“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”
I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth:
“Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?”
One of the things Persuasion does best is show that a desirable home is much more than a grand estate and fine furnishings. Anne Elliot’s standard of homemaking has been set by her deceased mother, who is described as an “excellent woman, sensible and amiable” who had managed Kellynch Hall with “method, moderation, and economy.” Anne is grieved that her father and older sister Elizabeth—who, for all practical purposes, became the mistress of Kellynch Hall after their mother’s death—have mismanaged the family’s resources to such an extent that they will have to “retrench” in Bath, where their lawyer believes a family of high rank can appear important without spending a lot of money.
“First published in London in 1858, this adult fantasy novel follows Anodos, a man who searches for his ideal of female beauty in a dream-like world. Anodos has many adventures and faces many temptations in this fairyland, from tree spirit confrontations to a long trek to the palace of the fairy queen, where he eventually meets the Marble Lady. MacDonald would later astonish and influence writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and W. H. Auden, who saw in this work the successful embodiment of the depth and meaning of our inner, spiritual world. The poignancy of ‘Phantastes’ lies in its representation of a spiritual quest, one in which ideals are compromised, and the ultimate surrender of the self brings both overflowing joy and profound sadness.”
The women in my book group wanted to try something written by George MacDonald, so I recommended “The Light Princess,” thinking they would like that one better than Lilith, which is quite strange in a way I wasn’t sure the other members of the group would appreciate. After I re-read “The Light Princess,” I decided to try Phantastes. Phantastes isn’t a long novel, but it took me several weeks to get through it. Part of that was because the plot structure was episodic, lacking a strong narrative drive, but more than anything, George MacDonald simply isn’t a writer one can read fast. His work, like poetry, demands to be savored.
“The Mansion,” by Henry Van Dyke (American classic, story)
“John Weightman wanted the best of everything. He surrounded himself with beauty and riches, and was very careful with how he spent his money. ‘No pennies in beggars’ hats,’ he liked to say. Until one night he dreamed that he died . . .
“Finding himself with a group of travelers dressed in white, John joins them on their journey to the Celestial City where each individual will be rewarded with a mansion based on treasures set aside. Thinking that his mansion will be the most grand, John Weightman learns what it truly means to lay up treasures in heaven.”
“Long, long ago, a wise man named Artaban, a priest of the Magi, discerned from heavenly signs that the time was at hand for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—the birth among the Hebrews of a holy Prince and Deliverer of Man. Hastening to join three fellow Magi for the long journey into Judaea, he paused to help a dying man and was left behind. And so Artaban began his pilgrimage alone, striking out not toward the realization of his life’s deepest longing, as he hoped, but only toward misfortune and suffering. Or so he believed until one blessed, radiant moment.”
These two classic Christmas stories illuminate the human progression from goodness to righteousness to holiness.
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.