Friday, April 15, 2016

Mary Marston by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was a staple of my childhood and teens. I read his fantasies for children with much enjoyment, and we also collected a number of the Bethany House editions of his adult novels, of which my favourites were The Fisherman's Lady and its sequel, The Marquis' Secret. I didn't realise until later that these editions had been abridged from their originals, and a few years ago the wonderful Margaret (of 3margarets) actually sent me copies of Sir Gibbie (the original of The Baronet's Song) and Mary Marston (edited to become A Daughter's Devotion). I haven't dug into them since I received them, but they've been a comforting presence on my shelf, waiting for me to dip in (though I revisited Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Lost Princess first). What actually gave me the push to start Mary Marston was the fact that I'd been reading a number of second-rate contemporary bestsellers and felt the need for a palate cleanser.

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.

3 comments:

Jamie W. said...

Haven't read Mary Marston (I always find it hard to pick out a new MacDonald; I know any one I pick from Project Gutenberg is likely to be good but they have such singularly uninformative names!), but I am a MacDonald fan. Malcolm and its sequel The Marquis of Lossie are rich and lovely and just wonderful; interestingly, Sir Gibbie and its semi-sequel Donal Grant have a lot of the same plot elements as the Malcolm duology. (Which are chiefly spoilers so I shan't specify.) I'd be interested to know what you think about that if you get a chance to read those works.

Fascinating to hear that MacDonald's Universalism may not have been as ingrained as many think. Has your friend done an article, post, etc. on this? If there's specific evidence from MacDonald's life to demonstrate his uncertainty, I wonder if Lewis knew about it. That would be interesting in relation to the interpretation of The Great Divorce, wouldn't it?

Lady Bibliophile said...

Fascinating review! I've read bits of this book, but not the whole thing. I own it, though, so I should take a look. It's been a while since I've read a MacDonald, though when I do, Malcolm is so wonderful I have a hard time not re-reading him. :)

Very interesting about the universalism! The Maiden's Bequest has a lot of uncertainty regarding assurance of salvation, as I recall. It could be he struggled more with the idea of *knowing* you're saved rather than the idea that some people are not. I'll have to dig further into this.

~Schuyler

Suzannah said...

Jamie, I've certainly read edited editions of all those books, but so long ago I don't recall much of them. Now I have an ereader I'll be able to access them quite easily, I'm sure--and I already have physical editions of SIR GIBBIE and THE MARQUIS OF LOSSIE (which I picked up in a vintage hardback in a bookshop during a closing-down sale for basically chickenfeed, which still makes me happy whenever I think of it. Imagine if someone else had got there first!).

My friend hasn't done such a post, I'm afraid.

Schuyler, again, I don't know enough about MacDonald to say anything specific. I tend to think of him like Charles Williams--though probably not so bad--a very original thinker with many wise things to say, but who comes with a lot of pips to spit out.

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