Sharin Schroeder: Conference Report

George MacDonald’s Scotland

Held at the University of Aberdeen, George MacDonald’s own university, this conference perfectly matched its theme and its location. The conference’s specific focus on MacDonald’s Scottishness and Celticity led to fascinating original analyses of MacDonald’s well-known fantasies such as Phantastes (1858), The Golden Key (1867), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and Lilith (1895). However, the theme also opened up new perspectives on MacDonald’s Scottish novels and stories, which have been too often neglected by scholars.

David Robb’s keynote, “Voice from the North: MacDonald Images Scotland,” opened the conference. Robb noted that his interest in MacDonald post-dated his time at the University of Aberdeen: when he was an undergraduate, he had no idea who MacDonald was. In the lecture proper, he argued that, in MacDonald’s time, the tendency to understand a single figure as representing a national type was very much in the air. In the centenary of Robert Burns’s birth, 1859, there were 676 publicly organized events in Scotland, and Burns himself was the most common lecture topic for George MacDonald’s American tours. Although MacDonald in many ways admired Burns, he was also aware of Burns’s faults, and Robb posited that MacDonald, in David Elginbrod (1863), offered another account of what Scotland at its best can offer the world, that Elginbrod was an embodiment of the superior Scot.

Colin Manlove’s keynote address, “George MacDonald’s Journey Fantasies,” explored how Phantastes, Lilith, and The Golden Key all draw on analogies from science. Although MacDonald is known to have denigrated the reductiveness of materialism and the overreliance on the scientific at the expense of the spiritual and of romance, nonetheless MacDonald was trained as a scientist and lectured on science till quite late in his life, following all the latest developments. Manlove discussed how one of MacDonald’s strongest inspirations, Novalis, was also a scientist, and that science fiction writer H. G. Wells was quite interested in the scientific elements in Lilith. In the discussion after the lecture, Franziska Kohlt, who has worked with archival materials on MacDonald, noted her interest in Manlove’s talk, as his conclusions, from readings of the text alone, are in many ways confirmed by the material in the archives.

In the third keynote, “George MacDonald and ‘Celticity,’” Dimitra Fimi gave a fascinating broad-ranging talk, first giving a history of “Celticity” and then exploring how George MacDonald’s understanding of his own Scottishness (and his son Greville’s understanding of his father) drew on or diverged from 19th-century accounts of the Celt, including Ernest Renan’s and Matthew Arnold’s. Dimitra discussed these ideas with frequent reference to passages in George MacDonald’s novels and a special exploration of The Portent (1860/1864) and Sir Gibbie (1879). In our discussion, we addressed the question of being Celtic but perhaps not Celtic enough, a problem that haunted many of MacDonald’s characters, and perhaps MacDonald himself.

In the fourth and final keynote, ‘“The City was All a Show”: The Role of Landscape in George MacDonald’s Novels,’ John Pazdiora discussed the conflict between the wild landscape and the home landscape in MacDonald’s novels. He noted that MacDonald was conversant with Romantic landscapes and the mediation of places through literature. MacDonald was highly influenced by the Romantics, but, Pazdiora argued, he often used Romanticism for his own purposes—changing the meaning of terms to suit his own conception or reading works that pre-date the Romantics through a Romantic lens. Pazdziora also discussed how MacDonald was writing about Scotland as part of the Scottish diaspora; when he would go home to his remembered landscapes it was often because someone was ill. Thus, homeland and hearth became a place of fragility and death.

While I cannot discuss all of the other fascinating papers in the confines of one blog post (and hope some of the other attendees will cover what I miss), I will briefly mention a few: Jennifer Koopman discussed Donal Grant’s defense of poetry, which is entirely written in Doric dialect, as well as discussing a hierarchy of language in which linguistic primitivism was seen as indicating closeness to God. Rebecca Langworthy’s “Haunted by Huntly” provided accounts of the town’s past given by the 1798 and 1842 parish priests, showing how the town changed in MacDonald’s lifetime, as well as discussing incidents from MacDonald’s boyhood and the “Muckle Spate of August 1829.” Adam Walker’s “MacDonald and the Scottish Fairie-Faith,” gave an interesting history of the fairy faith in Scotland and how Scottish Calvinists reacted to it. Among other sources, Walker discussed Rev. Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, where Kirk argued that lack of belief in fairies began the slippery slope towards atheism. Kirstin Mill’s paper, “Scottish Science, Scenery, & Supernaturalism: George MacDonald’s Landscapes of Mind in The Portent addressed one of the recurring themes from this conference, showing how George MacDonald’s work merged Scottish folklore with the developing science of the mind and mesmerism. Franziska Kohlt’s paper, “From Scotland to Utopia (via Hammersmith)” discussed the house in which George MacDonald and William Morris both at one time lived as the segue to an analysis of the artistic, social, political, scientific, and theological ideas of both men.

The strengths of the conference went beyond the quality of the paper sessions: for many the conference highlight was our Friday morning trip to MacDonald’s hometown of Huntly. We were welcomed by a piper and saw many of the places important to MacDonald’s boyhood and represented in novels such as Robert Falconer (1868) and Alec Forbes of Howglen (1865). Thanks to the generosity of people in Huntly, our visits included a private tour of the back garden bordering MacDonald’s and his grandmother’s house, which is fictionally represented in Robert Falconer when Robert sneaks his grandfather’s violin to the factory to practice. We were also allowed into the garden at Howglen, where the owners provided us with fresh gooseberry juice, scones with clotted cream, and madeleines. Our tour guide through the town, Patrick Scott, also showed us the location of churches and schools which were important to MacDonald’s boyhood, the inn where MacDonald/Robert Falconer would go to hear news, the bleach fields, and the Huntly castle. We finished our tour at the Huntly library, where we were able to see manuscripts of MacDonald’s poem “Within and Without.”

Another conference highlight for me was our rainy tour of the Cruikshank Botanical Garden, where plants important to MacDonald’s fiction, such as the alder tree, the ash, the beech, water lilies, roses, and heather were carefully labeled, along with their significance in George MacDonald’s work.

Still more significant was the introduction to the MacDonald materials provided by Keith O’Sullivan & Special Collections Centre Staff and Franziska Kohlt. O’Sullivan introduced us to the collections generally while Kohlt gave the broader context, asking “What can archival holdings tell us and what new questions do they bring to our research?” Kohlt corrected the misconceptions that MacDonald wrote everything in one go, that he didn’t know German well, and that he disliked or abandoned science. We were able to see excerpts from MacDonald’s manuscripts, in which there are many more corrections, it seems, than there is original text: sometimes the original text is blocked out with ink; sometimes new paper is overlaid on the old. Kohlt also showed us how, using high-exposure photography, we can actually see what MacDonald did not want us to see—the unrevised words under his pasted revisions. The University of Aberdeen Special Collections also contains the lecture notes of all the lectures MacDonald attended (recorded by one student each semester)—as well as the exams MacDonald would have taken. There is therefore a wealth of archival material that has yet to be fully explored. George MacDonald’s great grandson also contributed numerous interesting family heirlooms, including George MacDonald’s kilt and a sketch of MacDonald that Dante Rossetti made at one of his lectures.

The final panel discussion, Future Trajectories of George MacDonald Studies, demonstrated the vibrancy of this field and our excitement for its future. We hope to make George MacDonald materials more readily available to scholars. The conference organizers, therefore, plan to turn the conference website into a starting place for MacDonald resources. We believe it is particularly important to make it more widely known what MacDonald archival material is where. (Feel free, therefore, to contact the conference organizers if you have worked in archives with George MacDonald material.) There is also great need for critical editions of MacDonald’s work. Too often the versions most readily available to readers are poor quality print-on-demand books. While it is sometimes possible to find a digitized nineteenth-century copy of a MacDonald novel, often the difficulty of finding a standard and accurate version of the novel hinders MacDonald scholarship. Critical editions, however, will be a monumental task since such editions require multiple types of expertise: expertise in Scottish literature and Doric; knowledge of Greek and of German language, literature, and philosophy; understanding of Calvinism and Universalism; understanding of developments in Victorian science; etc. Delegates at this conference, however, are excited about the future and looking forward to celebrations of the bicentenary of MacDonald’s birth in 2024.

Sharin Schroeder is an associate professor at Taipei Tech in Taiwan. In addition to her interest in George MacDonald, she publishes on Andrew Lang, Margaret Oliphant, and J.R.R. Tolkien.


One thought on “Sharin Schroeder: Conference Report

  1. Pingback: George MacDonald’s Scotland News & Blog Project | Franziska Kohlt

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