"Mary Marston" was written in 1881 by George MacDonald, an author I had never heard of previously. According to wikipedia, he wrote quite a few works of fantasy (Mary Marston isn't one of them) and was a considerable influence on the works of more famous authors of fantasy stories after him, such as C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle and my beloved Edith Nesbit. Wikipedia also states that "even Mark Twain, who initially disliked [him], became friends with him".
The larger part of MacDonald's work consists of realistic (non-fantasy) fiction and non-fiction, almost all of them of a religious character; hardly surprising if you know that the author was a Christian minister. He did get into trouble with his superiors for his refusal to accept certain theological views that he felt were wrong, and so his ministerial career was not very successful.
He had a large family and was a loving and devoted father and husband. Several of his books are classified as children's books, but "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."
Now to Mary Marston: This is, essentially, the story of a young woman who takes her life into her own hands, never placing any importance on what others think of her, but doing what she feels is right. Sadly, Mary's character does not evolve at all - she is already perfect when the book starts, and remains perfect throughout. But all the characters around her undergo changes; they make mistakes, seek atonement for them, or persist in them; they age and learn, both by their own and Mary's actions.
At the start of the book, Mary works alongside her father in their clothes shop in a small English town. Their partners in business are very different from the two Marstons, in that they only seek to make as much profit from the shop as possible, whereas Mary and her father are shining examples of good morals and business practice.
Eventually, the elderly father dies, and although Mary is now a fully fledged partner in the business, she decides to leave and goes to live with a rich, unhappy lady as her personal maid. Nobody understands this seemingly stupid move of hers, but of course, Mary's motives are only the most noble at all times.
Later on, she learns of an old friend who has fallen upon hard times, and when the rich unhappy lady does not want her to go and help that friend, Mary packs her bags and leaves the place, putting her friend's welfare above all else. She does indeed manage to help her friend, but not without much more trouble first, some sort of detective story being part of that as well.
By the end of the book, Mary is back in her home town, happily married (to someone else than whom I thought at the beginning of the story) and running her own clothes shop. What becomes of the other characters is told in not so many words; some have changed for the better, others never will.
Yes, there were a few surprises in the story, not just Mary's love interest. There were also some small gems hidden among the lengthy explanations of Mary's and the other people's characters, values, morals, thoughts and dreams, and I want to show you some of them, since they kept me persevering with the book:
He was a common man, with good cold manners, which he offered you like a handle. [This describes one of the principal characters when the reader is first introduced to him.]Maybe I would have enjoyed one of George MacDonald's fantasy/children's novels more, but I certainly drew some food for thought from this one - plus I proved to myself that I can, if I want to, be a patient reader.
Sweet earthy odors rose about Mary from the wet ground; the rain-drops glittered on the grass and corn-blades and hedgerows; a soft damp wind breathed rather than blew about the gaps and gates; with an upward springing, like that of a fountain momently gathering strength, the larks kept shooting aloft, there, like music-rockets, to explode in showers of glowing and sparkling song. [Mary walking across the fields to visit a friend on a sunny Sunday.]
No man's dignity is affected by what another does to him, but only by what he does, or would like to do, himself.
She was not unhappy, she was only not happy. [A description of Mary's friend before she hits really hard times and Mary comes to her rescue.]
When one is quiescent, submissive, opens the ears of the mind, and demands of them nothing more than the hearing—when the rising waters of question retire to their bed, and individuality is still, then the dews and rains of music, finding the way clear for them, soak and sink through the sands of the mind, down, far down, below the thinking-place, down to the region of music, which is the hidden workshop of the soul.
Very few of us are awake, very few even alive in true, availing sense.
It is not where one is, but in what direction he is going.
The two bonds of friendship are the right of silence and the duty of speech.