Book Review: Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries.

Posted by rebeccamclean on May 07, 2013 in Blog, Rebecca McLean, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Book Review: Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora & Ginger Stelle (eds.) Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries (Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2013).

This collection of sixteen essays edited by Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora and Ginger Stelle sets out to ‘look directly at MacDonald the Victorian.’ To achieve this the essays are collected into four thematic sections: ‘Belief and Scepticism’, ‘Social Reform and Gender’, ‘Ideals and Nightmares’, and ‘Scotland’. The broad scope of thematic concerns covered in the book allows the reader to gain a strong idea of MacDonald’s role and his place beside his Victorian contemporaries. This covers an impressive range of topics: from epistemology to eugenics, social reform, the Gothic and MacDonald’s fantasy writing. Certainly, the collection suggests that the field of MacDonald studies is an engaging area worthy of further academic attention. The case for scholarship to read MacDonald’s work alongside his contemporaries is made from the outset in Stephen Prickett’s ‘The Idea of Tradition in George MacDonald.’ What is deeply striking, not only in Prickett’s chapter but across the entire collection, are the ways in which MacDonald, when read alongside his contemporaries, is deeply engaged with many issues of his day and presents often distinct, progressive views and solutions in his works.

As this review is for The Gothic Imagination, it is worth noting that the ‘Ideals and Nightmares’ section of the collection contains two essays that engage directly with Gothic themes: David Melville Wingrove’s ”La Belle Dame’-Lilith and the Romantic Vampire Tradition’ argues that Lilith has be unfairly left out of the canon of Victorian vampire fiction, providing a strong reading of the text which aligns it with other writers including Goethe, Coleridge, Tieck, Gautier, Keats, Poe, Baudelaire, Le Fanu, Stevenson, and Stoker. Jennifer Koopman’s ‘Gothic Degeneration and Romantic Rebirth in Donal Grant’ discusses how the Gothic motifs within Donal Grant are used to critique the Romantic movement and some of its key figures, including Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. These chapters show how the Gothic aspects of MacDonald’s writing have been overlooked in previous scholarship. Wingrove and Koopman have demonstrated that there is a great deal of scope for further study of the Gothic themes in MacDonald’s work.

This collection succeeds in its aim to show how MacDonald relates to his contemporaries and by doing so it draws attention to MacDonald as a figure deserving of more recognition within Victorian Literary studies. While achieving this aim the collection also displays the difficulties of moving beyond seeing MacDonald’s work in terms of the themes of religion and fantasy that concern his modern followers. All of the chapters do deal with these aspects of his works to some extent although they are related to MacDonald among his contemporaries. This is indicative of the challenges which MacDonald scholarship faces. It is refreshing to see the theological and fantasy aspects of MacDonald’s corpus being related to his own period and contemporaries rather than being interpreted through his role as the forefather of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries is a highly suggestive collection that covers a large range of themes and issues that MacDonald engages with through his work. The breadth of the collection provides much inspiration for further research. In addition to providing invigorating sketches of MacDonald’s approaches to specific texts and themes, the overall portrait of MacDonald is as a deeply engaged Victorian, involved in many aspects of the social, political, literary and theological debates of the time. Appropriate for MacDonald enthusiasts, Victorian scholars and those seeking an introduction to MacDonald’s range of work, the book is a timely addition to scholarship in this field, and it makes a convincing case that there is a great deal more critical engagement to be undertaken regarding George MacDonald.

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