Ed. Elizabeth Yates
Schocken Books; 1979 (1879).
270p. first reading.
A word about this edition is necessary before proceeding further, and the word is in no sense a happy or a good one. I don’t know what Elizabeth Yates was like as a person. Perhaps she was a good woman. Perhaps she was well-loved, and a light to all who knew her. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that she is the unpardonable perpetrator of editorial atrocities the likes of which would make any earnest scholar weep into his beer.
I will credit her with preparing a new edition of an excellent book that had long been out of print and difficult to find. I’m grateful she did, naturally, for if she hadn’t done so I wouldn’t have found it on the shelf at the used book store near my apartment. My acclaim ends there, though, and for several reasons. I’ll let the editoress herself explain:
This is what I have done: I have cut the original Sir Gibbie almost by half, taking out the pages that were a digression from the story; and I have “translated” the Scotch dialect into English, except for certain flavorful words which have long been familiar. Often as I did this I found myself inwardly exclaiming, “So, that’s what was really meant!” The core of the story – the shining wonder which is the ministrant character of Gibbie – is untouched. What seemed important to me was that the book be made available to readers today, not continue to remain on a few bookshelves as a dusty, however charming, relic of another day. [vi-vii]
The “translation” is bad enough, but what on earth is meant by “pages that were a digression from the story?” Yates explains that there were large sections wherein MacDonald included little sermons or gave forth on subjects of interest to him. Quite apart from the fact that many people would want to read this material in its own right (I know I would), I dare say that Ms. Yates is in no position whatever to decide what is and is not essential to the story George MacDonald was writing. The violent, lathe-like spinning of that author in his grave threatens to throw the Earth out of its orbit and hurl us screaming into the sun.
Enough of this. Let’s get to Sir Gibbie.
It’s a work quite thoroughly MacDonaldian. Written near the very middle of his career, Sir Gibbie encapsulates many of the recurring themes to be found elsewhere in the body of his work. The protagonist – better than that, the hero – of the book’s title, Sir Gibbie Galbraith, is a mute street urchin of untarnished innocence and goodness. His serene face and sky-blue eyes are framed by a wild halo of golden hair, and he is beloved by all who know him. Though he is clad in rags and the son of a destitute drunk, the title that prefixes his name is not appended in mockery or fun; he really is a baronet, and though without wealth his family name is an old and honourable one. When his father dies, however, he leaves the hovel in which he had been living and flees the city to find subsistance elsewhere. His travels take him into the Scottish countryside, there to meet many characters of varying degrees of virtue. He cannot speak, but he listens very well and he is animated solely by the desire to do good. Goodness, indeed, comes as naturally to Sir Gibbie as baseness does to the rest of us.
He has many adventures, and I don’t want to spend too much time ennumerating them. Suffice to say that he eventually becomes a shepherd boy, living by adoption with a kindly old couple in a cottage on the moutainside. There he is instructed in the Gospel for the first time, and finds at last a broader justification for the instincts he has always obeyed. The book is unapologetically a Christian one, and MacDonald is conscious of the perhaps shocking nature of just how far he takes it. The Rev. Sclater (a kindly but liberal-minded minster who takes an interest in restoring Gibbie to his unsuspected inheritance) and his equally liberal-minded wife offer delightful if dismaying figurings of the modern reader’s own response to the book’s explicit Christianity. Mrs. Sclater, in particular, upbraiding Gibbie for his tendency to wait on guests at dinner even as the bewildered servants stand idle, has a very familiar sort of tone to it:
[Gibbie] went to a sidetable, and having stood there a moment or two, returned with a New Testament, in which he pointed out the words: “But I am among you as he that serveth.” Giving her just time to read them, he took the book again, and in addition presented the words, “The disciple is not above his master, but everyone that is perfect shall be as his master.”
Mrs. Sclater was as much put out as if [Gibbie] had been guilty of another and worse indiscretion. The idea of anybody ordering his common doings, not to say his oddities, by principles drawn from a source far too sacred to be practically regarded, was too preposterous ever to have become even a notion to her. Henceforth, however, it was a mote to trouble her mind’s eye, a mote she did not get rid of until it began to turn to a glimmer of light. [205-06]
As bad as some of the people he meets are, this “turning to a glimmer of light” is the practical result of his influence in many cases. Few are they who can endure constant exposure to his innocent goodness without being influenced thereby, and by the novel’s conclusion even some who had been hateful enemies have become, at worst, benign, if not outright friends.
MacDonald’s prose (such of it as survives Yates’ editorial shears) is spritely and beautiful, and Gibbie’s rovings throughout the countryside are imbued with a wild beauty whether the diminutive baronet finds himself in storms or sunshine. If you can find an unabridged edition, I imagine it would be significantly better than the one I’ve just finished reading, but even if you can only find this one it’s certainly worth your time. It stands, anyway, as a marvelous and necessary counterpoint to the sort of nineteenth-century novels that one is more likely to see mentioned when inquiries into the period are made. It’s not all Brontes and Hardy, after all.