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At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (review)
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This new edition of George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind offers an insight into the world of Victorian children’s classics. It not only presents to readers the text as published in the 1871 one-volume Strahan edition but also places MacDonald’s work within a wider nineteenth-century culture, pointing out MacDonald’s possible influences and sources and underlining the importance of illustrations in the fantasy.

The edition contains a preface by Stephen Prickett, an introduction, a chronology, abundant textual annotations, and numerous appendixes. Stephen Prickett, famous for his groundbreaking Victorian Fantasy (1979) among other works, makes explicit from the start that At the Back of the North Wind deals first and foremost with Victorian social conditions, from poverty to disease, yet combines realism with fantasy and draws on biblical imagery. At the Back of the North Wind is indeed a significant example in MacDonald’s career and shows how fantasy enabled him to defamiliarize the real, as the editors stress in the introduction. The introduction briefly relates MacDonald’s life and his works, from novels and children’s stories to his volumes of poetry and sermons. It also brings home the central place of MacDonald’s writings in British children’s literature by pointing to the influence that MacDonald may have had on such writers as Edith Nesbit, Philippa Pearce, and Neil Gaiman. The dual audience that MacDonald may have had in mind in his writings (or “cross-writing” [22]) is mentioned, most particularly because MacDonald’s works tend to engage in contemporary debates, such as those on class and gender.

The next section, which traces the chronology of MacDonald’s life and works, also points out the differences between the 1871 one-volume Strahan edition and the serial version published in Good Words for the Young and the changes in the placement of illustrations. The illustrations, which pay homage to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite illustrator Arthur Hughes—but whose quality may, perhaps, disappoint readers—are numerous, just like the textual annotations. The notes clarify words that may seem obscure to contemporary readers and trace references, allusions, or influences. We may wonder, however, whether some of the notes do not overload the edition, in particular, the systematic citations of entire nursery rhymes, the comments on MacDonald’s rhetoric, especially his use of figures of speech (from similes and paradoxes to synesthesia), his narrative patterns, such as analepses, and even the names of the twelve apostles and references to contemporary novels (such as Philip Pullman’s 1985 Ruby in the Smoke [210] to explain the geographic situation of some scenes). The explanation of the rise of the Metropolitan Police Force (75) when a policeman appears on the scene is another example.

There are six rich appendixes. The first appendix presents the children’s magazine Good Words for the Young and MacDonald’s active participation in the serialization of At the Back of the North Wind, Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood, and The Princess and the Goblin. Mark Knight’s introductory essay is followed by the 1869 and 1870 covers of the magazine and the 1869 address of the first editor (Norman Macleod), followed by MacDonald’s address when he took over the editorship in 1870. Excerpts from Andersen’s tales, songs, and Arthur Hughes’s illustrations of other works by MacDonald can also be found.

The second appendix focuses on the changing definition of the child and the evolution of children’s literature. It contains a contemporary review of At the Back of the North Wind, letters from Mark Twain to MacDonald, poems by William Wordsworth, examples of MacDonald’s sermons, a caricature of MacDonald, and illustrations from two famous deathbed scenes (Little Nell’s deathbed scene in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop [1841] and Eva’s in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin [1852]).

The next appendix points out MacDonald’s possible literary and cultural influences, from Aesop’s fables to Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies (1863) or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and a passage from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1852). The fourth appendix presents documents dealing with the Victorian fairy...

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