George MacDonald was a tremendous lover of books, and if you are reading this blog you might belong to a similar camp. Like many book lovers, MacDonald appreciated not only the content of printed volumes but also the physicality of their bindings. This quote from his novel Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood seems to voice his own appreciation spoken through one of his characters:
“I am foolishly fond of the bodies of books as distinguished from their souls, or thought-element. I do not say I love their bodies as DIVIDED from their souls; I do not say I should let a book stand upon my shelves for which I felt no respect, except indeed it happened to be useful to me in some inferior way. But I delight in seeing books about me … Nay, more: I confess that if they are nicely bound, so as to glow and shine in such a fire-light as that by which I was then sitting, I like them ever so much the better.” (Chapter 11 – “Sermon on God and Mammon”)
That admiration for their physicality later developed into a passion for book-binding as MacDonald’s son, Ronald, describes in his book From a Northern Window: A Personal Reminiscence of George MacDonald by His Son (Eureka, CA: Sunrise Books, 1989):
“George MacDonald was a man beyond the ordinary deft with his fingers, and fond of practicing the arts they were master of. A good practical carpenter, a workman-like stitcher of leather, with some practical experience, I fancy, in boyhood, of smith’s, or at least farrier’s work, his chief pleasure in this kind during his later years was book-binding; its final phase with him being delicate and loving work in the repair of old books. In one of his later novels, There and Back, there is much space given to this gentle art of book-healing, as he calls it; letting us into the secret of the author’s love and reverence for the bodies of his books, and its source in a deeper love of their spirit.” (46-47)
MacDonald took this love of books a step further by designing his own personal book-plate (shown above), as seen in a few examples of his library books at the Wade Center, and here as our July “Artifact of the Month.”
“Book-plates” are labels of ownership which are placed typically on the inside cover of a book. They may simply contain the owner’s name, or may be very elaborate works of art varying in size and detail. MacDonald’s design includes the family motto: “Corage! God mend al!” (an anagram of “George MacDonald”). The saying inspired the naming of the MacDonald house in Boscombe, England: “Corage,” and the house in Bordighera, Italy: “Casa Coraggio.”
For the book-plate’s imagery, Greville MacDonald, another of the MacDonald children, describes its inspiration in his biography of his father, George MacDonald and His Wife (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1924):
“For as long as I can remember there hung in my father’s study four of Blake’s illustrations to Blair’s [poem] ‘Grave’ . . . [the fourth one is of] the old man driven – the North Wind blowing where it listeth – into his tomb, to find himself reborn into the fullness of youth, with head uplifted to the risen sun.” (554)
Blake’s etching is titled “Death’s Door,” shown here, by kind permission of the Blake Archive. Several other variations of this etching exist as well. Redemption and rebirth were common themes in MacDonald’s writings, and serve as a fitting identifying image to be placed in books which no doubt helped their owner experience those very subjects.
A book containing MacDonald’s bookplate is currently on display in the Wade Center’s Museum. Drop by to see it in person!
Want to know more about MacDonald’s love of books? Here are some additional materials:
The Portent by George MacDonald, quote from ch. VII “The Library” -
“Now I was in my element. I never had been by any means a book-worm; but the very outside of a book had a charm to me. It was a kind of sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; as, indeed, what on God’s earth is not? So I set to work amongst the books, and soon became familiar with many titles at least, which had been perfectly unknown to me before. I found a perfect set of our poets-perfect according to the notion of the editor and the issue of the publisher, although it omitted both Chaucer and George Herbert. I began to nibble at that portion of the collection which belonged to the sixteenth century; but with little success. I found nothing, to my idea, but love poems without any love in them, and so I soon became weary. But I found in the library what I liked far better—many romances of a very marvellous sort, and plentiful interruption they gave to the formation of the catalogue. I likewise came upon a whole nest of the German classics which seemed to have kept their places undisturbed, in virtue of their unintelligibility. There must have been some well-read scholar in the family, and that not long before, to judge by the near approach of the line of this literature; happening to be a tolerable reader of German, I found in these volumes a mine of wealth inexhaustible.”
There and Back by George MacDonald, quote from ch. IV “The Bookbinder and His Pupil” -
“Richard, with his great love of reading, and therefore of books, was delighted to learn the craft which is their attendant and servitor. … It had its prime source deeper than the art of book-binding—in the love of books themselves, not as leaves to be bound, but as utterances to be heard. … Love and power combined made him look on the dilapidated, slow-wasting abodes of human thought and delight with a healing compassion—almost with a passion of healing. The worse gnawed of the tooth of insect-time, the farther down any choice book in the steep decline of years, the more intent was Richard on having it. More and more skillful he grew, not only in rebinding such whose clothing was past repair, but in restoring the tone of their very constitution; and in so mending the ancient and beggarly garments of others that they reassumed a venerable respectability.”