In his introduction to the 1970 Ballantine paperback edition of Phantastes (which introduced me to George MacDonald) Lin Carter provides the following brief biography of the great writer of fantasy fiction:
MacDonald was born in Aberdeenshire in 1824, ten years earlier than Morris. His life was to be a series of inexplicable contradictions. Almost everything he ever did was the exact opposite of what might be expected of a man of his background and position. For example, being a farmer's son, born in a backward rural county at a time when sons still followed in their father's footsteps, it would have been entirely logical to expect MacDonald to grow up as a farmer himself. Instead, he went to school and got a good education, graduating the from the university with degrees in natural philosophy and chemistry, of all things. Then, instead of settling down in the academic world he had apparently chosen, he became a minister in the Congregational church. Following this came an even more inexplicable turn of events: when he was only 26, despite the amazing popular success of his preaching, he resigned from the ministry and devoted the rest of his life to literature,
These days, we are accustomed to the idea of authors being lonely, neurotic failures with miserable, twisted lives. . . . How refreshing then to encounter a writer as healthy, manly, robust, sane, and superlatively happy as George MacDonald. By all accounts he seems to have been a wonderful man who enjoyed to the fullest an exciting, rewarding life crowded with achievement and success. He had a fine, active, outdoorsy boyhood, a particularly rare and beautiful relationship with his father, a happy marriage blessed with many children, a literary career crowned with spectacular accomplishments (four or five of his books seem already to have become classics), th friendships of the most celebrated mid-Victorian writers (like Tennyson, Ruskin, and especially Lewis Carroll), and — as Florence Becker Lennon put it — "he died at an advanced old age (1906) surrounded by an adoring family." [v-vi]
One can cite other contradictions: this master of Victorian fantasy also wrote novels in the realistic mode as well. Still, not all of the changes in MacDonald's choice of career are as puzzling as Carter suggests. First of all, as Frank H. Turner's study of the professionalization of Victorian science shows, at the time MacDonald graduated from university, very few positions for scientists existed, and most practicing scientists were independently wealthy or ministers — usually of the Church of England. His reasons for leaving the ministry also turn out not to be particularly puzzling: he rejected conventional Victorian belief in infant damnation — the idea that unbaptized children were damned — and his congregation did not approve of that liberality; in addition, poor health soon led him to spend much of his time in Italy.
Carter, Lin. "Beyond the Gates of Dream" in George MacDonald. Phantastes. New York, Ballantine, 1970.
Last modified 7 February 2004