession with the preteen Rose LaTouche could possibly be sexual in nature. That’s the one disadvantage of a nature as good as MacDonald’s: you can’t see ugliness when it’s right in front of you. Same with Carroll, though apparently scholars are still debating what exactly happened there and how perverse it was.) I think publishers used to sometimes do this sort of book in cases where there wasn’t a market for separate Collected Letters of and Life of volumes. This alone makes the book something of a must-read for MacDonald lovers, though I can’t say that I “finished” the book in the sense of reading every page. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to do that with a biography, save Boswell. Nobody’s every-single-word-of-567-pages interesting except Dr. J.
The book, needless to say, is beautiful and inspiring, as indeed it could hardly help being, longeurs and all. These were a few of my favorite pages.
- Ruskin writes a letter of recommendation in 1865, hoping to get MacDonald a teaching gig. In the course of this dashed-off letter, Ruskin also manages to anticipate, and extend, some of my own darkest questions about the nature and value of teaching rhetoric. (In turn, Ruskin is probably echoing Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana book IV, where he points out that knowing the rules of eloquence and being eloquent are distinct or even, in the moment of utterance, opposed things, and then suggests that you ditch the rulebook and have the kiddos study models of eloquence. The clever ones will sort it out and the others are hopeless.)
That Ruskin is the kind of writer who can propound a mini-rhetorical theory in the middle of a routine LOR is one reason so many of us still read the old muttonchopped pedophile.
- This is of mainly personal interest: Louisa MacDonald, during George’s successful (but health-threatening) 1873 speaking tour of the US (he chilled with Mark Twain!), writes to their daughter Lily from my town, Ann Arbor, MI. MacDonald kept pissing off his tour promoter by doing free sermons for any church that asked, because that’s how you roll if you’re George MacDonald. He preached one night in Ann Arbor, and every other church in town shut down evening services so that the clergy could go learn from a master. Except the damn Episcopalians. Figures.
- MacDonald’s vision is among the most joyous in literature, but a great melancholy took him in last years, though he appears never to have lost his faith. (Indeed, Lilith is a product of these years, characteristic of them both in its hope and its gravity.) Even a belief in universal reconciliation and resurrection from the dead can’t fully save us from, well, life. This is Greville’s utterly devastating portrait of MacDonald in the very last years, when his wife had already died. He sounds like Odysseus’s dog.