Magic, Mystics & George MacDonald, Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Over three sun-drenched summer days in July of 2016, the magical grounds of Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge, England, cast their spell over a group of scholars who had travelled to this ancient seat of learning in order to explore a fascinating and mysterious history. George MacDonald, Victorian fantasist, theologian and mystic, is probably best known today for his fairytales, including The Princess and the Goblin, and his adult fantasies, including Phantastes. However, in his own day, MacDonald was a prolific writer with connections across many fields, from the literary (such as his close friendship with Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland) to the scientific (MacDonald studied the sciences at Kings College, Aberdeen, and remained involved in the field, which greatly impacted his fantasy writing).
So expansive are the networks of MacDonald’s inspiration and influence that there are many still yet to be uncovered, and so it was that we found ourselves gathered, each of us eager to delve into one specific and particularly fascinating subject: the mysterious and illuminating connections between George MacDonald and the arcane and elusive group of thinkers known as the Cambridge Apostles – a ‘secret’ society comprised of many of the most illustrious and influential writers and thinkers of the Victorian age. The event was organised by The George MacDonald Society, who had put on a brilliant conference in Oxford in 2014, so we knew we were in for a treat. With exciting keynotes, and several panels of fascinating presentations, we set to work investigating and celebrating George MacDonald and the Cambridge Apostles!
The first thing that impressed us on arrival was the location. I couldn’t imagine a more quaint, magical, or appropriate venue to discuss the wonderful imagination of George MacDonald than The Graham Storey Room within the grounds of Trinity Hall. The sun warmed the gorgeous red brick of the building, gleaming from arched windows, and revealing a seemingly impossible door suspended halfway between ground and gables, which absolutely must have opened out into one of Mr Vane’s higher dimensions. Trails of ivy led upwards from the heavily blooming gardens, laden with colour and lazily trundling bees, and any of MacDonald’s fairies might have popped forth from the shady undergrowth or danced through the scented flowers. The nearby River Cam ambled lazily past, dotted with punters and spanned by ornate bridges, and the shrieks and laughter from the river-goers might just as well have been The Queen and her cohort, sailing in search of the Carasoyn.
Nestled in this room, we heard and discussed fascinating new research into MacDonald studies. Professor Stephen Prickett, President of The George MacDonald Society, opened with a wonderful keynote introducing MacDonald’s connections with the Cambridge Apostles, and following papers discussed the social, political, theological and intellectual products of these influences, bringing in authors from F. D. Maurice and S. T. Coleridge to A. J. Scott and Charles Kingsley. My own paper was entitled “From Somnial Space to Hyperspace: Coleridge’s Theories of Dreaming and the Imagination in Kingsley and MacDonald,” and explored material taken from my PhD thesis (that I’m currently working into a monograph) on the spatial imagination, and the way that dreams and alternative states of consciousness were used in these authors to explore fantastic and supernatural worlds. My paper had a lovely reception with the scholars present, and Stephen Prickett’s not-so-subtle hint that I need to hurry up and publish my book was at once amusing, painfully true, and much appreciated (and as I write, reminds me to get back to work!).
No conference (particularly a Victorian Literature conference) is complete without a magnificent banquet dinner, and Trinity Hall did not disappoint, with a splendid candlelit dinner served under the high gabled ceiling of the Great Hall, as portraits looked on from their frames high on the walls. The food was delicious, and the wine and conversation flowed freely as the night deepened outside, making for a wonderfully enjoyable evening. My stroll home through the cobbled lane ways of Cambridge in the lingering warmth of the summer evening was made even more magical by the twinkling lights of Trinity Hall in the background.
George MacDonald is one of the most important and yet underrated (not to mention woefully neglected) authors of the Nineteenth Century, and much more work needs to be done to explore the nuances and intricacies of his work and its dialogue with Victorian culture. Conferences like this one, and the scholars they attract, are beginning to open the doors for more research into this important area of Victorian literature, history and culture, which had so much impact on ideas and writing so crucial to the twentieth century and beyond (not least in writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and the modern fantasy genre in general). My deepest thanks are to The George MacDonald Society, and in particular Professor Stephen Prickett and Mike Partridge, for their dedicated organisation of this conference, and their boundless encouragement and enthusiasm while there. I look forward to the next one!