biography

Book Review: George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville MacDonald


It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.

George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.

Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.

Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.

The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.

Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.

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Futher Reading

C.S. Lewis On Good Reading Materials For Children

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering

Bill Watterson On Creativity

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Do You Feel Changed By Non-Fiction?


I rarely commit myself to entire books of non-fiction. That sort of discipline requires a certain skill I have yet to gain, and I usually find my mind wandering to thoughts of how much better my time would be spent on fiction. Or with my kids. Or outdoors. Or doing anything else.

I am, however, 100% converted to be pro-non-fiction when it concerns the lives and philosophies of artists and creatives. As an adult, I never really cared to read any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. As all good children do, I once thrived on The Hobbit as a child and I watched the old Rankin-Bass animated adaptation nearly daily. I stopped caring much after middle school. Then one day, I was handed a thrift store copy of a book of essays on the man himself. Reading about Tolkien fascinated me. I became suddenly motivated to read all his books (starting with Children Of Hurin, oddly enough), and it was key to my eventual wider interest in all sorts of other fiction. It is often the artist that I am interested in as deeply as the work itself.

Lately I have been making my way through the recently published tome Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno. It’s written in oral biography form, meaning simply that the entire book is a well organized collection of quoted statements from a variety of J.D. Salinger’s friends, family members, and business associates, along with some other scholars. This is my first oral biography, and I find it wonderful and fascinating to read a story as you would watch documentary interview footage.

Anyway, the main point I’m trying to come to is actually a question for you, the reader. It is simply this.

Do you feel that reading non-fiction changes you?

I think it is obvious to me that much of the time we read fiction to be changed. We read genre fiction to be swept up in a certain formula of a world, to get away or put on a certain mindset. We read high literature to test and expand our world-views, to endeavor to understand a wider range of real-world experiences and emotions.

But what about non-fiction? I consider myself a novice, but I assume that non-fiction reading is generally more of an attempt to gain information. Is this true for those who read lots of non-fiction?

As I have been reading Salinger, I’ve witnessed in detail the life of a very odd but relatable man, a highly intelligent and sensitive fellow who holds materialism, war, and first-world society at large in contempt while struggling also with the desire to be accepted and validated by the only world he sees around him. He gets weirder and weirder as his life goes on, troubled by WWII memories and a publicity that grows more as he tries to hide from it. As I pour over the details and see some aspect here or a statement there which I can relate to, I feel something familiar to me which I’ve never really heard discussed.

I walk away from the book in the spirit of the subject.

I am overwhelmed by thoughts that I might have had myself, independently, but never so consistently or overwhelmingly as after reading about a similarly-plagued mind. I tend to feel like I’m understanding him a little too well, like I am perhaps agreeing too much with his understanding of the world.

Does this happen to everyone? Without getting too mystical (that would be a great conversation for another time) or sounding too much like a creeper stalker or obsessive fan, I wonder honestly how our attempts to understand something through non-fiction affect us regardless of whether we intend to agree with the subject or not. We humans have a knack for studying things which are ugly, and I don’t stand opposed to this at all. I very firmly believe that we should be learning to cope with the reality of both the unspeakable beauties and horrors of this world. I do wonder, though, if perhaps we don’t recognize when a healthy understanding of the world fades into an attempt to reconcile or justify something in ourselves. Or something worse.

So what do you think?

What’s up with people who read so much non-fiction?

Why are the serial killer/murderer bio sections so full in our book stores?

When does gaining a healthy perspective bleed into an enjoyment of despair in the onlooker?