George MacDonald was born on December 10th 1824 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
The MacDonald family had proud and long historical roots. His father, was a farmer, was a direct descendant of one of the families that suffered in the infamous massacre of 1692 when the Campbells set upon the MacDonalds. George grew up with the Congregational Church, with its atmosphere of Calvinism to which George never really attached himself. A story often told is that the young George on hearing that life was already mapped out and pre-destined burst into tears and was only comforted by the re-assurance that he was one of the elect. When he was only 8, his mother, Helen, died. His father re-married 7 years later in 1839. The next year George was successful in obtaining a bursary to study at King’s College in Aberdeen and from which he also received his M.A. In 1846 George was first published, anonymously, but his poem was there in print in the Scottish Congregational Magazine. In 1848 he attended Highbury Theological College to study for the Congregational ministry. That same year he became engaged to Louisa Powell. An enduring relationship that would see them as life long companions coupled with a marriage of over fifty years. By 1850 George was appointed as the pastor of Trinity Congregational Church in Arundel. His sermons were however sometimes at odds with the Church and their more segmented views. It is also at this time that George’s health becomes a major concern. In November he suffered what would be termed ‘a severe haemorrhage’. However Louisa was by his side and her support and nursing ensured his recovery.
On March 8th 1851 George and Louisa married. As a Christmas gift to friends later that year he had printed his translation of Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis.
The year of 1852 started on a very bright note with the birth of his daughter on January 4th – Lilia.
Meanwhile George preached that with God’s universal love and the possibility that none would, ultimately, fail to unite with God were deemed to be almost heretical by the Church elders and as a punishment his salary was cut in half in June of 1852.
In May 1853 George could no longer reconcile with the Church’s demands and he resigned from the pulpit. Interestingly in his later novels, such as Robert Falconer and Lilith, there is common theme for distaste at the idea that God's electing love is limited to some and denied to others running through.
Happier news for 1853 was the birth of his daughter Mary Josephine born on July 23rd.
And with this the family decided to move to Manchester where he continued his ministerial work but his health again deteriorated. Another daughter, Caroline Grace was born on September 16th 1854. In 1855 his collection of poems ‘Within and Without’ was published.
On 20th January 1856 his son Greville was born. The year brought further good news when Lady Byron decided to become his patron. However his health once more deteriorated and the family moved to Algiers to recuperate over the winter. The following spring he was back in London and teaching at the University of London.
On August 31st 1857 a fourth daughter, Irene, was born and the family decided to settle in Hastings.
1858 brought bitter sweet times. His brother and Father both died but another daughter, Winifrid Louisa was born and his classic work ‘Phantastes’ was published.
The following year, 1859, George returned again to London and became the Professor of English Literature at Bedford College.
The following few years brought several more children into the ever growing family and a growing literary reputation.
In 1869 George accepted the editorship of Good Words for the Young and embarked on a lecture tour of Scotland. In 1871 ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ was published followed by such other classics as Wilfrid Cumbermede, The Princess and the Goblin and in 1876, Exotics. In 1877 came the beginning of a new chapter in his life with his first trip to Italy and the award of a Civil List pension.
Sadly in 1878 his daughter, Mary Josephine and the following year his son, Maurice both died. From 1880 he and his family moved to Bordighera on the Riviera dei Fiori in Liguria, Italy, almost on the French border. Locally there also was an Anglican Church, which he attended. Deeply enamoured of the Riviera, he spent 20 years there, writing almost half of his literary canon and predominantly the fantasy works.
George founded a literary studio named Casa Coraggio (Bravery House), which soon became one of the most celebrated cultural centres of its age, well attended by British and Italian travellers, and locals. Representations were often held of classic plays, and readings were given of Dante and Shakespeare.
In 1882 The Princess and Curdie was published and his reputation to grow. But again tragedy was never far away; in 1884 Grace died followed 7 years later by Lilia. Despite these impossible blows George continued to work. Lilith was published in 1895 and two years later Salted with Fire, which was to be his last novel.
Ill health now fastened its hold on George and by 1898 a stroke had taken his voice.
In 1900 he moved into St George's Wood, Haslemere, a house designed and overseen by his two sons, Robert Falconer and Greville.
By 1901 George and Louisa were able to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary but, so sadly, Louisa was to pass away on January 13th, 1902 whilst at Bordighera.
On 18th September 1905 George MacDonald died at Sagamore, Ashtead in Surrey. He was cremated and his ashes buried at Bordighera, in the English cemetery, along with his wife Louisa and daughters Lilia and Grace.
He is writing is popular to this day and as he said “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."
As a writer he was easily placed among a very distinguished group. Indeed there is a photograph of him amongst such Victorian and literary luminaries as Tennyson, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Ruskin, Lewes, and Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of the famed poets Longfellow and Walt Whitman.
His use of fantasy as a way of exploring the human condition influenced authors such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien whilst his realistic Scottish novels, and as such MacDonald have seen him established as the founder of the "kailyard school" of Scottish writing.