George MacDonald’s The Wise Woman

John William Waterhouse_Boreas_1903

I recently had the great pleasure to introduce my five-year old son to George MacDonald’s The Wise Woman, or the Lost Princess: A Double Story. In the back of my mind I thought, “won’t these moral lessons be so good for somebody…” (thinking, of course, my son). It is true, my young son in his (relative) innocence, found himself entranced by the curious, exciting and sometimes frightening story. Yet it was I who found myself confronted by that particular call to virtue, which challenges old habits and self loves.

The Double Story intertwines the cases of two little girls, a princess and a shepherd’s daughter, both of whom think they are a significant Somebody. “Each cared more for her own fancies and desires than for anything else in the world.” Both girls exhibit wide variations of ill temper and selfishness, but are such polar opposites they could very well be compared to the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (before the latter’s conversion). As the parents struggle of each to endure their children, a strange and marvelous Wise Woman enters their lives and offers each child the opportunity of conversion.

Princess Rosamond, the first of the two girls, offers to readers a practical archetype of one ruled by passions. A whirlwind of chaos, Rosamond demands everything short of the impossible. As her father the King in exasperation will exclaim, “Haven’t we given her every mortal thing she wanted?” But her unending quest for satisfaction and love brings nothing but misery to herself and those around her. Nothing satiates her perpetual desires. She misguidedly seeks affection through control, most evident in her passion for pets: “As she grew older still, she became fond of animals, not in a way that brought them much pleasure, or herself much satisfaction.” When she grew tired of her pets, she let them starve. When a favorite rabbit failed to come when called, she raged and pulled clumps of fur out of the poor creature in a frenzy of frustration. And, never seeking to curb her vices, nor receiving such guidance from her parents, her state only degenerated. “Of course, as she grew, she grew worse; for she never tried to grow better.” Ironically, her wicked passions do not give her the vital independence she seeks, but rather leave her a puppet for manipulation. “Any cunning nurse who knew her well enough could call or send away those moods almost as she pleased, like a showman pulling strings behind a show.” Readers may smile, believing there to be a comfortable distance between themselves and Rosamond, yet is she so far; are her flaws so alien? Archbishop Charles Chaput gave an address at Notre Dame recently, which included the perennial reminder that people unwilling to rule their appetites will inevitably be ruled by them—and eventually, they’ll be ruled by someone else.” Fact of the matter is, Rosamond is no rare specimen.

While Rosamond behaves herself like a little devil in royal skirts, Agnes, the shepherd’s daughter, keeps a cool, composed exterior over a conceited and self-worshipping heart. “Agnes … seldom changed her mood, but kept that of calm assured self-satisfaction.” While Rosamond seeks love and fulfillment, if she has to squeeze it from someone else’s life blood, Agnes feels she needs no one but her own Somebody. Anyone else she views as a lesser creature, to be manipulated for her own purposes. “Father nor mother had ever by wise punishment helped her to gain a victory over herself, and do what she did not like or choose; and their folly in reasoning with one unreasonable had fixed her in her conceit.” Her doting but foolish parents praise her when she has done nothing praiseworthy; boast of her to others when she has been rude and impertinent; and bend to her every willful desire. “By degrees, from thinking herself so clever, she came to fancy that whatever seemed to her, must of course be the correct judgment, and whatever she wished, the right thing; and grew so obstinate, that at length her parents feared to thwart her in any thing, knowing well that she would never give in. But there are victories far worse than defeats.” In such a fashion does Agnes grow to believe herself truly a most wonderful creature of her own making. A little Pharisee, indeed, and a reminder to one and all. In his Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI discusses the Pharisee, who believes himself responsible for his own good actions: “The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself.” Though Agnes, on account of her self-conceit, behaves every bit as badly as Rosamond, she considers herself far better. “She never went into rages like the princess, and would have thought Rosamond–oh, so ugly and vile! if she had seen her in one of her passions.” Agnes’s actions are coolly controlled, which she attributes to her own dignity and excellence. But because of her calculating meanness, her transgressions prove every bit as bad as Rosamond’s—perhaps, worse.

Of course, the greatest part in this drama belongs to the Wise Woman herself. Into this one great character MacDonald weaves such great goodness and wisdom, gentleness and power that she rather harkens to the might and frightfulness of an archangel. She also reflects the love of God to some degree, as well as the tenderness of a mother. With the power to read souls, she brings each girl to her mysterious cottage with its innumerable rooms, where she challenges their deeply cherished vices. The Wise Woman offers each child several tests, giving each an opportunity to realize their faults. Some of the tests are mundane, some rather frightening, but each one designed to call the girl out of herself and on to great goodness.

Each girl learns that, no matter what happens, the Wise Woman keeps her promises, loves them, and, if they remain true, they will know the joy of virtue. The same truth is reflected in Jesus of Nazareth, as Pope Benedict most eloquently expresses, “if you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you.”

Although both Rosamond and Agnes are very wretched indeed when the Wise Woman comes to them, the Wise Woman shows deep love for them, seeing in them what they could be, as well as what they are. She says to Rosamond, “ever since I carried you from your father’s palace, I have been doing what I could to make you a lovely creature.” Rather like the love of God which calls us to Him, though He knows our sins and wretchedness. To one of the girls she says, “Every time you feel you want me, that is a sign that I am wanting you.” How reminiscent is such a sentiment of the dear Lord God, always ready and loving us, especially in the Eucharist. When we turn to Him, desiring Him, loving Him, it is only because He is already desiring and loving us.

No matter what the girls think of her, the wise woman desires their true happiness. Rosamond harbors absurd fancies such as “She wants to fatten and eat me,” regarding the wise woman, but no matter; the wise woman offers help to her anyway. Agnes considers the good woman an “old witch” who shows her “horrible things” when really, the wise woman only shows Agnes her true self. But the Wise Woman allows her, like Rosamond, to think ill of her. Like God, she will not deprive her charges of their freedom, only grant them the grace to use it well. Similarly, if they turn away, she will not force them back. She calls them to greatness, but they must choose it for themselves. When one of the girls finally, piteously, asks her for help, the Wise Woman immediately responds, “I will help you all I can, for now I can help you.” She was only waiting to be asked.

Although this story deals for the most part with children in need of conversion, MacDonald’s insights into human nature apply to readers of any age. Perhaps you carry a little bit of Rosamond and a little bit of Agnes within your soul. I do. There may not be a Wise Woman to show you your vices in a magic room, but thankfully there is George MacDonald who does very much the same in printed word. It takes a master to wrap an examination of conscience into a story so entrancing one cannot put it down. It takes a master to communicate the awe and desire for eternal happiness and fulfillment as well as the fear of true failure. For only one of the girls passes the tests. “Which one?” you might ask. To which I respond, tolle et lege. You will not regret doing so.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Boreas” painted by John William Waterhouse in 1903.

Elizabeth Anderson

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Elizabeth Anderson is a stay at home mother and independent writer. After graduating from Christendom College, she worked for several years for Population Research Institute. She resides in Michigan with her husband, Matthew, and their three small children.

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