Rereading: AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND by George MacDonald

Cover and interior illustrations for this 1919 edition by Jessie Willcox Smith.

This is a difficult one to write about because rereading it was a mixture of a comforting revisit to a childhood favorite and a disappointment for a jaded old guy.

Diamond is the son of a carriage driver in the employ of a well-to-do London family in the 19th century. He lives with his parents in the carriage house over the horse stalls, and right below him is the other Diamond, the carriage horse his father uses. His family is poor, but gets by on their income when Diamond’s father is able to work, which is not always the case. In Diamond’s bedroom is a hole in the wall through which a woman’s voice talks to him, and he soon discovers it’s The North Wind in the form of a woman. She takes young Diamond with her on adventures around London and around England, some of which are frightening, some exhilarating. Diamond is a very sweet child who wants to love everyone, even the poorest homeless people he meets, and some think he is not right in the head. This doesn’t bother Diamond, he goes on trying to help those he can. At last the North Wind brings him to the country at her back, which is a strange and wonderful place, but in the real world Diamond has fallen ill and his parents are in deep despair over him. He comes back, more sweet than ever, and learns to drive Big Diamond and the carriage when his father is ill, and has lost his position, so they must work as cabbies. Even then Diamond is trying to help a poor sweep girl when she falls sick, and turns to a wealthy man he has met in his cab for help. Though some of the book is about the sad situation of London’s poor, there are fantasy episodes from dreams, from Diamond’s travels by night with North Wind, and a long fairy tale about Princess Daylight that has been pulled out as a separate book or story in some collections. After many trials and struggles, Diamond and his family finally seem to have found a generous patron and a good home, but Diamond’s health has suffered, and he may not be long able to enjoy it.

The fantasy elements are what I like best about this book. Reading it now, Diamond is too perfect a Victorian child, and hard to accept as a real. Many of the situations are fraught with melodrama or too long, and don’t work so well for me now. My favorite part of the book is the story of Princess Daylight, which is similar to other MacDonald fairy tales, and feels both more classic and more modern than the rest. I never liked the ending of this book, and I still don’t, but there are moments in it where I can slip back into my childhood, and that’s comforting.

Not an ideal read, but worth a try and recommended.

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