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.