BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth Saintsbury, George MacDonald: A Short Life

Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing, 1987, 152 pgs.

Summary: A non-academic biography of the writer George MacDonald (1824-1905). MacDonald was a Scottish fiction writer whose works of Christian fantasy influenced C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. He appears as the protagonist’s guide to heaven in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

The book traces MacDonald’s major geographic movements from birth to death, theological developments, friends, and sources of revenue. There is very little critical engagement with his theological progress, but Saintsbury does explore contemporary influences of friends, artists, and pastors. The most unique effort is to coordinate the geography of his fiction canon with many of the places he lived.

MacDonald grew up Presbyterian, attempted becoming a Congregationalist pastor, was rejected because he taught universalism and the immortality of individual animals (57-58), and subsided into a doctrinally irregular membership in the Church of England (101). He expected that non-believers would die and be purged of their sins to join believers in heaven and placed the personal revelation of conscience above Scripture.

We read of his view of the Scripture:

MacDonald did not accept a fundamentalist view of the Bible. It is not the word that is inspired, else he maintained, it would be better written…George MacDonald valued the Scripture as giving an account of the life of Jesus, but it was his own conscience or Christ dwelling in him that was his chief guide in living (134).


Ms. Saintsbury draws a shallow MacDonald. One who liked to play dress up, neglected his children, and seems obsessed with the salvation of animals. Speaking of a horse he wrote, “That a thing can love and be loved is the same as saying it is immortal, whatever partakes of the essence of God cannot die” (135).

The accuracy of Saintsbury’s portrait may also be reflected in her aside to the reader: “like typical Victorian parents [they] seem to have had no idea of limiting the size of their family” (92).  She is most sympathetic when MacDonald meets her more modern ideals.

This is my first biography of MacDonald and I suspect others will be more interesting and accurate; however, her general picture seems to agree with the known facts of MacDonald.

Recommended for students of Lewis and MacDonald, but please be wary of Saintsbury’s lack of theological precision and prim modernism.

Shane Walker is preaching pastor at First Baptist Church in Watertown, Wisconsin. This post appeared on the blog of Andover Baptist Church in Linthicum, Maryland.