So I came to this book looking for a bit of spiritual nourishment, a tale (like Austen's or Trollope's) that knew right from wrong, in which the sin or virtue of everyday actions determines the course of lives and fortunes. I have to admit, however, that I approached the book with some trepidation. After all, I'd never read any of George MacDonald's unedited adult fiction! What if it was extremely dense and intimidating?
No, on hindsight I can't believe I thought that either. As a friend remarked on Goodreads, "anyone who can read unabridged Sir Walter Scott will laugh their way through an unabridged MacDonald." And I can certainly bear out the truth of that. Mary Marston was not a sensational work of gothic splendour (as I remember The Fisherman's Lady--original title Malcolm--being), but it had an undeniable quiet suspense sustained throughout its nearly 500 pages.
The plot follows the fortunes of several different characters. Our heroine, of course, is Mary Marston, a shop-girl in a draper's shop in the little town of Testbridge, and the plot follows her connections with two families of the local gentry. At Thornwick, Mary's best friend Letty, a poor cousin of the proud and dignified Geoffrey Wardour, is being pursued by local good-for-nothing Tom Helmer, unaware that Geoffrey is in love with her. At Durnmelling, the equally haughty Hesper Mortimer, facing a marriage of convenience with a man she detests, turns for help to her mysterious and scheming cousin Sepia Yolland. After her father dies, Mary sees a chance of doing good both to Letty and to Hesper, and becomes inextricably entwined in their lives.
The plot wanders through too many twists and turns to further explain, although I can assure you that there are tragic lovers, sensational crimes, and fainting-fits involved. There's even a goodish bit of humour: at one stage, the humble and easygoing Mary arrives to be a sort of companion in a wealthy house while the lady of the house is away, and is mistaken for a new maid by the socially self-conscious servants, and put firmly into the pecking-order (right at the bottom) before it's discovered that she is a personal friend of the lady of the house. It's oddly satisfying to read, and the satire of social rank loses nothing by taking place not in high society but in the servant's hall.
In fact, if the book has an overarching theme, it would be the theme of nobility and rank. Mary Marston is basically a tract on not thinking higher of oneself than one ought: passionately, MacDonald argues that Christian virtue and humility, not money or birth, defines gentility. Many of the book's characters, gentle or common, yearn to better their standing in life while simultaneously despising and belitting those below them. Meanwhile Mary herself, the humble shop-girl, is the only real lady among the lot of them.
Mary is a pretty static character throughout the book, as befits the yardstick of Christian gentility, but she has enough faults and quirks not to become tiresome. Meanwhile, MacDonald breaks another common rule of storytelling by constantly preaching to the reader about his characters and their shortcomings. I assume that these segments are the ones edited out in the Bethany House editions, but if so, I can't bring myself to thank them. I think I once read a quote from CS Lewis explaining that nobody does preachiness half so well as MacDonald, and after reading Mary Marston, I have to agree with him. MacDonald's commentary on his characters and their actions are frequent, but I never found them dull or frustrating; I thought they enhanced the story.
Much is made of George MacDonald's Universalism these days, real or supposed, and so I should make a quick note that I'm not a MacDonald expert myself; but a friend of mine who is says that there's little evidence he wholeheartedly espoused it; rather, he once said he found it hard to believe that God would send anyone to hell, but was willing to accept that he could be wrong, and that there was some wonderful aspect of this plan that he (MacDonald) was failing to grasp. In any case, often an author's perspective will change over the course of years: certainly, in Mary Marston, there's repeated discussion of hell and eternal punishment.
What I was uncomfortable with, however, was a not-so-subtle critique of mainline churches and any brand of Christianity that insists on doctrine or law-keeping. While the character embodying this kind of view is indefensibly--but not inconceivably--legalistic, I would have liked a more positive depiction of church life and ministry, or reliance on the Word, to balance this out.
All this aside, I found this book a profoundly satisfying and refreshing read. It was hard to put down, and I'm very much looking forward to dipping into some more of MacDonald's non-fantasy adult fiction!
Find Mary Marston on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.