The Golden Key
On October 14, 1863, Charles Dodgson, soon to become Lewis Carroll, visited his friends the MacDonalds at their home, Elm Lodge, Heath Street, Hampstead. During the afternoon he took a photograph of George MacDonald and his eldest daughter, Lilia. It is a curious picture. Lilia is as sweet as any of Lewis Carroll’s heroines, even if she is a little too old to be perfect. But her father, reading to her in the garden, is caught with a haunted look, as if his text were the quintessence of dust and the garden a charnel-vault. The picture is probably misleading. There is nothing in the available record to suggest that MacDonald was much possessed by doom. Visits to Elm Lodge, according to Carroll’s diary and other sources, were always genial occasions. Often they included private theatricals, once Pilgrim’s Progress, again Polyeuctus. On formal occasions the company was always interesting and sometimes fine. Carroll noted, after a later visit: “Met Mr. Clemens (Mark Twain) with whom I was pleased and interested.”
George MacDonald was born in 1824 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire. He went to Aberdeen University and was ordained to the Trinity Congregational Church in 1850. His sermons were considered unsatisfactory because they did not contain enough doctrine, and after three years he resigned to become a lay preacher. He spent some years in Manchester before moving to London, where he made his living as a writer, with some aid from a Civil List pension in his later years. From 1855 to the end of the century he wrote poems, sermons, allegories, novels of Scotland, and fairy tales. He died in 1905. His most celebrated stories are At the back of the North Wind (1871). The Princess and the Goblin (1872). and The Princess and Curdie (1883). The Golden Key is not as widely known as these, but its particular pleasures are now, happily, available again.
Appropriately, George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll were friends, but their writings have little in common. No wonder the photograph is odd. Carroll’s art is Nonsense, MacDonald’s is fairy-tale: the difference is fundamental. In The Field of Nonsense Elizabeth Sewell gives the rules of the Carroll game. The first rule is that Nonsense is a closed system, which delights in minding its own business. Part of this business is to exclude many respectable considerations and values which, outside the system, are properly acknowledged. In Nonsense, Miss Sewell observes, “all the world is paper and all the seas are ink.” So the touch of nature which makes the whole world kith and kin destroys, in Nonsense, the whole pack of cards. True, the Mock Turtle was once a Real Turtle, but that was in another country, and besides we are playing “a game, to which emotion is alien.” The aim of Nonsense is “to make the mind create for itself a more orderly universe,” more like symbolic logic, that bachelor science, to be precise. Telegrams and anger are replaced by numbers, progressions, one and …
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Still Standing April 11, 1968