George MacDonald: A Life of Relationships

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[Editor’s note: Last week, the Rabbit Room staff happened upon this excellent interview with one of our favorite people, George MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson. It originally appeared on Radix Magazine, which you should definitely peruse if you haven’t already. Read to the end of the interview to find a link to some more of Kirstin’s writing, as well. You’ll be glad you did.]

Radix Magazine: Having read some of your work and listened to your lectures, one of the things I really appreciate is that while you are a scholarly expert on George MacDonald, you also take a great deal of joy from it too. I think, with your enthusiasm, you have drawn a lot more people into the MacDonald and Victorian and even Inkling world. I also love the fact that you live on a farm! And I hear you even [currently] have a donkey, along with other farm animals. I would dare say that this makes you even more authentically “MacDonaldian.”

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson: Well, thank you! You know, one of the first things that attracted me to MacDonald as a person was that he was a farm kid just like me. A farm kid who loved stories, people, place, and connecting people and stories and places. And I love his desire to live holistically, weaving all his world together, introducing different parts to each other. MacDonald didn’t just know the people in his vocation, or those with whom he attended church, etc; he actively sought to know those he was placed amongst—his physical community, of all stripes and sizes. He was very given to hospitality—creating spaces in which people could talk as human beings, could get beyond talking about only politics or theology. That inspires me as something to strive for; when I achieve it, I am enriched.

Radix: Oh, that talk of hospitality is so, so meaningful.

KJJ: It really is, isn’t it? And it’s important to note that indwelling this type of hospitality was central to a number of people in MacDonald’s wider circle: mentors like A. J. Scott, F. D. Maurice, and Thomas Erskine. Their hospitable practice, of which MacDonald was an active part, left deep impressions on luminaries such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who appreciated how it fostered convivial conversation and the further development of ideas. As an aside, A. J. Scott, MacDonald’s primary mentor, helped develop what we now know as the discipline of English literature, along with another mentor of his, F. D. Maurice. Kind of a big deal, right? They believed that true literary criticism should be the attempt to hear rightly, to hear accurately, to engage hospitably. Most current practice has lost that mooring. And we’ve forgotten the history, that the English literature department was created for, essentially, theological reasons.

These men drew MacDonald into this outworking of their Trinitarian theology, one that demanded that we are relationally oriented—that faith and love are embodied in relationship and that “faith-full criticism” is indeed hospitable. And so this very much shapes MacDonald’s writing as well.

Radix: What a tremendously powerful thought. Thank you. I think that the word hospitality is—gloriously—increasing in popularity. So when did you start reading MacDonald?

KJJ: I was five or six. I actually remember listening to my pastor read Isaiah 6 around that time, and thinking, that’s from The Princess and Curdie! Eventually I realized, it was the reverse. My first memories of being read to were from Narnia, and soon I was reading both that and MacDonald on my own. As a teen, I read MacDonald’s longer novels. Years later, after a summer class on John Bunyan at Regent College with Maxine Hancock, I rediscovered MacDonald. As I read, I began to realize Bunyan’s influence on him, but I was simultaneously stunned by how much MacDonald had, in turn, influenced Narnia. I was also reminded of how beautifully MacDonald interweaves imagination with faith, and saw how that had shaped my own faith and personal growth.

But I also began to see the depths to which MacDonald was interacting and engaging with western literature, and it was challenging me spiritually and intellectually in ways I’d not experienced before—in the “storied” and intertextual aspects of Christianity and its rich literary tradition. MacDonald made English literature exciting in a new way for me. And consequently, Scripture too.

Radix: Was there anything that you noticed about how MacDonald dealt with the feminine? Maybe not at age six, but later?

KJJ: Yeah. I’ll give you a story for background first. When I was taking a course with Loren Wilkinson at Regent College—one of my favorites, called “The Christian Imagination”—it struck me that every single artist and author we discussed in class had, as adults, difficulty investing healthily in family life. That bothered me. So I asked if anyone could think of exceptions. But the class was awkwardly silent. When Loren and I bumped into each other the next day, I mentioned that MacDonald’s kids called him the most holy person they knew. Loren named a couple examples he’d thought of since. But the troubling awareness remained that we knew of too few Christian icons that could sincerely claim great family relationships. MacDonald’s situation—even if still imperfect, for he was human—compelled me to look more closely into his life. (Eugene Peterson was my thesis advisor, and whilst working with him on the educational nature of Story, I developed some of the ideas that I would later build upon when writing my doctorate on MacDonald.) But back to the family thing. MacDonald could have spent a lot more of his time writing and editing his work, but instead he put that time into family and friends and community—including collaborating with his wife and kids in teaching and ministry—as well as playing together. And yet, nonetheless, his work is still changing lives today. And I think some of the wisdom that occurs, that comes through in his writing, is there because of this choice to put more time into relationship than vocational success.

I believe this type of relational prioritizing informed his engagement with, and ability to learn from, women. MacDonald spent time with some particularly strong women throughout his life. His wife, Louisa Powell, was one of six girls in an artistic and philanthropic family, and letters show how much he enjoyed visiting the whole lively household. He then had five girls of his own (and six boys). His birth mother had studied multiple languages in school, and came from a literature-oriented family. And after she died, his stepmother was similarly educated. Then MacDonald had his Federal Calvinist grandmother that we all hear about—especially the part about her burning the fiddle. Though that was not George’s fiddle, but his grandfather’s. Biographers and others have confused MacDonald’s life story with aspects of the novel, Robert Falconer, which, like many of his novels, borrows upon family stories in its shaping.

MacDonald’s mentor, A. J. Scott—who modeled a strong partnership with his wife Ann—taught at the first higher education college for women in the UK! MacDonald himself later taught there: Bedford College, London. F. D. Maurice, another friend, had already founded the first institute at which girls could gain academic qualifications in Britain, an Anglican college called Queen’s. They were all involved in fighting for tertiary, or post-secondary, education for women. Even before Bedford, MacDonald taught classes independently to women in both literature and science. He was also a friend of numerous suffragettes, such as Elizabeth Jesser Reid, Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Emilia Russell Gurney, and Georgina Cowper-Temple. He was spiritual confidant to some of them, and supportive of them all.

And then, if we think about how women are portrayed in his fiction, we can see that women are shown to repeatedly rescue men. Men are taught by women, challenged by women, and also challenged to think about women in different ways. For MacDonald, women are not just prizes in a chivalric story, but are mentors, teachers, and fellow travelers in the journey—finding their own way philosophically and theologically, being their own persons. I want to read a quote from his novel The Seaboard Parish. Remember, this was written in 1862:

And here I may remark in regard to one of the vexed questions of the day—the rights of women—that what women demand it is not for men to withhold. It is not their business to lay the law for women. That women must lay down for themselves. I confess that, although I must herein seem to many of my readers old-fashioned and conservative, I should not like to see any woman I cared much for either in parliament or in an anatomical class-room; but on the other hand I feel that women must be left free to settle that matter. If it is not good, good women will find it out and recoil from it. If it is good then God give them good speed. One thing they have a right to—a far wider and more valuable education than they have been in the way of receiving. When the mothers are well taught the generations will grow in knowledge at a fourfold rate.[ii]

—George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish

Radix: Oh, wow. And in 1862.

KJJ: Isn’t that crazy? His novels are full of this. For MacDonald, story is a medium for change; the gospel itself is the story of Christ. Story is relationship. Story allows this amazing thing to happen: we get to know someone and see them change, and then we can change too. MacDonald very much wants to do this with his novels. That’s why he addresses issues like the rights of women, and the place of women, and the importance of female education. Moreover, women in his novels are frequently better in some areas of education than their male counterparts—especially mathematics.

Radix: [Laughter] He was quite ahead of his time, then!

KJJ: So much, yes, he was. He uses story to speak to a variety of contemporary issues: of social housing and animal rights; of interracial marriage (then illegal in the U.S.); of land ownership, eugenics, vivisection, and ecological wrongs; physical and emotional abuse; to the shameful way culture treated persons pregnant out of wedlock; to how those with neurological and physiological differences were treated and (de)valued. He even speaks to depression and suicide. And he addresses these within the framework of his stories.

Radix: That statement you made just a minute ago is so powerful: “MacDonald sees story as a medium for change.” So good. It also bugs me that more people aren’t aware that MacDonald was ahead of his time in so many areas. We should know!

KJJ: It sheds light. And I also think, again, that part of the reason that MacDonald was able to be so in touch with the social justice issues of his day is because he and Scott and the others he was close with didn’t put up walls between themselves and the communities in which they lived; they engaged very intentionally with people who had different theological perspectives—or none. This goes back to hospitality. They intentionally sought relationship with those around them even, perhaps especially, if they didn’t agree with them. And because of that they were so much more aware of the issues of the day; of how and where people were hurting and of the earth groaning. They knew how to speak into those issues because they didn’t restrict the communities in which they dwelt.

Radix: I am thinking about your statement of “no walls on their relationships,” which of course is a matter of hospitality and imagination. This goes into the next question. In one of your recent papers, you mentioned the connection between a healthy imagination and a healthy theology. Can you touch on the link between imagination and the feminine for MacDonald?

KJJ: Well, it’s important to remember that MacDonald didn’t have high walls that kept other perspectives out. He was widely read: from Church history, to the Church Mothers and Fathers, all the way through to Chaucer, Dante, Spencer, and Shakespeare. This means that his imagination was constantly being pushed in different ways. He was also deeply interested in Scripture, and the Greek, Hebrew, and even the Latin it was later written in. Because of this, he was aware that the Greek and Hebrew words for spirit are feminine. Every time you read about the Spirit of God, it’s feminine. Let alone that male and female are both created “in God’s image.” So you can’t avoid this aspect of femininity in God, along with the masculine.

And then there are all his strong fictional female characters, such as the wise woman from The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess; Great-great-grandmother from the Princess and Curdie series; Grandmother in The Golden Key or North Wind from Back of the North Wind. Now, how MacDonald was dealing with the feminine in the divine isn’t glib. He is not simplistic. So, I think that while these female characters have aspects of the divine, they aren’t meant to represent the fullness of God. Take Great-great-grandmother: she says herself that she is only 2,000 years old. Because we know that MacDonald is very intentional, Great-great-grandmother cannot, therefore, be a feminine version of God. Similarly, in  The Golden Key and North Wind: these women themselves say that they have limited knowledge.

I want to throw my small pebble at the head of the great Sabbath-breaker, Schism.

George MacDonald

I think MacDonald creates these characters as ambassadors of the divine, or maybe reflected aspects of the divine, rather than as God. Others may differ, but I think that maybe Great-great-grandmother is, in a sense, “a Wise Imagination,” which MacDonald calls “the presence of the spirit of God.” Maybe the Wise Woman in The Lost Princess is an exploration of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. MacDonald scholar Kerry Dearborn helped me see how the green-haired Grandmother in The Golden Key evokes Mother Nature. I think this kind of thinking makes more sense and is more richly nuanced than merely saying, “she is a female representation of God.” MacDonald doesn’t think God can be cataloged. God is too big for that. At the same time, he encourages us to delve deeper into the various aspects of God’s nature. And, always, drives us back to explorations of that in Scripture.

Radix: Oh, I love that idea of these characters being hints; that they hint at aspects of God.

KJJ: One of MacDonald’s goals was to increase—to cause an explosion of possibilities—of our understanding of God. He wants us to explore the various attributes of God, both masculine and feminine. Giving us a different perspective of the feminine does not mean he is negating the masculine, but that he wants to redress the balance.

MacDonald was very keen on redeeming the fatherhood aspect of God, from a culturally prevalent perspective of cruel judge to that of loving father. We can see a lot of that in his stories. But McDonald is also not saying God is only this masculine father. Yes, God is a loving father as opposed to an abusive or hurtful or damaged father, but God also transcends gender.

Radix: I wonder what you think he would tell us, especially now, if he were here.

KJJ: Well, I’m reminded of MacDonald’s compilation, England’s Antiphon (1868), an anthology of devotional poetry. In it he pulls together a variety of writers from different theological perspectives. Such ecumenical intentionality was not common practice in that social climate. Here is what he says about why he does it: “I want to throw my small pebble at the head of the great Sabbath-breaker, Schism.”

Radix: Oh, wow.

KJJ: In fact, MacDonald’s son, Ronald, wrote something that I wish could be at the beginning of everything that is written about George MacDonald:

Bred in a land of religious division, his [my father’s] whole fight was against schism … He made no war upon the Church as he knew it—whether Independent, Presbyterian, or Anglican. His war was upon the faithlessness of the officially faithful, and, incidentally, only upon one or two Calvinistic and Augustinian dogmas exaggerated out of all proportion to their service.[iii]

—Ronald MacDonald

Now, I believe this is especially important. So, if George MacDonald were here with us today? I think he would stand against the great Sabbath-breaker, Schism.

Radix: Powerfully said. In a similar vein, if he were here, what do you think MacDonald might disagree with what is said of him?

KJJ: There are three areas. And I should say that more recent scholarship is helping to shift some of these older perspectives. The first one is that people have this entrenched idea that McDonald was an impoverished pastor who wrote novels only because he needed to feed his family. Emphatically not true. The real story is that MacDonald was a minister in a Congregational church for twenty-some months in his twenties, but that he taught English literature for over forty years. Now it is true that he did preach in churches throughout his entire life, sometimes every Sunday. A church in New York offered him a ridiculous salary to become their minister.[iv] But he always refused payment for preaching. However, his vocation and occupation was teaching literature. In addition to teaching in educational institutions, he was a paid lecturer. That was how he earned money for his family. He lectured all over the place: England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Canada, the USA. These lectures were on English literature and Dante. In his writing, too—even his fiction—he was constantly teaching literature.

Illustration of George MacDonald by Frederick Waddy (1848-1901)

Now, part of why I think knowing this is important—really important—is this: if we think of MacDonald as “only” a pastor who wrote literature on the side, we are doing a great disservice to the profession of literature. MacDonald was a steward of Story. He was calling us into “storyness.” We are devaluing the teaching of literature and the value of story when we get this part of MacDonald’s life wrong. His ministry—his holy calling—was teaching through story, pulling people back to an imaginative engagement with the world, with each other, with their communities, and, thus, with God.

Radix: Oh, that is so good. That he was a steward of Story, and that he was calling us into storyness.

KJJ: The second error goes something like this: MacDonald was a genius who sprang out of a vacuum. Now this is tied up with a related misconception, that he grew up in a repressive Calvinist household. Because, just think about it: “repressive Calvinist” automatically implies no art, no literature, and no acknowledgment of imagination. Right? But this does a great disservice to MacDonald’s family and community. The fact is that he grew up in a family environment that was highly literate and that greatly valued both education and imagination. In his family you have Shakespeare scholars, Gaelic scholars, women and men who were readers, poets, artists, and fairy-tale collectors. MacDonald grew up reading Coleridge and Milton while lying on the back of his horse. It was also a family highly invested in the social and spiritual health of the community. His paternal grandmother—with whom he did not live—may have embodied many of the particular Calvinistic expressions that his writings later challenged and even railed against, but letters with his father show how very different was his own childhood household; one that invited and prepared the type of exploration and discussion upon which MacDonald later built. To say that he sprang from a vacuum is misleading.

The third error is that his realistic novels are unreadable in the “original.” Now, I greatly appreciate Dan Hamilton, a friend of mine, Michael Phillips, and Elizabeth Yates for making MacDonald’s Scottish novels more accessible to American audiences. And it’s true that his Doric dialect in those can be a challenge—though many find that if you read it out loud it is easier to understand. However, David Jack and Jess Lederman have recently granted readership a huge boon in their ongoing publication of the twelve Scottish novels in parallel text, so not a word of the original is lost yet an English option is right there alongside.[v] MacDonald’s other novels are in normal English.

Radix: I know that over the years you have been involved in numerous projects. What are you particularly excited about now?

KJJ: Certainly. Perhaps the most exciting project is a graphic novel of MacDonald’s The Golden Key, being produced by The Rabbit Room Press. I was a little hesitant at first, but when I saw what the artist Stephen Hesselman had done, I was hooked. Not discounting the truly beautiful illustrated version by Ruth Sanderson, I think this—in its particular format—may be the most important publication of The Golden Key since it was first published. Also, in general, for people who are interested in MacDonald and the Inklings, The Rabbit Room is just a great website to go explore.

I have also been invited by Jess Lederman to contribute to his new editions of Lilith and Phantastes, and have a MacDonald-focused chapter in James Houston’s book on child theology. I am very happy to be involved with the C. S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits Society from Romania. They do important work with Lewis and the Inklings, but also “kindreds” such as MacDonald, Chesterton, L’Engle. Speakers include George MacDonald Society president Malcolm Guite, Trevor Hart, Philip Ryken, and Brenton Dickieson.[vi]  Also, because 2024 is the 200th anniversary of MacDonald’s birth, The George MacDonald Society is preparing celebrations.[vii] A recent discussion on MacDonald and the Poetry of Science with eminent physicist Tom McLeish and science historian Franziska Kohlt is available on the Society’s site, and upcoming events include an online Christmas gathering and a day-long conference on teaching MacDonald.

Radix: Sounds like you have lots of fun and meaningful things on your plate. Do you have any last thoughts for us?

KJJ: Yes. And it goes back to Sabbath-breaking through Schism. For many people coming out of brokenness and wounding by church and family experiences, MacDonald is a healing tonic. But it’s important to know that MacDonald doesn’t want us to be anti-church, nor, especially, antagonistic towards those who understand God, faith, and church differently from ourselves: he would want us to have and practice grace. In the novel with the fiddle-burning, he actually chastises the character who takes “a mental position of enmity” towards the austere grandmother, for not perceiving the good also present in that woman. Yes, name—with particularity, not with unhelpful generalizations of “isms”—that which you see as damaging, but also laud that which is good. Fight rather than feed schism. Be actively involved in helping to build hospitable community. Community flourishing with transformative love: that’s what he’d want for us.

Click here to read this interview on Radix Magazine.

And click here to explore Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson’s writings on the Rabbit Room blog.

 The fiddle-burning incident in the MacDonald family actually occurred when MacDonald’s father was a teen or young adult: according to an uncle, the boys in the family had found and begun to play with their deceased father’s instrument, and fearful that such music would lead her sons astray, their mother burned it.
[ii] George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1868), 91-92.
[iii] Ronald MacDonald, From A Northern Window: A Personal Reminiscence of George MacDonald by His Son (Guelph: Sunrise Books, 1989), 53-54.
[iv] MacDonald became an Anglican in the 1860’s.
[v] http://www.worksofmacdonald.com/products/robert-falconer[vi]http://simpozioncslewis.blogspot.com/
[vii] http://gms.george-macdonald.com/george-macdonald-biographical-introduction/


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