George MacDonald’s life led him on extensive travels. In 1872-1873 he offered a successful lecture tour in the United States. He also traveled throughout Great Britain as well as various countries in Europe. However, apart from Scotland and England, the country where he spent the most time was Italy, which became a second home for his family in MacDonald’s later years. How did a Scottish Victorian author come to have such a close connection to Italy? That is what this blog post will explore.
The MacDonald family experienced numerous health issues over the years. George MacDonald himself was in “delicate” health and suffered frequent illness from a young age, particularly with pleurisy. He also battled asthma, lung infections and bleeding, and bouts of debilitating exhaustion as a result of his extensive efforts to write, travel, and speak. Such strenuous work and activities were necessary to support his large family of eleven children. By the 1850s, it was evident that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Out of concern for his health, Lady Byron (wife of Lord Byron and a friend of MacDonald’s), arranged to send George, his wife Louisa, and their daughter Mary to Algiers, where he would be able to recuperate in a more moderate climate. In September 1856 the three traveled to northern Africa where they remained until May 1857, while the other MacDonald children stayed at home in the care of relatives. The rest cure was beneficial, and MacDonald returned home to Huntly, Scotland strengthened and healthier. The warmer climate and diverse culture in Algiers had not only been rejuvenating, but had also fascinated him.
Algiers came to mind when, in 1877, MacDonald’s daughter Mary developed an advanced case of consumption. Usually a lively and engaged girl, Mary had become withdrawn and listless during her illness, which caused her family great concern. MacDonald was also suffering from an episode of poor health at the same time, and so the decision was made to take Mary to southern Europe or Africa in hopes that the climate could improve her health much as it had done for her father back in 1857. The decision to choose Italy was largely due to a family friend who was accompanying the MacDonalds abroad. The friend, Hatty Russell, spoke Italian and her mother lived in Nervi, Italy, so in spite of the political turmoil present in Italy at that time, it became the chosen destination.
Louisa, Mary, and three of the other MacDonald children — Lily, Irene, and Ronald — departed for Italy on September 25, 1877 along with Hatty Russell and a maid for Mary. George MacDonald remained in England with his other children, working hard to write his novel Paul Faber, Surgeon. The Italian group of MacDonalds settled in Nervi and rented a home named Palazzo Cattaneo where George and the other children joined them in November.
Rolland Hein writes the following description of Palazzo Cattaneo:
“Out the window lay a large, beautifully terraced garden filled with orange trees. And down the slope to the west shimmered the waters of the Ligurian Sea, placid and clear, dotted with little sailing vessels. . . . MacDonald’s delight in his new surroundings rapidly grew. He now had greater solitude, cleaner air, and more beautiful sunsets than in England” (George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker. Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group, 1993: 301-302).
The mild Italian climate enabled George to feel significantly better with little to no discomfort from his asthma or other lung ailments. Sadly, despite what seemed to be a promising recovery in her strength early in the trip, Mary’s health continued to steadily decline. She died on April 27, 1878, the first of several losses the MacDonald family would suffer in the years to come.
Realizing that remaining in Italy was a more affordable option for the family, they decided to stay another year. After their lease was up in Nervi, they relocated to Portofino and the house Villa Barratta. The new location was isolated and beautiful. There was no carriage road leading to the house, but the MacDonalds had a boat to row across the bay. They began to invest time in learning to speak Italian, and MacDonald was able to write steadily due to the solitude as well as his improved health. His novel Sir Gibbie, a favorite for many readers, was written during this time in Italy and completed by the end of 1878. While living in Portofino, the MacDonald family also entertained guests in their home and performed dramas of stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress. These acting endeavors were a great delight to the family and continued over the years as a way to provide hospitality as well as an extra source of income.
Some may wonder how the MacDonalds could afford to travel abroad when their finances were generally tight. The income generated by George’s speaking engagements and publications was supplemented, as mentioned above, by the family’s dramatic performances. In addition, a portion of their expenses was covered by the generosity of family friends. A kind and loving man, George MacDonald had a large circle of friends who were quite wealthy and were often moved to help the MacDonald family with practical needs for health, housing, and daily life. The MacDonalds in turn were always ready to welcome others into their home, providing warm hospitality and a haven to all who visited them. These visitors included many friends and relatives from Great Britain who were visiting Italy, as well as the needy among their neighbors such as orphaned children and the poor. In addition to these sources of income, Queen Victoria honored George MacDonald with an annual Civil List Pension in the amount of 100 pounds sterling beginning in 1877.
Before returning to England in mid-May 1879, the MacDonalds decided to officially make Italy their second home. They resolved to winter there regularly in the years to come and to settle in Bordighera (the images above show views from ca. 1880s and 2009), putting an offer on a house and intending to finalize the purchase upon their return in February 1880. When they arrived back in Italy, however, they were dismayed to find that the house owner was no longer willing to sell; though he did allow the MacDonalds to stay in the home while they made other living arrangements.
Met with a difficult problem to solve, MacDonald embarked on an endeavor to build a house for his family, which for him was an exciting project requiring his vast creativity. The house was designed with the needs for both a large family and the hospitality of guests in mind. Construction was affordable and happened quickly, and the family moved into their new home in Christmas 1880, naming it “Casa Coraggio” meaning “House of Courage.” William Raeper describes the house:
“It was planted at the front with Scotch firs, and the massive building itself had four floors and a stucco tower. It stood almost back to back with the English church, and only a gate separated the MacDonalds’ garden from the church grounds. The house was a gift from friends, a testimony to the esteem they had for MacDonald.” (George MacDonald. Lion Publishing, 1987: 351)
Michael Phillips writes that Casa Coraggio “quickly became the center of life for a rapidly growing colony of intellectual Scots and English in the area.” (George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1987: 319) Casa Coraggio not only gave the MacDonald family a wonderful home, but it also gave them adequate space for plays, lectures, musical performances, and the ability to host a steady stream of friends and relatives as well.
Barbara Reynolds explains in her article “Bordighera and the British” that the MacDonalds were part of a wave of British visitors to winter in Bordighera regularly. The novel Doctor Antonio, published in English in 1855 by Italian exile Giovanni Ruffini, introduced its British readers of the beautiful scenery in Bordighera and enticed them to visit. Reynolds goes on to say:
“Before long Bordighera was transformed into a British colony complete with Anglican church, a private library containing mainly English books, a museum, an English theatre, an English chemist, an English bank, and an English cemetery.” (Reynolds, Barbara. “Bordighera and the British.” VII. Vol. 12. Wheaton, IL: The Marion E. Wade Center, 1995: 3)
The British came to Italy not just because of the scenery, but also, like the MacDonalds, for health reasons and the hope of escaping or being cured of tuberculosis. Once there, they created a number of charitable and philanthropic endeavors in the area, sharing in the welfare-minded movements of the Victorian era of which MacDonald was also a part.
As mentioned earlier, the MacDonalds suffered additional deaths in the family during the years they lived in Italy. After Mary’s death in 1878, their fifteen-year-old son Maurice developed a cough and fever, and died two weeks later on March 5, 1879. They would also lose daughters Grace (d. May 5, 1884) and Lily (d. November 22, 1891), and their little granddaughter Octavia at just nine years old (d. 1891). MacDonald himself (d. September 18, 1905) was cremated in Britain but buried in Bordighera, next to his wife Louisa (d. January 13, 1902), and daughters Grace and Lily. It is perhaps fitting that despite his Scottish heritage and love of Britain, MacDonald’s final resting place should be in this enchanting place that he also greatly loved. Indeed, Bordighera not only nurtured George MacDonald with its beauty, but its temperate climate also helped to restore his health, thereby enabling him to have time and strength to write a number of his best-loved works — ones that would be enjoyed for generations to come.