Man, the trouble is
we don’t know who we are instead.
– Jars of Clay, Trouble Is
In Defiant Joy, his biography of literary legend G.K. Chesterton, Kevin Belmonte wrote that Chesterton “was deeply troubled by ‘the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil…and no definite image of good.’” This frustration with the lack of prototypes of purity was a recurring theme in Chesterton’s writing, spilling over into his socio-political analysis in What’s Wrong With the World and haunting his literary criticism. He laments, in Heretics,
All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.
I would maintain that the problem Chesterton pointed out to us around a hundred years ago is, if anything, an even greater issue now, an even mightier threat. Popular culture boasts protagonists who are blatant anti-heroes, celebrated films and novels are skillful portrayals of violence and grief, but rarely are they depictions of anyone worth imitating. There are few flaming heroes. There is much to run away from, but little to chase after.
This cancer of evil is one that threatens to overwhelm the followers of Christ, and many who have been ransomed out of the order of darkness continue allow themselves to play on the fringes of it, avoiding deep depravity but shying away from startling holiness. The trouble is, we don’t know who we are instead. And in order to be taught that, we must have examples, we must have models who, literally or figuratively, try out the good life for us and make it winsome. We must have a definite image of good.
In his novel, The Landlady’s Master (originally The Elect Lady), George MacDonald presents a definite image of good that is not only heartening but even a little dazzling and completely irresistible. As far as literary merit goes, this is one of MacDonald’s least worthy books, consisting of a plot that is sub-par at best and containing some portions of writing that are inexcusably bad. However, The Landlady’s Master gave us Andrew Ingram. And the vastness of that gift overshadows this book’s other weaknesses.
Andrew is described in this way,
Andrew was one of the inheritors of the earth. He knew his Father in the same way that Jesus Christ knows his Father. He was at home in the universe, neither lonely, nor out-of-doors, nor afraid.
A young farmer and a poet in rural Scotland in the 19th century, Andrew cuts a magnificent figure and in spite of his overwhelming humility, a daunting one. He is committed to purity in every respect. He is a man who knows the Great Secret:
…a secret proclaimed on the housetops, a secret hidden, the most precious of pearls…that the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
Most importantly, Andrew is a practical man, a man who values only those things which command action on his part. He has found Jesus to be the most commanding Presence in the cosmos, and the one who demands the highest form of doing. It is this theme of doing that reverberates throughout what becomes increasingly a very jarring story.
MacDonald writes thus of the childhood of Andrew and his brother,
There was this difference between them and most grown Christians – when anything roused thought or question, they at once referred it to the words of Jesus, and having discovered his will, made haste to do it. Their faith was not theological, nor did they ever stop to consider whether their beliefs matched the tenets of the Shorter Catechism they had learned. Practicality was the only code between them: could something be done? If so, where was to be found the first opportunity to do it?
And out of this impassioned and onehearted devotion grows two significant things. The first is a flaming heroism, a contagious and a rousing depiction of righteousness. Andrew is the person we all wish we were, who knows the One we all wish to know. The second is the mockery of the world. Andrew does not align himself with the value system of a dark planet and it thinks very little of him. Caught between these two warring factions is a laird’s daughter, Alexa, an intelligent and yet deficient character who is utilized by MacDonald for the purpose of handing each of us a mirror in which to see ourselves.
Alexa is beautiful and clever and even kind in her own way. The story has this to say of her, though,
Diligent in business, not fervent in spirit, she was never idle. But there are other ways than idleness of wasting time. Alexa was continually striving toward what is called ‘improving herself,’ but it was a big phrase for a small matter. She had not learned that to do the will of God is the way to improve oneself.
Ultimately, The Landlady’s Master is a call to action. Its sole intent is to drive the reader to obedience. For this reason, its literary deficiencies can be overlooked. It is not intended to be an exquisite and artistic piece of literature. It is meant to make a difference to what we do with our one wild and precious life.
I do not intend to give away much of this story, because I hope you will click right through and buy yourself a copy of it today. As a disclaimer, I should add that I am not of one mind with MacDonald on all issues of theology. This, however, did not take away from the beauty of this book.
I give The Landlady’s Master 4 out of 5 stars.