Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead and What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald. Novelists like these, the kind we term “classic,” well deserve that term. Every book of theirs brims with insights into the human condition. So many other writers’ concerns are only skin deep, but Dostoyevsky and MacDonald write of the soul. MacDonald has the tendency of doing this in a sermonizing fashion, which has perhaps made him less popular among moderns. Yet, there was a time when great preachers could attract crowds. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote one hundred years ago but his insights the evils of socialism and fallen man strike one as still relevant.
The House of the Dead focuses on the dark side of man–his fallen nature. And no wonder: this novel derives from the experience of Dostoyevsky being exiled to Siberia for his involvement in a radical political group. What Dostoyevsky saw of human nature in prison cured him of Marxist ideas and the concept of the perfectibility of man forever. This novel records the sheer divide between nobles and commoners and the great diversity of the convicts: there were Chechens, Old Believers, Muslims, a Jew, Orthodox, Catholics, Poles, Russians, rich, poor, middle class, laborers, soldiers, craftsmen, and others. Many were perfectly well off, but this did not prevent them from committing crimes. The commoners in the villages outside of the prison referred to the prisoners as “unfortunates.”
Still, the “misfortune” which brought them here was not poverty or a poor upbringing but a conscious and wicked act of the will. One speaks euphemistically to call a murderer, like our Bluebeard protagonist, an unfortunate! Indeed, one does violence to language! The young nobleman who was guilty of killing his father had nothing unfortunate about his circumstances, and the novel highlights that circumstances have little to do with whether a person commits a crime: it is a matter of the heart rather than the environment.
The House of the Dead stands as one of Dostoyevsky’s earliest and least polished novels. The theme referred to above returns much more saliently in The Brothers Karamazov–in “The Grand Inquisitor” section to be more precise. As such, I can’t recommend The House of the Dead above Dostoyevsky’s other works. Still, the work offers some great insights into prison life under the czars and the author delineates some fascinating convicts.
What’s Mine’s Mine is the third novel of MacDonald’s with a contemporary 19th century setting which I have read. (The other two are Weighted and Wanting and The Seaboard Parish.) After reading these three, I must say that MacDonald’s storytelling skill shines more brightly in his fantasies and allegories. Lilith and The Princess and the Goblin are far better works. (I need to read Phantastes next.) When writing in a contemporary setting, MacDonald resorts to sermonizing too much. Even though I thoroughly enjoy MacDonald’s sermons–so much so that, if MacDonald were alive and lived near me, I’d probably visit his church after Mass every Sunday. MacDonald’s insights are wonderful however he gives them, yet sermonizing must be seen as a defect in the art of fiction.
The conflict in What’s Mine’s Mine (whose title is interestingly drawn from a statement of the antagonist) concerns the Word vs. the World: the claims of God vs. the claims of society. Our heroes, Ian and Alister, live far apart from the world among the foothills of Scotland. Their father, the former clan chief, was a minister and thoroughly embedded his faith and morals into his children. Conversely, our heroines, Christina and Mercy, grow up under the roof of a successful brewer, Peregrine Palmer, and imbibe the values of the world: proper manners, money, and status are the most important things. Meeting the two brothers helps these sisters turn away from their dull and deadening worldview. But, their father has no love for the faith of the two young men: can the love formed between Alister and Mercy survive the prejudice of Mercy’s father?
It is hard to explain the magic of What’s Mine’s Mine. I hope that our dear readers will give it a shot after reading MacDonald’s fantasy works: Lilith, Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, The Goblin and Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind, and others.