“If God be light, then death itself must be full of splendor – a splendor probably too keen for our eyes to receive.” – George MacDonald
I typically avoid abridged books (condensed, edited or simplified versions of classic literature) because too much of what makes a classic enjoyable in the first place is removed – eloquent writing, beautiful imagery, profound metaphors. Plot alone does not make a classic; as every good writer knows, all the elements of literature – plot, character, setting, theme, figurative language – work together to produce a harmonizing work of art. Reading an abridged classic is akin to plunking out the melody of the Hallelujah chorus on the piano with one finger. The effect is just not the same.
Unfortunately, some classics contain archaic language, the unfamiliarity of which renders them more or less inaccessible to today’s reader. (As a side note, even university students rely on footnotes to understand Shakespeare.) Thus the reason why many Victorian novels have fallen into obscurity. I have even abandoned reading a couple myself for this blog. If a talented writer could carefully and respectfully edit an obscure classic, to make it comprehensible for today’s reader, while still maintaining the original style, charm, and richness, that would be ideal.
Michael Phillips has done this with The Fisherman’s Lady by George MacDonald, originally titled Malcolm and published in 1875. In the original text, the characters speak Scots, making much of the dialogue incomprehensible to modern-day readers (see an example here). Phillips desired to stay as true to MacDonald’s original work as possible, aiming to retain for the 20th century reader (The Fisherman’s Lady was published in 1982) the style, tone, themes and language which first drew him to MacDonald and inspired him to resurrect his works so that others could enjoy them too. The result is a suspenseful gothic tale set in the rustic countryside of Scotland, peopled with a range of noble and evil characters. Some scenes are quite humourous and memorable, and throughout the book you can see foreshadowing of C. S. Lewis’ thoughts in the dialogue and themes (C. S. Lewis said that he never wrote a book in which he did not quote George MacDonald).
Malcolm is the ideal Christian man in The Fisherman’s Lady, the Victorian exemplar of the noble gentleman, a man who strives to be the picture of Christ – always serving others, putting himself last, acting humbly, seeking to please God above all else, no matter the cost to his life or his reputation – in a word, chivalrous (a term that has unfortunately become soured). The Victorian theme of station and class pervades the novel, but it is juxtaposed with Biblical teachings such as wealth being an obstacle for salvation, the equality of the rich and poor in God’s eyes, and God’s prioritizing of the heart rather than the appearance. Pleasing God is Malcolm’s preeminent ambition, and so when he seeks advice from Miss Horn upon being wrongly accused of a wicked act and she says “Who wouldn’t rather be accused of all the sins of the Commandments than to be guilty of one of them?”, Malcolm immediately accedes the truth of this statement and bothers himself little more about the scandalous gossip.
Malcolm also takes the teaching about being obedient and submissive to one’s master very seriously, seeking to honour the Marquis, his employer, even though the Marquis himself does not always act honourably and honestly. Malcolm answers first and foremost to God. And he shares the truth about Christ and his coming kingdom with others from a variety of places on their spiritual journeys, resulting in rich, interesting theological ideas and questions being parried about between the characters in their conversations. Malcolm is also quite witty and playful in his speech, and that delight combined with the mystery of his birth and the intrigue of the horrific “wizard’s chamber” make this tale a thoroughly enjoyable, unputdownable read, brimming with potential for a great Christian movie, if anyone’s listening.
Read a review of George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a totally different kind of novel.
Other books about the ideal Victorian gentleman:
Lorna Doone – R. D. Blackmore
The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte M. Yonge