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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 June 2024

Malcolm Guite reveals the inspiration that he received from a weaver of fairy tales

A FEW weeks ago, I reflected on this year’s bicentenary of Lord Byron’s death (Poet’s Corner, 26 April). Now I find myself at a conference celebrating another bicentenary: that of the birth of George MacDonald. The contrast between the two writers could hardly be greater.

Apart from a brief sojourn in Aberdeen, what could the self-dramatising, convention-flouting, decadent anti-hero have in common with the wise and humble Scottish preacher and writer, weaver of fairy tales for both children and adults, the magical myth-maker whose novel Phantastes baptised the imagination of C. S. Lewis, and whose essays on the imagination inspired J. R. R. Tolkien? The rather surprising answer to that question is: Lady Byron!

Annabella Milbanke, as she was before her marriage to Byron, was a remarkable woman: intellectually gifted, and well-educated in literature, science, and mathematics; for her parents had hired a Cambridge professor as her private tutor. Indeed, in the briefly happy period of their courtship, Byron called her his “princess of parallelograms”, and their daughter became the mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose pioneering work with Charles Babbage led to the mathematical underpinning of computer science.

Byron was attracted by Annabella’s intelligence and her modesty; for she was a devout Christian. He proposed in 1812, but she turned him down, knowing something of his character and reputation. But, when he proposed again in 1814, she accepted. She loved him and knew his faults, but could see past them. She told her mother “He is a very bad, very good man.” She hoped, as other women have with such men, to reform him.

It is well known how terribly she suffered at his hands, how he abused and humiliated her, how he taunted her for her piety, how he flaunted his affairs in her face, especially his incestuous affair with his own half-sister. Within two years, they were separated. She had understandably fled with their little daughter. Then Byron was off to Europe, and eventually to his death, in 1824.

Lady Byron, as she had now become, was a strong woman. She recovered from the abuse and humiliation, learned to hold her head up, and the same love that had sought somehow to save Byron from himself now motivated her to do all kinds of good in the world, including work for prison reform and the abolition of slavery. And, if she despaired of having been able to do any good for her husband, I think there was still a strong, long-suffering love for the man she had seen behind the poseur.

And then, in the 1850s, came George MacDonald, the man whom God had pleased to bring into the world in the same year as Byron left it. MacDonald had been edged out of his pastorship of a Congregationalist church because his preaching was too generous, too inclusive, too full of the all-embracing mercy of God for the elders’ tastes. He was unemployed, with a family to feed, and Lady Byron took him on as a secretary.

But soon she came to know his theology: that love was at the core of all things; that there is a love that will not let us go, but seeks us inexorably, and, in finding us, will indeed, if we let it, make us fit for heaven; a love that is infinitely patient to seek and find us however far we drift, however low we fall, however long it takes.

It was MacDonald, I think, who rekindled her hope for Byron, that even he, in or beyond death, might finally accept and return the love that met him in Christ. Soon, she became MacDonald’s patron rather than his employer, setting him free to write his books, so good in themselves, and so vital to the writings of C. S. Lewis and many others, me included.

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