George MacDonald,
(Bethany House, 2001)
originally published as
The Fisherman's Lady
(George Routledge & Sons, 1875)
& The Marquis' Secret
(J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1877)

One of the stories in this book was originally published in 1875 and the other in 1877. George MacDonald is being discovered again as one of the great writers of the Victorian era. He moved in the circles of Charles Dickens and W.M. Thackeray, and was great friends with Lewis Carroll and Charles Dodgson.

In this modern publication, The Fisherman's Lady and The Marquis' Secret are brought together in one volume titled Malcolm. Editor Michael Phillips has successfully prepared a smoother pace for the modern reader. Though one of the stories is much more entertaining than the other, it was a wise move to publish them together because there is a strong yearning to learn more about these characters of George MacDonald's immediately after reading the first.

The story revolves around a small Scottish fishing village and the marquis' estate. And, of course, the marquis owns the village, but doesn't take much note of what goes on there except when he wants to entertain himself and his guests -- which often turns out to be a sorry mess. He has a young daughter who begins to find Malcolm interesting, but at times repressive. Conflict arises daily -- some of it comical, some of it appalling -- described with utmost realism and detail.

The characters are some of the most interesting people I have ever encountered. Though we love and admire Malcolm, the hero, he is definitely not the most delightful character in the book. In The Fisherman's Lady, MacDonald is as successful as anyone I've ever read at bringing the reader up close to the characters. You can feel them breathing beside you and I gasped at one point when a character appeared.

There is a mystery about Malcolm's origins. Old Duncan found a baby beside him when he awoke one morning, in a cave outside of the town. Duncan, who is a caring and emotional father, nonetheless riles beyond measure at the mention of a "Cawmil." He's obviously of MacDonald kin and is really the star of the story. I missed his company in the second section.

The Marquis' Secret brings closure, ties up the loose ends of the first, but doesn't tell a story half as well. There's less emphasis on drawing out the characters and more on plot. The setting isn't as colorful and detailed, and though it is dreary London town of the 1800s rather than a scenic ocean-side village, I know London can be more interestingly done.

This part of the book is disappointing because of bland new characters and the weight of the plot, which seems forced. Because the reader is already emotionally involved with the characters the author has us captive, but there's more a feeling of being an eavesdropper than a welcome guest. I have an image of MacDonald being pressured for more of this story, but perhaps he had grown tired of the characters or felt he had invested enough in them already, or perhaps he just needed to get a sequel out in a rush. For whatever reason, the writing has not the quality of the first.

Underlying the whole story are the Christian values of respect and love for one's neighbor. Malcolm is the deliverer of the lessons, and at times he's too good to be true, but he is unwavering in his convictions and is the voice of reason in times of trouble. Sometimes his propensity for the truth gets him embroiled in more trouble. Unfortunately, he is not as convincing in the second story, I just wanted to take him and shake him.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to read Scottish historical fiction and mystery. Duncan's attitude and accent (he speaks English with the long Gaelic vowel sounds) is so enjoyable. The first story is stand-alone marvelous, and though the second is not as creative, they are both more than enjoyable. For families who read aloud, this would be a great choice for those with children aged 10-14. I'm certainly going to make the effort to find more of MacDonald's works to read.

[ by Virginia MacIsaac ]
Rambles: 6 April 2002

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