Book review of G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker
Throughout my life I have felt a little ashamed that I have never got to grips with the work of G.K. Chesterton. It was not just that, like him, I was a Catholic writer, journalist and occasional apologist but we were both sons of Beaconsfield-Chesterton by adoption, I by birth. I came into the world in St Joseph’s nursing home, opened by Chesterton, and was baptised by the parish priest, Monsignor Smith, who gave Chesterton the last rites.
One reason for my neglect, I suspect, was the taint of anti-Semitism that was attached to him and to his friend Hilaire Belloc. Another is Chesterton’s style. T.S. Eliot complained that it was “exasperating to the last point of endurance” and Ian Ker, the author of this superb new biography of Chesterton, concedes that his “generous” use of paradox is likely to “irritate the reader”. However Ker, the author of the definitive biography of Cardinal Newman and The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, also believes that Chesterton should be recognised as “the successor of the great Victorian ‘sages’, and particularly Newman” and one of England’s “greatest literary critics”.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born into a respectable, middle-class family living in Kensington; his father ran the firm of estate agents that still bears the family name. He was educated at St Paul’s. Ker sees some significance in the fact that he “never suffered the trauma of leaving home at an early age” and was spared the horrors of boarding at an English public school. Chesterton was “sleepily indifferent to what went on in class” and at the Slade School of Art, part of University College, Chesterton attended more lectures on history and English than on art. His first job was in publishing, editing books and reviewing manuscripts. He acknowledged that he knew next to nothing about literature “but the vast mass of literary people know less”.
Chesterton began writing as a freelance journalist, revealing a talent for satirical verse and trenchant polemic. Opposition to the Boer war led to a regular column on the Daily News, a paper financed by the pacifist Quaker chocolate magnate, George Cadbury. While still in his twenties, he married a slightly older woman, Frances Blogg, who came from Chiswick’s “arty-crafty” Bedford Park. They were unable to have children — a great sadness to them both — though it is difficult to envisage how Frances would have managed a family when Chesterton was so demanding. Six foot two, and soon overweight, Chesterton was unable to tie his own tie or shoe-laces and had to be shaved by a barber every day. Frances “acted in effect as both her husband’s valet and secretary”. His helplessness, Ker tells us, was the “sheer absent-mindedness of a mind totally detached from immediate practicalities and constantly engaged in thought”, but also the symptom of a deep flaw in his otherwise engaging character.
Chesterton’s literary and journalistic output was phenomenal: besides his columns in the Daily News and articles in his brother’s review, and later his own mouthpiece, G.K.’s Weekly, he wrote novels and detective stories — notably the extremely popular Father Brown series. Ker regards him as “surely the most ingenious of detective story writers” but concedes that “the Father Brown stories are certainly not the most important of Chesterton’s writings”. Nor were his novels, such as The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man who was Thursday, more than vehicles for his ideas: Chesterton “was not really interested in the imaginative creation of fictional characters that was the work of a novelist”.
Among the works that Ker rates as of lasting value and significance are Chesterton’s Dickens, “one of the classics of English literary criticism, and a book that is widely considered the best criticism of Dickens ever written”; his defence of Christianity in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man; and a later book on St Thomas Aquinas which the Thomist philosopher, Etienne Gilson, regarded as “the best book ever written on St Thomas”. This came after Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism; but many of his most forceful defences of Christianity such as Orthodoxy were written before.
Chesterton was a popular and effective public speaker, a “vagabond” lecturer at the invitation of groups such as the Peckham Ethical Fellowship. With no Question Time on television, or Moral Maze or even The Brains Trust on the radio (Chesterton began broadcasting only late in his life), public lectures attracted large crowds. Chesterton, dressed in a cape and carrying a sword-stick, became a celebrity. He spoke in favour of distributism, the political theory he developed with Belloc-a third way between socialism and capitalism, which harked back to the Middle Ages: it is now seen by some as the precursor of Phillip Blond’s and David Cameron’s Big Society.
Chesterton also championed Catholicism and the Catholic concept of society against the assault of the utilitarian scientific atheism of writers such as H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. Shaw often shared a platform with Chesterton, and it was Shaw who invented the pantomime elephant, the “Chesterbelloc”. He believed that in this hybrid “Chesterton has to make all the intellectual sacrifices that are demanded by Belloc.” The mutual esteem between Shaw and Chesterton is one of the pleasant surprises to emerge from Ian Ker’s biography.
Chesterton’s views on “the Jewish question” seem offensive today. They became particularly acerbic after the Marconi scandal — a case of insider trading by mostly Jewish ministers and businessmen — which led to a conviction of criminal libel for his brother Cecil. Chesterton denied that he was anti-Semitic but, like Belloc, he regarded Jews as “foreigners; only foreigners that were not called foreigners”. He was an enthusiastic Zionist. He believed that “because Jews were Jews…not Russians or Rumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen” they should “in some fashion and as far as possible…be represented by Jews and ruled by Jews’. He saw more clearly than most the evil of Nazism and the inevitability of a second World War. “When Hitlerism came”, wrote the American Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, “he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit.”
Ker’s biography is long, comprehensive and absorbing. It has persuaded me that I have been wrong to neglect the work of such an exceptional and colourful man.