This was originally written with the intention of submission to the site Speculative Faith, but it was long even after I trimmed it down, and now I have a blog to fill with crap.
George MacDonald is best known as CS Lewis’s ideological mentor. He even plays the role of Virgil in Lewis’s Divine Comedy-esque The Great Divorce. But in his own works, MacDonald leaned more in the direction of the romantic, rather than Lewis’s lean to the academic and logical. To me, the best way to describe MacDonald’s flavor is a mix between Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Romantic-era poets, a dash of Dickensian Victorianism, and Mr. Fred Rogers. Come to think of it, I think Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister like MacDonald. Wikipedia backs me up. Is there something near-magical about certain Presbyterian ministers?
On the flip side, all of MacDonald’s work is pretty heavily Victorian, and Marquis is no exception. As in, it’s chock full of classism, sexism, a little racism, probably a couple of –isms I’ve forgotten. It’s mostly benevolent classism and sexism, but DO NOT WANT all the same.
It harshens the mellow I get from the Mr. Rogers-esque, good-natured serenity.
The Marquis of Lossie is a sequel to Malcolm, the latter focusing on the eponymous hero’s childhood while Marquis is about his young adulthood. Raised as a fisherman, he finds out that his unknown father was the Marquis of Lossie, who was secretly married to his mother. His younger half-sister, Florimel, is the acknowledged heir, and Malcolm spends most of the book trying to serve and protect her as a manservant while the legal means to declare himself rightful heir is managed.
At this point in time, I haven’t read the first book, Malcolm, but I have read Warlock o’ Glenwarlock, which is basically a longer, clumsier, much more boring version of the same story as Malcolm/Marquis. Marquis is probably the best example of the micro-trope in MacDonald that I call “Scottish Jesus.”
Backing up a bit, the biggest problem with this book is its weird mishmash of the idealistic and the realistic. Most of the characters are realistic, even extraordinarily so. MacDonald has a real knack for capturing a distinct and complete personality. But although Malcolm has a distinct personality, frankly, he’s too perfect. He’s too ideal.
Malcolm is spiritual and wise to Jesus-y levels, hence my nickname for him. He’s perfectly insightful and has a perfection reaction, emotionally and verbally and physically, for everyone and everything he meets. He is the epitome of traditional manliness, virtually never suffering from sickness and mastering an untameable horse and expertly handling a sailboat. He’s also perfectly scholarly, reading Epictetus in the original Greek and carrying on an intelligent conversation about the meaning of art with an artist. He can even sing in a full and manly voice in extemporaneous rhyme. He is not human.
This can get pretty annoying, especially when most of the supporting characters are wonderfully real and fleshed out. “Blue” Peter is well-intentioned but unconsciously and stupidly prejudiced against people who speak educated English instead of Scots dialect. Florimel, the sister, is young and fairly stupid. The dastardly lord who hopes to marry Florimel for her title and money is a believable, if uncomplicated, self-centered asshole. Florimel’s faithful swain, the poor artist Lenorme, is actually refreshing skeptical, if in a subtle way, though I was never entirely sure why he loves her so much, except because she’s pretty.
That segues nicely into the sexist problems. The women characters are believable, but the main two, Florimel and Clementine (spoiler alert: the love interest), have to be carefully herded by a male, i.e., Malcolm, because they are both so ignorant in their own special ways. This grinds my gears, even a century and a half removed from it, because they were raised to be ignorant. Self-fulfilling prophecy much? To sum it all up, the good women are under male headship, and the independent women are either stupid or villainous. For real, that’s pretty much how it breaks down.
In contrast, the unmarried man, Malcolm’s mentor, is another Scottish Jesus, except without the physically manly stuff. That’s fine in of itself, but within the context of this pattern, it makes me feel a little stabby.
Anyway, on to the classism. This is the most paradoxical part of the book, because MacDonald plays two opposite tropes straight against each other. It’s like he’s trying to take the taco of blue-bloodedness and the pizza of salt-of-the-earthiness and trying to shove them together with all the success that is taco pizza, i.e., not at all.
MacDonald makes a pretty big deal of Malcolm’s blue blood (and therefore his supposed inherent nobility) from his marquis father and Highland chief ancestors, but he also plays up Malcolm upbringing among the competent and self-reliant Common Man. MacDonald is very obviously aware of the flaws of both classes, the ignorant prejudice of the Common Man, the uselessness and entitled selfishness of the nobility. It’s like Malcolm one-ups the nobles by his salt-of-the-earth upbringing and one-ups the honest everyman by his inherited nobility (though MacDonald is also aware that nobility of character isn’t guaranteed to inherit). But of course Scottish Jesus is going to be the perfect combination of the best parts of each. That’s another nail in Scottish Jesus’s crucifix (and I’m not sure how blasphemous that joke is).
It’s just baffling to the point of being unpalatable, again like taco pizza. MacDonald takes it for granted that this feudal-type hierarchy is the best system to work in despite knowing its debilitating weak points. But most of this disconnect is probably due to the natural difference in opinion between an American and a royalist European.
As for the presentation of Christianity, it feels like Mr. Rogers. Slow but calming and often insightful. Some of the theology is debatable (like the assumption about hierarchy), but it’s not terribly objectionable.
As with Lewis, there is a lot of religious argument (or counterargument) within the text. The difference is mostly in scope and tone. Lewis’s academics show, as he tends to a more logical view. MacDonald deals more in the commoner kind of sense, focused on challenging apathetic, institutionalized, and nominal Christianity.
On the whole, though, it’s very much worth a read, especially if idealistic heroes are your thing.