Death and Fairyland: At the Back of the North Wind

After another brief absence from fairy tales, George MacDonald returned with a book that many people either adored, despised, were unable to finish, or found oddly comforting: At the Back of the North Wind. I had all of these reactions while reading the book—and, I will admit, this was not a book I could, or did, read straight through.

Unlike many of MacDonald’s other fairy tales, At the Back of the North Wind does not begin with a princess or prince, or a fairy, but rather with a small boy named Diamond, the son of a coachman (this is important) and lives in a drafty coach house on an estate whose wealth is paper thin. (This is also important.) Diamond has to crawl through bales of hay to reach his bed, and on a cold night, takes some of that hay to try to close the many holes in the walls. This infuriates the North Wind, who wants her window, but after some discussion, she agrees to take Diamond travelling, eventually taking him to the back of the North Wind.

MacDonald’s erudition is evident in the very few sentences, which chatter about Herodotus, as well as his mastery of beautiful language, of creating a world where winds use the tools of witches and both poets and boats can carry people over the sea. But after a time, Diamond decides that he wants to return home. And this is where the book starts to run into trouble on several fronts.

First, the digressions. I’ve mentioned these as a flaw with MacDonald’s work before, but they are particularly apparent here, with the entire plot stopping dead after a few chapters, and then digressing again,and then, digressing from the digressions. Meandering does not even begin to cover it. Here are just some of them: a full length fairy tale long enough to be treated as a separate short story (which it frequently has been); discussions on the fate of cab drivers; more terrible poetry; some chatter about angels digging up and polishing stars; some chatter about an angel horse; a conversation between a horse and an angel horse that I assumed was leading somewhere but didn’t; a few bits about Herodotus; a long story about the romance of some secondary characters, chatter about nursery rhymes, and more. Far more.

Now, large, meandering books can often be delightful, and in many of those books, the meandering is even the point, adding to the delight. And admittedly, some of these digressions in this book are meant to show just how angelic and precious little Diamond is—about which more in a minute. Some are delightful —particularly the short story about Princess Daylight (one reason it has been frequently reprinted separately from the novel). But most are, alas, outright dull. When I’m bored by a conversation between two horses, MacDonald, we have a problem. And while I have no problems with a book combining the mundane with the fairy, a book where the main character is talking with a wind should not then spend most of its time following the main character as he wanders around London being Adorably Good and Cute and Precious and then digressing even there.

Second, the moralizing. It’s not that I exactly mind comments like this:

Poverty will not make a man worthless—he may be worth a great deal more when he is poor than he was when he was rich; but dishonesty goes very far indeed to make a man of no value—a thing to be thrown out in the dust-hole of the creation, like a bit of a broken basin, or a dirty rag.

But when they appear in nearly every chapter, and occasionally on every page, the constant moralizing gets, well, wearisome. Particularly in a novel frequently dealing with some very serious moral and ethical issues indeed, show, not tell.

But more to the point, some of this moralizing leads to some questionable sections, including a rather revolting section where Diamond’s parents decide that they are really better off than their former employers (whose reckless investments directly led to the parents nearly starving to death) because the former employers just aren’t used to being poor and have no idea how to handle it, while Diamond and his parents are so used to being poor that it’s all okay, even the starving part. This, even when the former employers still managed to scrounge up enough money to be able to afford to take cabs, rather than force their small children to drive them so that the family can eat. This isn’t even the usual Christian or Victorian condemnation of the morals and supposed lack of happiness of the wealthy. And while I’d agree that poverty becomes easier to deal with when you’re accustomed to it, the generous feelings towards the wealthy family, who are, to be clear, the causes of their entire family grief, are just not credible.

I have problems with another moralizing digression as well: the story of Mr. Evans, a man who has put off marrying the woman he claims to love because he “was ashamed to marry upon a small income” and they would have to live “humbly.” This leads MacDonald to the conclusion that “he may love, but his love is but a poor affair.” Or, MacDonald, the guy is being nice enough not to want to doom his wife and potential children to the very real deprivations of poverty so ably depicted by other Victorian writers, some of whom understated the case. The marrying for money may seem materialistic, but refusing to marry without it sounds more like common sense. Mind you, since Mr. Evans follows up this noble gesture by helping to bankrupt the girl’s father by giving bad business advice, I’m not one of the guy’s biggest fans, either, but my general sense is that he shouldn’t be marrying anyone, and should certainly not be scolded for this. MacDonald, less cynical than I, or less concerned about the very real physical labor involved in 19th century housework and cooking even with the benefit of household servants (which the couple would not be able to afford), and convinced again that Love is All, wants the penniless couple together.

Both of these bits would perhaps be less annoying if it were not clear, from the text, that one of the major reasons Diamond is such a sickly little child is that even when his father has seemingly steady employment as a coachman for a wealthy household, the family still lives in poor housing, cannot save money, and the job is still not particularly steady (a few bad investments by his employer leaves Diamond’s father out of work). And this, mind you, is the sentimental portrait of the working poor (Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell were far more honest and brutal in their depictions).

Granted, tuberculosis killed the wealthy and poor alike (one victim was the brother of the Emperor of Russia, with full access to the very best of medical care available at the time) but poor nutrition and living in drafty housing has hastened the kid’s death.

And yes, death.

Because, as it slowly becomes clear, the North Wind is not really a wind at all, but rather Death. Hints of this appear early on this book (notably when the North Wind is, well, killing people, despite Diamond’s protests). And they continue to appear when Diamond returns to England, where people constantly point out how sick he has been, how easily he can become sick in the future, and, most of all, that he is a little angel child.

This was a common trope in 19th century fiction, that of the dying child who yet manages to be the bright shining light of the household, a comfort and a joy, always patient, always beloved, and a little peacemaker. Diamond is not the most nauseating example of these (that would arguably be Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but, as I said, arguable), and here, at least, MacDonald was definitely catering to the expectations of his audience.

I imagine that this sort of thing must have been a comfort to at least some parents and grieving siblings, given the high death rate of children and young adults of the period. MacDonald himself was to outlive at least four of his children (one son died in childhood; three daughters contracted tuberculosis and died as young adults) and knew many other grieving parents.

But this trope leads to a severe problem: unrealistic children. It’s not just that sick and dying children are not necessarily going to be better behaved than healthy children (within physical limits) or sweeter and kinder, however much later memories may soften this. (Even the frequently overly sentimental Frances Hodgson Burnett of Little Lord Fountleroy fame recognized this, creating the thoroughly nasty if sickly Colin in response to one too many stories of sickly yet angelic children.) But the trope becomes especially problematic when, like Diamond, these children get out of bed and begin interacting with others and still retain their unrealistic sweetness.

MacDonald attempts to explain this away by saying that of course Diamond is different, because he has been to the back of the north wind. And certainly, a near brush with death (although Diamond does not seem to have understood how close he came to dying, or how close he later is to dying) and long term chronic illness can change people. But none of that comes close to making little Diamond—or frankly, any of the children he interacts with—at all realistic.

And yet.

Just as I was about to give up on the book and hope none of you noticed that I was skipping it, the North Wind returns to Diamond’s new bedroom in the country, bringing magic back with her. And something more. Because although she will be taking Diamond to the back of the north wind—and his death—she also brings him her friendship.

That thought, of becoming friends with death, and carrying on a conversation with her, is troubling and beautiful and, as I said, oddly comforting, all at once, not merely for grieving parents, but for anyone who has had to endure the pain of a loved one dying. And somehow, here, after saturating us with sentimentality in the rest of the book, MacDonald manages to restrain himself, and provide a conversation both beautiful and moving.

By turns lovely and lyrical, lachrymose and forcibly cheery, diffuse and pointed, and frequently cloyingly sentimental, At the Back of the North Wind manages to combine MacDonald at his very best, and his very worst. If I may, I would suggest that new readers read the first chapters, up until Diamond’s return to England (Chapter 13), then skip to the fairy tale in Chapter 28 (which has little to do with the rest of the book but is a beautiful bit of work), and then skip to Chapter 36. I suppose this is a bit like attempting to avoid the mundanities of life, and just skip to the good parts—or the ending—but this book did, after all, start off as a fairy tale.

Mari Ness is, as you might gather, rather less fond of morals than the Duchess of Alice in Wonderland. She lives in central Florida.


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