Sue Young Histories

George MacDonald 1824 - 1905

May 26, 2008

[George MacDonald 1824 –
1905](–-1905.jpeg)George MacDonald 1824-1905 was a master of fairy tale and fantasy who wrote about homeopathy and was a great believer in homeopathy. He influenced some of the most famous people of his age and his influence today is profound and pervasive. George MacDonald is the father of British fantasy fiction.

George MacDonald was a patient of John Rutherford Russell (possibly introduced to each other by William Gregory), John Rutherford Russell’s views on homeopathy permeated much of George MacDonald’s work. George MacDonald was also a patient of Robert Douglas Hale, William Philip Harrison (1821-1892), and in 1881, John Arthur Goodchild became the family doctor of George MacDonald (Greville Macdonald, George Macdonald and his wife, (G. Allen & Unwin, 1924). Page 557).

George MacDonald was also a close friend and a patient of James John Garth Wilkinson (see Greville MacDonald (1856-1944) (son of George MacDonald), George Macdonald and his wife, (G. Allen & Unwin, 1924). Pages 260 and 271. From page 271: ‘… The intimacy with women so well read and cosmopolitan as the Leigh-Smiths, and belonging to an order of free-thinking intelligence different from any he had yet had intimacies with, offered, I conceive, a new outlook.  My parents had brought an introduction to them from Garth Wilkinson, and the two young ladies had been asked by Lady Byron [the poet’s widow and another friend and patron of George MacDonald] to call upon the young poet’s [ie MacDonald’s] wife’…’ Greville MacDonald again page 260 (quote from a letter from George McDonald to his father dated 27th February 1856)_ ‘… I have been to see Dr Wilkinson, who is a personal friend and a homoeopath.  He agrees with Dr Harrison *[William Philip Harrison (1821-1892)] *[practised in Manchester, do you know of him?] that there is no mischief in my lungs, and says that after this I may be better than ever - but that I must have entire rest for six months at least’…’_ (See also Robert Cecil, The masks of death: changing attitudes in the nineteenth century, (Book Guild, 20 Jun 1991). Page 184)).

George MacDonald was also a friend of Alexander John Ellis, Octavia Hill, Mark Twain, and MacDonald was acquainted with most of the literary luminaries of the day; a surviving group photograph shows him with Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and William Makepeace Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman.

George MacDonald wrote about homeopathy in _The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius, _and he also takes his reader on a tour of healing springs:

As in MacDonald’s earlier children’s books, there is a wise advising grandmother figure who sits at the spinning wheel telling her story “with the needle and thread of her imagination”…

Water thus takes central place in the present study, where some extraordinary physio-chemical properties of water will be examined…

MacDonald’s scientific bent can be followed right into the laboratory of Justus von Liebig, and how it manifests in The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius will be shown. A further section shows how, in the Victorian context, water was given a special, primarily religious role, and how this found its way into literature. The last two sections witness to the healing effect of water and to the mechanical component of this source of energy and life.

"[I am a bubble upon thy ever moving, restless sea]("

MacDonald was advised to visit the seaside often because of his lung diseases, and he testifies to the strengthening effect of the water and sea air in several letters to his family.

In 1880 the family moved to Bordighera on the Italian Riviera for the sake of his health and that of some of his children. He spent every winter there until 1904 when, two years after his wife’s death, he returned to England where he died in 1905.

Given MacDonald’s strong connection with the sea and the positive effect of water upon his health, it is not surprising that Willie Macmichael (the hero of _The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius__) _uses the healing power of water for his patients.

But what is it about water from its physio-chemical aspect which makes it such a remarkable substance and causes it to inspire a writer like MacDonald?

MacDonald studied natural science at Aberdeen University. It was his wish in 1845 to travel to Gießen to continue his studies in chemistry there in the famous laboratory of Justus von Liebig, but financial circumstances prevented this…

Although unable to study with Justus von Liebig, MacDonald was well acquainted with his work. This can be seen in The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius and Robert Falconer. Even Justus von Liebig’s early research on dyes is alluded to in The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius where ”sesquiferrocyanide of iron” (Berlin Blue) is mentioned (178). Parts of these two books are autobiographical.

Although Robert Falconer at Aberdeen University does not explicitly pursue chemical studies, he first studies the classics and then the natural sciences in order eventually to train as a doctor. Willie achieves the same objective by different means, but, to judge from the syllabus he follows, also apparently attends Aberdeen University.

Anyone interested in chemistry can form an idea of the nature of Willie’s experiments in his home-made laboratory. His eight-year-old sister picks up names like ”phosphuretted hydrogen, metaphosphoric acid, sesquiferrocyanide of iron”, all of which directly recall Justus von Liebig’s discoveries…

In his Unspoken Sermons Vol. 3 MacDonald offers an explanation of chemical combination which illuminates his approach in The History of Gutta-Percha Willie, the Working Genius:

“what, I ask, is the truth of water? Is it that it is formed of hydrogen and oxygen?”

“I would have running through my room, yea, babbling along my table—this water is its own self its own truth, and is therein a truth of God…”

When related to his literary works, these words reveal MacDonald’s main concern—the “divine origin,” sometimes dressed in symbols difficult to decode. Water proves here to be a symbol, and it carries a religious meaning in many of MacDonald’s books.

What he hopes for in his Unspoken Sermons, he carries out in his fictional works, so that in ”The Carasoyn” the hero Colin diverts a little burn so that it does indeed flow through his cottage.

Willie, too, with his friend Sandy, the son of the carpenter, realises this dream of MacDonald’s. After they reinstate an ancient spring the small farmhouse is able to enjoy flowing water. Willie feels that ”[i]t would have been such fun” to have it “running through the house all the hot summer day.” and when with help from Sandy’s father he constructs a room for himself in the priory ruins he does have water flowing in an open channel through the room.

Next to its practical usefulness, this flowing water certainly also bears a symbolic religious significance… Willie has a dream of renewing water. He sees his teacher and friend, the shoemaker Hector MacAllaster, in a bed surrounded by water in one of an endless row of chambers, each with its sleeping patient surrounded by flowing water…

Willie decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine… Willie expresses the wish also to be able to heal spiritually. Symbolically this aspect is later realised through his marriage with the parson’s daughter Mona—a wedding of religion and science. Willie the physician will also heal sick souls…

Willie and his friend Sandy discover in the priory ruins an ancient spring. This chalybeate spring has rejuvenating and healing powers, as it contains ingredients which prevent the iron from being in any way harmful…

While still at university, Willie decides to transform the priory ruins—which lie partly in the garden of his own home, Priory Leas, and partly in that of the parson—into a kind of sanatorium. (The name Priory Leas seems to be a pun on “lees”—what is left when water has drained away.)

To begin with, on the basis of the long-known medicinal properties of the spring, Willie turns towards treatment based upon a drinking-cure. The success of the free treatment he gives at Priory Leas to poor people who are his patients as a student-doctor establishes the good name of the springs at the university.

By the time his studies have finished “the reputation of the Prior’s Well had spread on all sides, and the country people had begun to visit the Leas, and stay for a week or ten days to drink of the water”. Later Willie extends the facilities offered. His father comes into partnership with him and contributes his small savings.

When the treatment brings in enough money they build hot and cold water baths, and install “high pressure cabins” and larger swimming pools: “They built great baths, hot and cold, and of all kinds—from baths where people could swim, to baths where they were only showered on by a very sharp rain”…

Cold baths were rediscovered in the first half of the nineteenth century, whereas the mineral-water course of treatment had been used since the Middle Ages. The popularity of both is closely connected with the Schlesian doctor Vinzenz Priessnitz (1799-1851) who opened a bathing establishment in Gräfernberg (today Freiwaldau). (see James Manby Gully’s Water Cure at Malvern)

The news of the healthy effects soon spread over the whole of Europe and modern hydrotherapy was established. Yet the fame to have discovered or rediscovered the healing strength of water actually belongs to others.

A major figure was the catholic priest, water-healer, bee-keeper, and farmer Sebastian Kneipp (1821-97). As a father-confessor of Dominican nuns he was called in 1865 to Wörishofen in the Allgäu where he was responsible, beside his pastoral duties, for the education centre and school, and for the running of the monastery.

Willie can be compared in many ways with Sebastian Kneipp. Both feel at home in the most different realms—are “working geniuses”—, both want to help spiritually and physically.

Parallels are also recognisable between MacDonald and Sebastian Kneipp. Both were believers in homeopathy… MacDonald, although a confirmed user of homeopathy and friend of famous homeopathic doctors, is careful to have his hero Willie describe his treatments as seeming to heal—as an appropriate method of healing…

This belief in the miraculous power of water echoes the Celtic water worship and mysticism so popular amongst the Victorians, and which will form such a seed bed for the ideas and philosophy of homeopathy.

George MacDonald had health problems and consulted a Dr. Hale (Robert Douglas Hale - the homeopath of Lewis Carroll), who was a homeopathic physician in the town. Through this connection he was introduced to Dr. Hunt, an expert in stammering and thus introduced to Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of ’Alice in Wonderland’ and ’Through the Looking Glass’ who was to become a close family friend…

Other literary celebrities who visited or lived in the town (Hastings) at that time included Charles Kingsley, the author of ’The Water Babies’ who preached at the Fisherman’s church on the Stade… George MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister. Though no longer well known, his works (particularly his fairy tales and fantasy novels) have inspired admiration in such notables as W H Auden, J R R Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle.

C S Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master”. Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, he began to read:

"A few hours later," said [C S Lewis](, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."

G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had

“made a difference to my whole existence.”

Elizabeth Yates wrote of Sir Gibbie,

“It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling.”

Even Mark Twain, who initially detested MacDonald, became friends with him, and there is some evidence that Mark Twain was influenced by MacDonald.

His father, a farmer, was one of the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, and a direct descendant of one of the families that suffered in the massacre of 1692. The Doric dialect of the area frequently appears in the dialogue of some of his non-fantasy novels.

MacDonald grew up influenced by his Congregational Church, with an atmosphere of Calvinism. But MacDonald never felt comfortable with some aspects of Calvinist doctrine; indeed, legend has it that when the doctrine of predestination was first explained to him, he burst into tears (although assured that he was one of the elect).

Later novels, such as _Robert Falconer_ and Lilith, show a distaste for the idea that God’s electing love is limited to some and denied to others. Especially in his Unspoken Sermons he shows a highly developed theology.

He took his degree at the University of Aberdeen, and then went to London, studying at Highbury College for the Congregational ministry.

In 1850 he was appointed pastor of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel, but his sermons (preaching God’s universal love and the possibility that none would, ultimately, fail to unite with God) met with little favour and his salary was cut in half.

Later he was engaged in ministerial work in Manchester. He left that because of poor health, and after a short sojourn in Algiers he settled in London and taught for some time at the University of London.

MacDonald was also for a time editor of Good Words for the Young, and lectured successfully in the United States during 1872-1873.

His best-known works are Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, all fantasy novels, and fairy tales such as — ”The Light Princess”, ”The Golden Key”, and ”The Wise Woman“.

“I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”

MacDonald also published some volumes of sermons, the pulpit not having proved an unreservedly successful venue.

MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson); it was MacDonald’s advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald’s three young daughters, that convinced Lewis Carroll to submit Alice for publication. Lewis Carroll, one of the finest Victorian photographers, also created photographic portraits of the girls and their brother Greville.

MacDonald was also friends with John Ruskin and served as a go-between in John Ruskin’s long courtship with Rose la Touche.

MacDonald was acquainted with most of the literary luminaries of the day; a surviving group photograph shows him with Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and William Makepeace Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman. (George MacDonald was a close friend of homeopath James John Garth Wilkinson).

As hinted above, MacDonald’s use of fantasy as a literary medium for exploring the human condition greatly influenced a generation of such notable authors as C S Lewis (who featured him as a character in his The Great Divorce), J R R Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle.

MacDonald’s non fantasy novels, such as Alec Forbes, had their influence as well; they were among the first realistic Scottish novels, and as such MacDonald has been credited with founding the ”kailyard school” of Scottish writing.

His son Greville MacDonald became a noted medical specialist, and also wrote numerous novels for children. Greville ensured that new editions of his father’s works were published. Another son, Ronald MacDonald, was also a novelist. Ronald’s son, Philip MacDonald, (George MacDonald’s grandson) became a very well-known Hollywood screenwriter.


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