Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

MacDonald, Georgelocked

  • Glenn Edward Sadler

George MacDonald (1824–1905)

by William Jeffrey, c. 1852–60

MacDonald, George (1824–1905), poet and novelist, was born on 10 December 1824 at Duke Street, Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the second of the four surviving sons of George MacDonald (1792–1858) and his first wife, Helen (1800–1832), daughter of Captain Alexander MacKay of Duardbeg, Sutherland, and sister of the Gaelic scholar McIntosh MacKay; his maternal grandmother was Helen Falconer, daughter of the Revd Alexander Falconer.

Ancestry, early years, and education

Both MacDonald's parents were Scottish, and he was fiercely proud of his ancestry. His Jacobite great-grandfather William, the official piper and resident of Portsoy, lost his sight at Culloden. William escaped with his father from Glencoe and migrated to Portsoy, Banffshire, where he began a business quarrying and polishing marble. From Portsoy the family eventually moved to Huntly, where Charles Edward (1746–1819), the author's grandfather, became proprietor of a linen and bleaching firm and later built a thread factory and introduced banking facilities. His energetic grandfather was a good businessman and had a reputation for being tolerant and devout, with a jovial and good-natured personality.

In 1778 Charles Edward married Isabella Robertson (1756–1848) of Huntly, a religious and determined woman, who taught herself to read; she gave birth to ten children and adopted four orphans. The grandmother in Robert Falconer is an accurate biographical portrait of her. The three sons—Charles, George (the author's father), and James—became partners in their father's linen and bleaching business. George MacDonald sen. built a house on Bogie (Duke Street), where two of his sons, Charles Francis (1823–1905) and George (the author), were born. His paternal grandmother lived in the house next door, at the corner of Church Street, with a communicating door linking the two houses.

In 1826 George MacDonald the elder and his brother James moved with their families to a stone cottage which they built at Pirriesmill; it was called Bleachfield Cottage and later was known as The Farm. Here three of George MacDonald's brothers, James MacKay (1826–1834), Alexander (1827–1853), and John Hill (1830–1858), were born. George MacDonald often recalled with nostalgia the bucolic scenes of his boyhood at The Farm: the changing seasons—how the stormy winter wind 'howled in the chimney, against the windows & down at the kitchen door' (Expression of Character, 56). He later described in his autobiographical novel Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood (1871) the attic room which he occupied as a young boy. He began his formal education at an Adventure school, supported mainly by dissenters or missioners. In 1832 his mother died and seven years later, in 1839, his father married Margaret McColl (1804–1904), the daughter of Alexander Stewart of Edinburgh. She was a devoted stepmother and also gave birth to three daughters: Isobel (1841–1855), Louise (b. 1843), and Jane or Jeanie (b. 1846).

In preparation for sitting the bursary at King's College, Old Aberdeen, George MacDonald spent three months at the Aulton (Old Town) grammar school, Aberdeen, where he studied mainly Latin, and won twelfth place in the competition, winning the Fullarton Bursary of £14 per annum, enough to cover expenses for the five months' session. He attended King's College for four sessions: 1840–45, missing 1842–3, presumably for lack of funds. Because of his frail health he was unable to work at The Farm and spent the summer months 'in a certain castle or mansion in the far North', the locality of which is uncertain, 'in cataloguing a neglected library' (MacDonald and his Wife, 72–3), possibly the library of Thurso Castle, owned at the time by Sir George Sinclair. At King's College he studied Latin, Greek, maths, chemistry, natural history, and moral philosophy. He became interested in the relation of poetry and science, and won the third prize in chemistry, was fourth in natural philosophy, and in moral philosophy was seventeenth. As a student he was 'studious, quiet, sensitive, imaginative, frank, open, speaking freely what he thought' (ibid., 76). In a lengthy narrative poem 'A Hidden Life' (Poems, 1857) he gave a graphic description of his rural and university life.

'Already a poet who saw symbolic meanings in what others found commonplace, MacDonald was regarded by the students as something of a visionary' (DNB). He attended Blackfriars Street Church, Aberdeen, where the Calvinistic doctrines of everlasting punishment and election that he had heard as a child continued to disturb him. In 1845 he took the MA and published in February 1846 in the Scottish Congregational Magazine his first poem, 'David', consisting of 114 lines in blank verse.

Uncertain about his vocational career and in need of a livelihood, MacDonald became a tutor and moved to London, where through his beautiful cousin Helen MacKay, who was married to Alexander Powell, he met James Powell's third daughter, Louisa (1822–1902). She was plain, but he admired her sense of humour, honesty, and frankness, and a romance ensued. Still unsure about his career, he gave up tutoring and entered Highbury Theological College, Middlesex, in 1848, to train as a Congregational minister. Finding his studies at Highbury College uncongenial, he took itinerant preaching engagements and did not finish his course, but was ordained in his first and only pastorate, the Trinity Congregational Chapel at Arundel, Sussex, in 1850. On 8 March 1851 he and Louisa Powell were married. Because MacDonald refused to subscribe to any sectarian position, 'neither of Arminian nor Calvinist' (Expression of Character, 34), some members of his congregation were offended and unable to grasp his poetic sermons, influenced by his translation Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis (privately published for friends in 1851). The reduction of his small stipend led to his resignation in May 1853.

First writings, 1855–1868: poetry and novels

In need of financial support for his growing family and still determined to continue preaching, MacDonald moved to Manchester, where his brother Charles lived. There he became friends with Alexander John Scott, principal of Owens College, who greatly influenced him intellectually, and with Henry Septimus Sutton, a religious poet. Unable to find another pastorate, he took a room in Renshaw Street and began preaching on Sundays to some friends. He also contributed regularly to the Christian Spectator, and completed in 1855 his first book, Within and Without, a dramatic poem dedicated to his wife, the first draft of which had been written at Arundel in the winter of 1850. Its overly complicated plot entails reversal of fate and tragic circumstances, in which Count Jullian, who has become a monk, escapes from a monastery, rescues Lilia, a lady he has loved in the past, from a wicked noble, stabs the villain, and elopes with her; thereby MacDonald hoped to communicate to his wife that marital love is only an outgrowth of devotion to God. Filled with religious symbolism, the poem demonstrates MacDonald's lyrical talent as well as his failings as a dramatist. It won, however, the appreciation of Tennyson and the intense admiration of Lady Byron, who became at once one of MacDonald's closest friends and supporters. Poems (1857) strengthened MacDonald's reputation, and in 1858 he published Hymns and Sacred Songs. Also in 1858 his first major book appeared, Phantastes: a Faerie Romance for Men and Women, a prose romance of Spenserian allegory and fairy tales, which takes rank with La Motte-Fouqué's Undine and other classics of its kind. It contains some of MacDonald's most fascinating and impressive lyrics.

Throughout MacDonald's literary career he experimented with various forms of poetry and prose. For the next ten years, from 1862 to 1872, he concentrated on building his reputation as a novelist and lecturer. Hoping he might gain a wider audience, he turned to drama, writing a play ('If I had a Father'), which he subsequently turned into a novel ('Seekers and Finders'), but this was never published. Encouraged by George Murray Smith, the publisher of Phantastes, to write novels, he wrote 'prose fiction of two kinds, one of which dealt with the mystical and psychic and the other described humble life in Scotland' (DNB). David Elginbrod (1863), dedicated to the memory of Lady Byron, Adela Cathcart (1864), and The Portent: a Story of the Inner Vision of the Highlanders, Commonly Called the Second Sight (1864) were early works in the first category, which effectively challenged nineteenth-century materialism and contributed to the interest in psychic experiences. Alec Forbes (1865) and Robert Falconer (1868) are autobiographical novels that 'rank among the classics of Scottish literature in their powerful delineation of Scottish character, their sense of the nobility of country work, and their appreciation of ideal beauty'. In succeeding novels, chiefly in Scottish settings, MacDonald pursued the same aim in Malcolm (1875) and its sequel, The Marquis of Lossie (1877). In the English novel Paul Faber, Surgeon (1879), in which philosophic reflection predominates, he explores the conflict of the scientific mind and spiritual belief. In Sir Gibbie (1879) MacDonald returns to his autobiographical sources in a fictionalization of scenes from his student days in Aberdeen. In this novel a motherless mute street urchin loyally attends to his kind but drunken father, once a man of wealth but now a poor cobbler. After his father's death he flees to the countryside, where he is taken in by a cotter and her husband; eventually he recovers his lost fortune, marries, and lives happily ever after. Similarly in Castle Warlock: a Homely Romance (1882) MacDonald pursues successfully his favourite theme of the love of father and son and family pride. Of the English novels, Wilfrid Cumbermede (1872), a Bildungsroman set in the early nineteenth century, and Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876), are the most notable.

Juvenile fiction and fantasy

In 1867 MacDonald published his first collection of fairy tales, Dealings with the Faeries, which includes two of his classic shorter tales: 'The Light Princess', about a little girl who must learn self-sacrifice in order to regain her physical gravity, and 'The Golden Key', in which he tried to depict the spiritual process of birth, maturation, and the future state—the lifelong activity of becoming a child, as he defined ‘childlikeness’. From the scenes of his own boyhood—the bleaching fields around The Farm, the ruined castle nearby, the intriguing idle looms standing silent in the deserted thread-spinning factory, and, most impressive to him, the transporting power of the wind—MacDonald constructed the symbolic landscapes of his fairy tales.

Although MacDonald acquired a remarkable reputation during his lifetime as a poet and novelist, he is more highly regarded today as a writer of children's fiction and fantasy, and for his religious writings. He is known best for his ability—defined by C. S. Lewis—as a mythopoeic writer, that is, one who creates a fantasy hovering between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. He has been credited in this regard with establishing in the nineteenth century a tradition of symbolic fantasy fiction that has many modern admirers and imitators, including writers and artists like C. S. Lewis and Maurice Sendak. MacDonald's individualistic expression of his belief in immortality and in the presence of an inherent goodness in the universe ('Yet I know that good is coming to me—that is always coming, though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it'; Phantastes, 323) continues to attract religious readers to his sermons, which are frequently quoted and have been anthologized and reprinted.

MacDonald's special talent was to create literary parables which borrowed heavily from fairy tale, myth, and biblical tradition. Having published the first of a series of Unspoken Sermons (1867), he initiated his career as a writer for children by accepting the co-editorship of Good Words for the Young, in which he serialized, in 1868–9, his classic of childhood fantasy, At the Back of the North Wind (1871). This was followed by Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood (1871) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872). In 1875 he published The Wise Woman, and the sequel to the Princess books, The Princess and Curdie, appeared in 1882.

As a writer for children, MacDonald converted the popular nineteenth-century Dickensian pattern of the rags to riches orphaned child into parabolic fantasies, which in their moral and philosophical complexity surpass both the traditional fairy tale and the stories of his contemporaries. The child in his stories not only experiences fantasy adventures of co-inhabiting two worlds, as Diamond does in At the Back of the North Wind, or going up castle stairs to the timeless tower room, inhabited by the great-great-grandmother Wise Woman, as Princess Irene does in The Princess and the Goblin, but he or she must learn also several important lessons about the meaning of life and death, generally stated in unanswerable questions. Diamond's conversations with North Wind and Princess Irene's encounters with her great-great-grandmother are filled with paradoxical situations and statements, which suggest that the stories hold meaning for readers of all ages.

In At the Back of the North Wind, enhanced greatly by Arthur Hughes's illustrations, MacDonald contrasts the real world of the child Diamond, who sleeps in a loft over a stable, with his dream adventures with Mistress North Wind, who takes him on her flights over London and beyond. He tells her that he wants to go to the country at her back; she answers him that this is very difficult to do but she finally consents. The curious country to which he is taken is a dreamland of fictional parables representing daily life, events, and circumstances, ending with death itself. Similarly in The Wise Woman, or, The Lost Princess: a Double Story, Princess Rosamond and the shepherd's daughter Agnes have educational confrontations with the invincible Wise Woman (Mistress North Wind in disguise), who teaches them the true meaning of life's virtues—lessons which are learned also by 'The day boy and the night girl' in The History of Photogen and Nycteris: a Day and Night Märchen (1879), the last of his collected fairy tales, reprinted in 1882.

All of MacDonald's stories for children are—as G. K. Chesterton suggests—disguises of some sort: 'The fairytale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside.' Because 'George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses or goblins and good fairies', he 'dressed them up as ordinary men and women' (MacDonald and his Wife, 11). It is perhaps for this reason that the children in his stories do not doubt the existence of the fairy tale inhabitants in them. His classics for children—the Princess books and The Wise Woman—challenge readers to ask themselves questions about the nature of goodness, the limitless power of the unseen, and belief in a hereafter.

Despite his writing and preaching without intermission, MacDonald's income was still small. He took over the full editorship of Good Words for the Young (1872–3) and for a short time held an evening lectureship at King's College, London. In 1872 he went on a lecturing tour in America, where he found enthusiastic audiences. There he met John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, C. D. Warner, Richard Watson Gilder, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Phillips Brooks, and later discussed co-operation on a novel with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who visited the MacDonalds on their return from America to London at The Retreat, Hammersmith, later occupied by William Morris, and known then as Kelmscott House. MacDonald continued lecturing and wrote another, less well-known, romance for children, Gutta Percha Willie: the Working Genius (1873), about Willie MacMichael, who becomes a talented blacksmith, shoemaker, carpenter, and mechanic. Eventually he grows up and becomes a doctor and provides healing waters for the patients from a medicinal spring in an ancient priory, which he and his father restored.

The last period, 1880–1898

By 1880 MacDonald had achieved an international reputation as a poet, novelist, lecturer, and preacher. Two of his most famous friends were Robert Browning and John Ruskin, the latter of whom was a visitor at MacDonald's London home, and who ranked MacDonald's poem Diary of an Old Soul (1880) with Longfellow's Hiawatha and Keble's hymns. His wide range of friends included the Carlyles, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Lord Tennyson, Octavia Hill, Dean Stanley, Matthew Arnold, the eighth duke of Argyll, John Stuart Blackie, Lord Houghton, Lord and Lady Mount-Temple, Arthur Hughes (whose nephew became engaged to MacDonald's daughter Mary Josephine), and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). In 1868 he was awarded the honorary degree of LLD by Aberdeen University and was granted a civil-list pension of £100 in 1877.

At fifty-seven MacDonald wrote in an attempt to summarize the meaning of his life to a close friend, Professor George Rolleston:

All my life, I might say, I have been trying to find that one Being, and to know him consciously present; hope grows and grows with the years that lead me nearer to the end of my earthly life; and in my best moods it seems ever that the only thing worth desiring is that his will be done.

Expression of Character, 331

In 1880 he privately published A Book of Strife, in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul, which contains some of his most moving devotional poetry. In 1893 he published the two volumes of his Collected Poetry. His last major work, Lilith, appeared in 1895, the companion to his romance Phantastes. This is a classic work of fantasy fiction, in which MacDonald explores the difficult subject of converting evil into good, and struggles with his own belief in immortality as, in the final years of his life, he was forced to face the death of some of his own children. Having had to endure poor health for most of his life, MacDonald spent the greater part of each year with his family from 1881 to 1901 at Casa Coraggio, Bordighera, Italy. The house was built by himself largely out of contributions from friends. At Bordighera as in London, where his charitable activity was unceasing, he proved a friend to all the neighbouring poor. In spite of his failing health he published his last novel, Salted with Fire, in 1897, in which he returns to recollections of his early life and only pastorate, and expresses his lifelong interest in the nature of goodness, repentance, and the symbolic meaning of marital love as an expression of love for God.

After the death of his beloved wife in 1902, MacDonald's own health deteriorated significantly—and shortly afterwards he suffered a stroke. This left him partially paralysed, and he returned to England to live in a house built for him by his eldest son at Haslemere. He died after a long illness at Sagamore, Ashtead, the home of his youngest daughter, Lady Troup, on 18 September 1905. Of a family of six sons and five daughters, five sons and two daughters survived their father. His ashes after cremation at Woking were buried in the English cemetery at Bordighera, and a memorial to him exists in the MacDonald family churchyard at Drumblade, near Huntly.


  • Greville MacDonald, George MacDonald and his wife (1924)
  • J. M. Bulloch, A centennial bibliography of George MacDonald (1925)
  • M. Hutton, ‘The George MacDonald collection’, Yale University Library Gazette, 51/2 (Oct 1976)
  • G. E. Sadler, ‘The cosmic vision: a study of the poetry of George MacDonald’, PhD diss., U. Aberdeen, 1966
  • An expression of character: the letters of George MacDonald, ed. G. E. Sadler (1994)
  • W. Raeper, George MacDonald (1987)
  • D. S. Robb, George MacDonald (1987)
  • C. E. Troup, ‘Notes on the boyhood of George MacDonald’, Deeside Field Club (1925)
  • W. D. Geddes, ‘George MacDonald as a poet’, Blackwood, 149 (1891), 361–70
  • private information (2004) [Charles Francis MacDonald; Maurice MacDonald, grandson; Christopher MacDonald, great-great grandson; Naomi Lewis; Mrs Freda Lawson]
  • M. Gray, ‘A brief sketch of the life of George MacDonald’, The Bookman, 29 (1905)
  • R. J. Troup, ‘Huntly and George MacDonald’, Transactions of the Buchan Club, 18/1 (1964) [repr.]
  • The Times (21 Sept 1905)
  • R. Hein, George MacDonald: Victorian mythmaker (1993)
  • E. Saintsbury, George MacDonald: a short life (1987)
  • W. Raeper, ‘Diamond and Kilmeny: MacDonald, Hogg and the Scottish folk tradition, 7’, Anglo-American Literary Review, 2 (1994), 63–72
  • R. B. Shaberman, George MacDonald: a bibliographical study (1990)
  • bap. reg. Scot.


  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., literary MSS and papers
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • Huntly Branch Library, Huntly, Aberdeenshire, literary MSS, collected material
  • Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, manuscripts
  • North Aberdeenshire Museums, MacDonald/Troup Collection, corresp., MSS, and letters
  • U. Aberdeen, corresp. and literary MSS
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp.
  • Balliol Oxf., MSS
  • BL, MSS and letters
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS and letters
  • DWL, letters to Henry Allon
  • FM Cam., MSS
  • King's Lond., corresp. and poems
  • Mitchell L., Glas., MSS
  • NL Scot., letters to Lord Mount-Temple and Lady Mount-Temple and poems
  • NYPL, letters
  • Shakespeare Centre, Stratford upon Avon, MSS
  • U. Cal., Los Angeles, letters
  • U. Nott. L., Hallward Library, letters to Henry Septimus Sutton
  • Wheaton College, Illinois, Marion E. Wade Center


  • W. Jeffrey, 1852–1860, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Reid, oils, 1868, NPG
  • G. Reid, oils, 1868, Marischal College, Aberdeen
  • G. A. Lawson, copper bust, 1873, Royal Scot. Acad.; [on loan to Scot. NPG]
  • C. Harrison, oils, 1897, Scot. NPG
  • G. Cook, stipple (after photograph by Elliott & Fry), NPG
  • attrib. C. L. Dodgson, photograph, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, cabinet photograph, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • A. Munro, bronze medallion, Scot. NPG
  • Dr Wallich, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • H. J. Whitlock, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • chromolithograph, BM

Wealth at Death

£1148 7s. 4d.: resworn probate, 3 Feb 1906, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]