What a difference 200 years makes!

MacdonaldI have just been reading There and Back by George Macdonald. Macdonald was a novelist and theologian and preacher born in 1824 and a prolific writer of phantasy novels, romantic and other fiction as well as non-fiction books of collected sermons and poetry.

The writer, C S Lewis regarded him as a mentor, and there is some evidence of his writings influencing writers a diverse as E Nesbit, Walter de la Mere and even W H Auden and several others.

MarinerI was reading There and Back because it was cited as a typical example of a book influenced by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a book by Malcolm Guite about Samuel Taylor Coleridge which I was reading in Lent this year. But while the theologian in Malcolm Guite made his Christian message and his reading of The Rime seen through this lens exciting and entertaining; the same cannot be said of There and Back.

While I did enjoy this book, its eye-stretchingly preachy prose clouded what was really a rather simple romance. The basic tale is fairly unsophisticated: a baronet marries a blacksmith’s daughter, socially beneath him, the lady delivers an heir and dies, her sister acts as the child’s nurse without actively being identified as his aunt, but when the baronet marries an ice-cold aristocratic woman, the aunt recognises the danger to her charge and runs away with the baby, which she brings up as her own with her husband. The child grows up unaware of his true heritage and becomes a gifted bookbinder…the tale continues with much in the way of romantic twists and turns, until the denouement when like any good romance the boy gets the perfect girl.

But all this is buried in some deep Christian thought and theology, not that I have any objection in principle, but sermonising throughout an adventure story seems a sorry way of bulking up a novel.

Not assisted by a very evil edition – one of Amazon’s reprints of out-of-print classics. It is described as having been proofread by Project Gutenberg. Just look carefully at the cover! What a travesty: misprints, incorrect capitalisation and plenty of inaccuracies that make the sense difficult to understand.

But my main astonishment was in the liberal sermonising in the text, it would not pass muster now. No matter how good the story, no editor would allow this to reach the page. So I wonder what the audience was like for these apparently very popular books? Were they all agog as they turned page after page of musings on the nature of God, first from a non-believer and then by his girl-friend who endeavours to enlighten him, successfully of course! As I said – what a difference two hundred years makes.


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