MacDonald, George (DNB12)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

MACDONALD, GEORGE (1824–1906), poet and novelist, born on 10 Dec. 1824 at Huntly, West Aberdeenshire, was descended from one of the 120 MacDonalds who made good their escape from the massacre of Glencoe in Feb. 1692. His Jacobite great-grandfather was born on 16 April 1746, the day of the battle of Culloden, in which hie great-great-grandfather, a red-haired piper, lost his sight. From Portsoy in Banffshire the family ultimately moved to Huntly, where George MacDonald's grandfather, who spoke Gaelic, was farmer and banker. The author's father, also George MacDonald, grew up on the farm, marrying as his first wife Helen, daughter of Captain MacKay, R.N., of Celtic lineage, and sister of the Gaelic scholar, Mackintosh MacKay [q. v.]. His parents were congregationalists. Of five sons, George was the youngest. His mother dying soon after his birth, his father married as his second wife, in 1839 Margaret MacColl, who proved a kind stepmother to George and his brothers. George began his education on his father's farm and then at a small school at Huntly. In the autumn of 1840 he won at King's College, Aberdeen, a Fullerton bursary of 14l. as 12th bursar, and he attended college for four years from 1840-1 to 1844-5, omitting 1842-3. He studied hard to the injury of his health, eking out his narrow means by teaching. Sir William Duguid Geddes [q. v. Suppl. I] was among his contemporaries. George took the third prize in chemistry and was fourth prizeman in natural philosophy.

Already a poet who saw symbolic meanings in what others found commonplace, he was regarded by the students as something of a visionary. Of his university life he gave a graphic picture in his poem 'Hidden Life' (in Poems, 1857). He graduated M.A. in March 1845, and on 28 February 1868 his university made him hon. LL.D.

Seeking a livelihood in tutorial work, MacDonald removed to London soon after graduating, and in Sept. 1848 he entered the theological college at Highbury to prepare for the congregational ministry.

Finding the ways of Highbury College uncongenial, he did not finish his course there, but he was duly ordained to his first and only charge, the Trinity congregational chapel at Arundel, in 1850. His spiritual and intellectual independence dissatisfied his congregation. Proposals to reduce his small stipend on the ground of lack of doctrine in his sermons led to his resignation at the close of 1853. Resolving to devote himself to literature, he moved to Manchester. There he grew intimate with Alexander John Scott [q. v.], principal of Owens College, and with Henry Septimus Sutton [q. v. Suppl. II], a religious poet who was a friend of Coventry Patmore. Both men deeply influenced MacDonald. Although ill-health and poverty made his position difficult, his work at Manchester brought him his earliest recognition. In 1855 he published his first book, a poem 'Within and Without,' of which the first draft had been written at Arundel in the winter of 1850. It is a poetic tragedy of married love and misunderstanding. In the ardour of their religious aspiration, many lines recall Browning's earlier poems, especially 'Pauline,' though without Browning's obscurity. The book won the appreciation of Tennyson and the intense admiration of Lady Byron, who became at once one of MacDonald's close friends. A volume of poems published in 1857 strengthened MacDonald's reputation, and in 1858 there appeared in prose 'Phantastes,' a faerie allegorical romance equally attractive as allegory and fairy-tale. It quickly took rank with 'Undine' and other classics of the kind. Its lyrics are among MacDonald's most fascinating and impressive verse.

MacDonald's energy was thenceforth largely absorbed by prose fiction of two kinds, one of which dealt with the mystical and psychic and the other described humble life in Scotland. 'David Elginbrod' (1863; new edit. 1871), dedicated to Lady Byron's memory, 'Adela Cathcart' (1864), and 'The Portent,' a story of second sight (1864), were early studies in the first category, and effectively challenged the materialism of the day. 'Alec Forbes' (1865) and 'Robert Falconer' (1868) will rank among the classics of Scottish literature in their powerful delineation of Scottish character, their sense of the nobility of country work, and their appreciation of ideal beauty. A quaint humour tinged MacDonald's stern opposition to the rigid theology of Scottish orthodoxy, and these boo& did much to weaken the force of Calvinism and to broaden spiritual ideals. The same aim was pursued with growing effect in the succeeding novels, chiefly in Scottish settings, 'Malcolm' (1875), 'St. George and St. Michael' (1876), 'The Marquis of Lossie' (1877), a sequel to 'Malcolm,' 'Paul Faber, Surgeon' (1879), in which philosophic reflection both in prose and verse predominates, 'Sir Gibbie' (1879), and 'Castle Warlock, a homely romance' (1882).

After he gave up his formal ministry at Arundel, MacDonald long continued to preach as a layman. From his first settling in Manchester he delivered sermons to a company of working men who rented a room for the purpose, and when a serious illness compelled him in 1856 to winter in Algiers, his hearers subscribed the cost of the expedition. From Algiers he returned to Hastings, and there three years (1857–1860) were spent before he finally settled in London. His first house was in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and thence he moved to Tudor Lodge in Albert Street, Regent's Park. In London his social circle quickly extended. His friendship with Frederick Denison Maurice led him to become a lay member of the Church of England. Maurice was godfather to his fourth son. But his relations with nonconformists remained close, and he continued to accept invitations to preach in their pulpits as a layman.

Like Robert Browning, who became a friend, he often heard the Welsh poet preacher, Thomas Jones [q. v.]. Ruskin was another admiring associate and visitor at MacDonald's London house, and he cited MacDonald's poem, 'Diary of an Old Soul' (1880), with Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' and Keble's hymns as evidence 'that the generation . . . might fairly claim to be an age not destitute of religious poetry' (Pleasures of England). MacDonald formed intimate friendships with such widely differing people as the Carlyles, William Morris, Burne Jones, Lord Tennyson, Octavia Hill, Dean Stanley, Matthew Arnold, the eighth duke of Argyll, John Stuart Blackie, Lord Houghton, Lord and Lady Mount-Temple, Arthur Hughes, and his publisher, Alexander Strahan, to whose generosity he owed much.

Besides writing and preaching without intermission, MacDonald was sole editor of 'Good Words for the Young' (1872–3), and he also lectured on Shakespeare and other literary themes in London with great success. His lectures were at once scholarly and imaginative; they were delivered ex-tempore. For a short time he held an evening lectureship in literature at King's College, London, and in 1872 he went on a lecturing tour in America, where he found enthusiastic audiences. There he met Whittier, Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, C. D. Warner, R. W. Gilder, and Emerson.

Despite his activity, MacDonald's income was still small. In 1877 he was granted by the special desire of Queen Victoria a civil list pension of 100l. In the interests of health from 1881 to 1902 he spent the greater part of each year at Casa Coraggio at Bordigheni. The house was built by himself largely out of contributions by friends. At Bordighera as in London, where his charities were unceasing, he proved a friend to all the neighbouring poor. In 1902 he returned to England to a house built for him at Haslemere by his eldest son. He died after a long illness at Ashtead, the home of his youngest daughter, now Lady Troup, on 18 Sept. 1905. His ashes after cremation at Woking were buried in the English cemetery at Bordighera.

Of two portraits in oil by Sir George Reid, one is in the library of King's College, Aberdeen, and the other belongs to Dr. Greville MacDonald, of 85 Harley Street, who also owns a portrait in red chalk by E. R. Hughes, dating about 1880. A bust by George Anderson Lawson [q. v. Suppl. II] was shown at the Royal Academy in 1871.

MacDonald married in 1851 Louisa, daughter of James Powell, who was in complete sympathy with his ideals. She adapted for stage representation a series of scenes from the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' in which her husband and her children took part, and the experiment led the way for later revival by others of old miracle plays. She died and was buried at Bordighera in 1902 soon after the celebration of her golden wedding. Of a family of six sons and five daughters, five sons and two daughters survived their father. The eldest son is Dr. Greville MacDonald, and the youngest daughter, Winifred Louisa, is wife of Sir Charles Edward Troup, K.C.B., LL.D.

MacDonald was above all else a poet. 'The Diary of an Old Soul' must rank with the best work of Crashaw and Vaughan. Both his verse and his stories for children have a dainty humour and an unobtrusive symbolism which place them in much the same category as Hans Andersen's tales. In the beautiful simplicity of his character and in his courtly charm of manner MacDonald has been likened to Count Tolstoy, but to an extent unknown to Tolstoy's later life he mingled with the world. Besides the books already named, MacDonald's works include : 1. 'Unspoken Sermons' (3 vols. 1867, 1885, and 1889). 2. 'The Disciple, and other Poems,' 1868. 3. 'England's Antiphon,' 1868; new edit. 1874. 4. 'At the Back of the North Wind,' 1871. 5. 'The Princess and the Goblin,' 1872. 6. 'Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood,' 1871. 7. 'Gutta Percha Willie,' 1873. 8. 'Thomas Wingfold, Curate' (in 'The Day of Rest'), 1876, new edit. 1880. 9. 'Letters from Hell,' with preface by George MacDonald, 1884. 10. Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' study with the text of the folio of 1623 (1885). 11. 'Miracles of our Lord,' 1886. 12. 'Home Again,' 1887. 13. 'There and Back,' 1891. 14. 'The Hope of the Gospel,' 1892. 16. 'Heather and Snow,' 1893. 16. 'A Dish of Orts,' a volume of essays, 1893. 'Works of Fancy and Imagination,' a collective edition (excluding the novels), appeared in 1886 (10 vols.). MacDonald's 'Poetical Works' (2 vols.) appeared in 1893 (new edit. 1911). In 1904 a new collected edition of 'The Fairy Tales' followed, and in 1905 a new edition of 'Phantastes' illustrated by Arthur Hughes.

[The Times, 19 Sept. 1905; Contemporary Review, Dec. 1871, art. signed Henry Holbeach; Bookman, Nov. 1905; Blackwood's Magazine, Mar. 1891, a generous appreciation by Sir William Geddes; George MacDonald, a biographical and critical appreciation, by Joseph Johnson, 1906; private information.

A. M-n.