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George MacDonald Collection

Call Number: GEN MSS 103

Scope and Contents

The George MacDonald Collection consists of letters, manuscripts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and printed material documenting the life and career of author George MacDonald and his family. The collection contains material spanning the years 1822 to 1946, with the bulk falling between 1850 and 1890.

Series I, Correspondence , consists of over 3,500 letters to and from members of the MacDonald family is divided into two main subseries, General Correspondence and Family Correspondence. In both subseries, letters to and from George MacDonald have been separated for easier identification. General Correspondence contains letters from a number of prominent literary and religious figures, among them Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Samuel L. Clemens, Mary Mapes Dodge, Charles L. Dodgson ("Lewis Carroll"), Edward Eggleston, James T. Fields, Richard Watson Gilder, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Octavia Hill, Charles Kingsley, Thomas Lynch, F. D. Maurice, Henry Crabb Robinson, and John Ruskin.

Twenty-six letters from Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to Louisa MacDonald and her young daughters Mary, Grace, Lilia, and Winifred are generally humorous, often feigning hurt or indignation; and their riddles, jokes, and tall tales reveal his playfulness and prankishness. Several letters mention Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and Sylvie and Bruno. A prank letter of ca. 1870 purports to be from the actress Kate Terry (whom Lily wanted to meet), expressing an unwillingness to meet the "bad" MacDonald girl--a typical joke on Dodgson's part.

A typical letter is that of May 23, 1864, in which he cautions against believing everything he writes. "If you set to work to believe everything, you will tire out the believing muscles of your mind & then you'll be so weak you won't be able to believe the simplest true things." A letter to Mary Josephine MacDonald on January 22, 1866 gives his tongue-in-cheek "treatment" for a kitten's toothache. In a more serious vein is his letter of January 13, 1892 to Louisa MacDonald, in which he deplores his inability to complete the many writing projects he has begun, adding,"I earnestly long to complete the second (& concluding) volume of 'Sylvie & Bruno.' Whether it is better, or worse, than the 'Alice' books, I have no idea, but I take a far deeper interest in it, as having tried to put more real thought into it."

Samuel Clemens's letter of September 19, 1882 comments on copyright and royalty problems. "I perceive now, after all these wasted years, that an author ought always to be connected with a highway man." Letters from Anne Jane and George Cupples (both minor nineteenth-century writers) constitute one of the largest files in General Correspondence and reveal much about the MacDonald family's activities while focusing on the Cupples' own lives and work. Letters from Octavia Hill (dated 1869-1910), social reformer and pupil and friend to both John Ruskin and F. D. Maurice, often speak of the MacDonalds' activities as well as her own work with charities and reform institutions. A letter from Frances Martin (April 6, 1872) discusses the death of F. D. Maurice, while another (September 2, 1879) refers to activities of the College of Working Women.

A letter from theologian and classical scholar Edward Plumptre (December 1, 1866) reflects a religious controversy early in MacDonald's career as a minister. Plumptre notifies MacDonald that there is growing dissatisfaction among the faculty at King's College (where MacDonald held a temporary lectureship) over his having preached at an "independent chapel"--an "occasion of offense both among the pupils and your colleagues." Ernest Rhys writes of having his depression lifted by reading Sir Gibbie and of establishing a reading society among younger pit-men in Durham.

Twenty-seven letters from editor and publisher Alexander Strahan (1869-73) often comment on MacDonald's publications or his editorship of Good Words for the Young. His letter of January 10, 1870 gives an amusing account of William S. Gilbert, while other letters mention the activities of Tennyson and Trollope. William Geddes and William Gregory write letters relating to MacDonald's student days at King's College, Aberdeen, Geddes's letter of August 19, 1865 recalling MacDonald's reputation as a scholar and a writer at the college.

The majority of letters from literary figures are an aftermath to MacDonald's lecture tour in America in 1872, when he established friendships with almost every writer of any reputation. The most lasting of these friendships was with the young author and editor Richard Watson Gilder, their close mutual fondness reflected in Gilder's twenty-seven letters (1872-1901), mostly to Louisa (whom he took to calling "Mommy" after her return to England). Most of Gilder's letters are fond recollections of his time with the MacDonalds on their American tour and laments on their separation; several discuss his early literary efforts and aspirations.

The letters from MacDonald and his family in General Correspondence are generally less revealing. MacDonald's letters often reflect his religious ardor; among those which reveal his staunch Christian stance on life and death are letters to a Mrs. Cunningham (Christmas, 1873), Margaret Roberts (1873, 1884), Mrs. A. J. Scott (May 11, 1896), and Georgina Mount-Temple (October 7, 1897). Perhaps the best revelation of MacDonald's religious beliefs, however, is contained in a copy of a letter to a friend on January 31, 1886 (in "Unidentified" file).

An example of MacDonald's frequent advice on proper conduct comes in a letter to his friend Alphaeus Smith: "Keep your heart and conscience & hands clean, dear friend, and be ready to lose all, wife and life, rather than act ignobly, unrighteously, in the smallest matter" (May 30, 1854). Another letter to Smith (September 10, 1888) gives evidence of MacDonald's intense lecture and preaching schedule, even late in his life. A letter to the Reverend W. G. Horder (April 24, 1979) lists several of MacDonald's favorite lecture topics, while letters from Louisa MacDonald to Dorothea Gurney in January, 1873 give details of the MacDonald's routine on their American tour.

Although in letters to friends and acquaintances MacDonald rarely does more than mention his writings, two letters to his close friend Greville Matheson (ca. 1851) discuss in detail his translation of Novalis' poems.

Letters from the MacDonalds after 1880 often discuss their life in Bordighera, Italy. Louisa's letter to Anna Leigh-Smith ("Nannie") on February 24, 1887 describes a destructive earthquake in Bordighera.

Family Correspondence contains exchanges between George MacDonald and his family and a large body of letters among various members of the family and close relatives. Most of the letters from MacDonald to his wife or children were written during his numerous lecture tours. They reveal much about his speaking or preaching engagements, his writings, and his thoughts on many subjects.

The bulk of the earliest correspondence (1833-50) consists of letters from the young MacDonald to his father. A very early letter reflects his rigid upbringing and his adherence, even at age nine, to the tenets of the Temperance society (August 1, 1834). A somewhat later letter (ca. 1840) expresses his strong desire to earn his living at sea, while a letter of October 28, 1841 describes "a splendid procession . . . of the chartists going out to meet Fergus O'Connor." In one strongly confessional letter he tells his father, "What I must heed is a deep sense of sinfulness and the evil of it" (February 10, 1846). Another letter of this period (January 12, 1847) reveals MacDonald questioning his place in the Congregational Church. Letters between 1845 and 1851 comment on his attempts to get settled in life, his growing religiosity, his health problems, and his relationship with Louisa Powell, whom he married in 1851.

MacDonald's letters to Louisa form the largest body of his correspondence, with over five hundred letters written between 1846 and 1889. Generally written during his absences on lecture or preaching tours, they are by far the most revealing of Macdonald's correspondence, commenting on his health, his lecturing, his writings, his religion, his acquaintances, his thoughts on numerous topical issues, and his daily activities. The letters written during his lecture tours indicate his popularity as a public speaker, although one letter notes that in the "Deacon's Book" of a church in Manchester, there is an injuncture that MacDonald "was not to be asked to preach again because of his unsoundness" (September 17, 1890).

MacDonald's letters to his children, from the early 1860s through the early 1890s, are full of paternal affection, concern, and advice. Generally written while on tour, they often indicate his activities and concerns. A number of letters from MacDonald and Louisa (primarily Louisa) in America in 1872-73 give candid statements of their impressions of American life. MacDonald's letter to his daughter Lily on March 20, 1873 speaks of his plan to have the family stage an amateur production of Macbeth, with MacDonald himself in the lead role. A much later letter to Lily (January 4, 1891) states, "I have still one great poem in my mind, but it will never be written, I think, except we have a fortune left us, so that I need not write any more stories--of which I am beginning to be tired. If I do write one more of 3 vol., it will, I think, be the last. . . ."

In addition to letters to his father, Louisa, his step-mother, and, later, his children, the collection contains a number of letters to other relatives, including his brothers Alexander, John, and Charles; Louisa's sisters Caroline (Carrie) and Charlotte; and his cousin Helen Mackay Powell. In a letter to Helen on December 24, 1883, he confesses, "I am often terribly hampered in my stories by sheer ignorance. I have seen so little of Scotland or any other place. . . . So I'm just driven back on bare-faced leein'--only I gan't tell trouth" [sic]. A letter of April 1, 1850 to Charlotte Powell Godwin discusses John Ruskin, while a much later one of June 15, 1889 expresses an uncharacteristic world weariness: "I have never felt quite at home in this world, and I fancy those who have, cannot have such an idea of home as I have." A letter to John Godwin (June 24, 1853) complains of financial difficulties but affirms, "Preaching is my work, and preach I will somehow or other."

After George MacDonald's death, his daughter Winifred made copies in a notebook of those letters of her father that she thought most expressive of his life and ideas (1846-1891), along with notes on MacDonald's Sunday services at Casa Corragio, Bordighera. A second copy book, compiled by Lily MacDonald, contains copies of many of the MacDonalds' letters from America. These notebooks have been placed at the end of Family Correspondence.

In "Notes Referring to the Family Letters, 1833-1905" (Box 13, folder 385), Winifred MacDonald has included genealogies of the MacDonald and Powell families, some photographs, listings of MacDonald residences, and brief summaries of more significant family letters.

Series II, Writings (Box 14), consists of eleven poems by George MacDonald in holograph or copies; a copy of Louisa MacDonald's "Dramatic Illustrations from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress"; and a collection of juvenile writings and sketches by several of the MacDonald children, including juvenile "newspapers" for 1870-1873 which chronicle family activities.

Series III, Family Papers (Boxes 15-16), includes diaries of Louisa MacDonald (1856, 1873), Lilia MacDonald (1865, 1872), and Caroline Grace MacDonald (1870); a copy of George MacDonald's tendered resignation from the Congregational Church of Arundel; newspaper clippings documenting MacDonald's American tour; and a large photograph file of MacDonald and his family and noteworthy literary figures. The photograph album (Box 15, folder 425) contains a number of photographs of the MacDonald family taken by Lewis Carroll.

Series IV, Additions Since 1998 (Boxes 17-18), consists of material added to the collection since it was originally processed. The George J. Leon Gift contains material formerly in the possession of Derrick Leon, author of Ruskin: The Great Victorian, London, 1949, given to him by Grenville MacDonald, son of George MacDonald. The material consists primarily of correspondence between the MacDonald family, the La Touche family, and John Ruskin. Included are letters from Nina Cole, Maria Price La Touche, Rose La Touche, Georgina Cowper-Temple Mount-Temple, and Joan Severn to members of the MacDonald family; one letter from Louisa Powell MacDonald to Maria Price La Touche; one letter and one telegram from George MacDonald to John Ruskin; one letter from Rose La Touche to John Ruskin; letters from John Ruskin to George MacDonald, Louisa Powell MacDonald, and Lilia Scott MacDonald; typescript copies of many letters; one poem by Maria La Touche, and one poem believed to have been written by Rose La Touche.


  • (1822-1946)


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The George MacDonald Collection is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The George MacDonald Collection consists of materials acquired from various sources.


6.6 Linear Feet ((18 boxes) + 1 broadside folder)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The George MacDonald Collection consists of correspondence, manuscripts, personal papers, and photographs relating to MacDonald's career and to the daily life of the MacDonald family.


George MacDonald--poet, novelist, fantasy writer, and minister--was born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on December 10, 1824, one of six children of George and Helen Mackay MacDonald. Educated locally, MacDonald attended King's College, Aberdeen, taking his M. A. degree in 1845. Brought up in a strict Calvinist environment, MacDonald, after a brief stint as a tutor, prepared for the ministry, attending Highbury Theological college in 1848 and accepting a ministerial post at Trinity Congregational Church at Arundel in 1850.

In 1851 he married Louisa Powell, and the next year the first of their eleven children was born. MacDonald's first real publication was a privately printed translation of Twelve of the Spiritual Songs of Novalis, distributed only to close friends. After resigning his position at Arundel and moving to Manchester in 1853, tutoring and giving lectures on English literature to pay for room and board, he turned increasingly to writing. After contributing poems, articles, and brief stories to the Monthly Christian Spectator, he achieved his first publishing success in 1855 with the appearance of Within and Without, a long dramatic poem in blank verse with the strong religious overtones that were to characterize all of his subsequent publications.

Although he never held another full-time pastorate after his post at Arundel, MacDonald remained active in the ministry for the rest of his life, preaching sermons on call as an independent to a wide audience. In addition to positions at Bedford College, as professor of English literature (1859-1868), King’s College, London, as lecturer (1865-1868), and Good Words for the Young, a popular juvenile publication, as editor (1869-1872), he depended on his writings and his lecture tours for income to support his large family. Never in good health, MacDonald faced a continuous series of afflictions that impeded his productivity and his ability to support his family, although he managed to publish some fifty works of poetry, fantasy fiction, tales of simple Scottish life, essays, sermons, and children's books.

MacDonald's reputation as a writer and a speaker earned him the admiration and patronage of Lady Noel Byron, sister of the poet, and gained him a profitable American lecture tour in 1872, where he met and became friends with most of the famous literati in the country, especially the editor and poet Richard Watson Gilder.

Constantly plagued by health and money problems (even after being awarded a Civil List Pension by Queen Victoria in 1877), MacDonald was often forced to relocate his family to take advantage of good climate and whatever economic opportunities were present; thus the family moved from Manchester to Hastings (1857), to London (1859), to Hammersmith (1867), to Bournemouth (1875), and finally to Bordighera, Italy (1880), a move necessitated by the poor health of MacDonald and several of his children. By 1877 the family found it necessary to help meet expenses by presenting amateur theatrics to a paying audience, an activity that eventually involved the whole family and several neighbors.

George MacDonald has retained some reputation as an author of fantasy fiction and annals of Scottish life. Most popular among his novels and fantasy stories are Phantastes (1858), David Elginbrod (1863), Robert Falconer (1868), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), Sir Gibbie (1879), and Lilith (1895). He has been credited with influencing the work of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other modern practicers of fantasy.

After suffering a serious stroke in 1898 that incapacitated him both mentally and physically, MacDonald needed constant care. He died on September 18, 1905 at age 80 and was buried at Bordighera.

Processing Information

Materials in Series IV, Additions Since 1998, George J. Leon Gift, were formerly cataloged as part of the John Ruskin Collection (Ms Vault Ruskin).

Guide to the George MacDonald Collection
Under Revision
by William K. Finley
November 1991
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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