George MacDonald (1824-1905) was born in Huntly, near Aberdeen, Scotland. Though George MacDonald is less known today, he was a formidable presence in the nineteenth century: Lewis Carroll consulted MacDonald and his family about draft versions of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, MacDonald was a good friend and correspondent of Victorian sage John Ruskin, and he was one of the first lecturers at the University of London. He was well regarded for his innovative fantasy writing, his poetry and novels, his literary criticism and teaching, and his challenging spiritual reflections. MacDonald’s work has also influenced a number of writers, including Mark Twain, E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle. MacDonald is a major figure in the development of modern English fantasy literature, due to his extensive creative and theoretical writing in this area and to the influence his works of fantasy (Lilith, Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, for example) have had on subsequent writers. In describing the adventures of a cursed princess, The Light Princess subverts fairy tale tropes of heroic princes and happy endings, while criticising and satirising clichés of class and gender. The tale responds to its Victorian setting through its location in the nineteenth-century reinvention of the literary fairy tale and through its original publication in MacDonald’s 1864 novel Adela Cathcart, which represents a literary salon inspired by nineteenth-century homeopathic practice.
Our project, as well as providing reflections on MacDonald’s work, also engages in other methods which MacDonald enjoyed as a way of interpreting the arts.
Illustration: George MacDonald had strong connections to the visual arts, including an appreciation for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which Helen Sutherland traces in his writing. However, his strongest connection is possibly with the work of Arthur Hughes, who illustrated a number of his works. As Sutherland describes:
‘The Victorian period is noted for celebrated pairings of authors and illustrators – Charles Dickens and ‘Phiz’ (Hablot K. Browne)or Lewis Carroll and Sir John Tenniel immediately come to mind – and to those ranks could be added the association between MacDonald and Hughes, which was sufficiently close for it to be regarded as a ‘brotherhood’ by Greville MacDonald. Given the closeness of this relationship, it is hardly surprising that the influence was reciprocal, with Hughes giving visual form to MacDonald’s ideas and MacDonald influencing Hughes’ choice of subjects and themes, even for paintings which were not directly illustrative.’
For more information, see Helen Sutherland, ‘George MacDonald and the Visual Arts’ in Rethinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries, ed. Christopher MacLachlan, John Patrick Pazdziora and Ginger Stelle (Glasgow: ASLS, 2013), pp. 216-234 (p. 227).
George MacDonald first published The Light Princess as part of a tradition of reading tales aloud. His novel Adela Cathcart (1864) features a storytelling club in which members gather to hear and comment on tales read aloud, one of which is The Light Princess. MacDonald had good reason to value this practice, as he often read aloud tales to his own children. Mrs. MacDonald read other tales aloud to their children, such as their friend Lewis Carroll’s draft version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). The MacDonald children’s strong enjoyment of this tale encouraged Carroll in seeking publication, as William Raeper notes in his biography of MacDonald. MacDonald also created a scroll version of this tale to be read aloud to audiences, as Jan Susina describes: ‘MacDonald handwrote it on a scroll that functioned both as script and prop for a performance piece that he read aloud, often to a college-aged audience.’
For more information, see: ‘More is Meant that Meets the Ear: Narrative Framing in the Three Versions of The Light Princess’ George MacDonald: Literary Heritage and Heirs, ed Roderick McGillis (Wayne, Pennsylvania: Zossima Press, 2008), pp. 98-112 (pp. 99-100, 106-108).
William Raeper, George MacDonald: Novelist and Victorian Visionary (Tring: Lion, 1987), p. 173.