Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Maisie Ward (Sheed & Ward, 1943)
685 p. First reading.
There have been a few biographies of Chesterton written since his death in 1936, but this was the first. Maisie Ward was a friend of the Chestertons and knew personally many of those who played a central role in Chesterton’s life. In addition to telling that story in its broad outlines, she has assembled a fascinating collection of letters that shed light on the man, and has written a frequently perceptive study of his thought.
The book is especially strong on his early life, those years before he broke bouyantly into the world of English letters. Though he was something of a late bloomer — apparently he did not speak until the age of four nor read until the age of eight — by his late teens it was clear that he was a man of literary talent: a fine poet and a perceptive critic. But more than that he was a man who, from the first, was great in spirit. This quality is what remains, for me, the enduring attraction of Chesterton: he was a deeply good man who held that joy in life was the highest achievement toward which a man could strive. Joy and wonder did not come automatically to him, any more than they come to any of us, but he kept the ideal resolutely before his eyes and pursued it with all the intelligence and imaginative strength at his disposal. His key, as he often said, was humility, bearing fruit in thanksgiving:
“You say grace before meals
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
It was interesting to read too about those first few years during which his literary star began to rise. He was in his mid-twenties when his first work was published — a little known work called Greybeards at Play — but his first major success came several years later in his literary study Robert Browning. Suddenly he had a name, and began to meet the great literary figures of his day, such as George Bernard Shaw, with whom he was over the years to have a series of very public and very amiable arguments about everything under the sun. It seems to me that that period of emergence from obscurity and entry into public life is a testing ground for anyone. Do they retain their inner balance? Do they remember who they are? In that first blush of the footlights we learn a lot about a man’s character.
Chesterton seems to have managed the transition gracefully. His characteristic mode of expressing his ideas — though paradox, wordplay, and open humour — was already in place and won him the admiration of many. Rather than cater to the tastes and opinions of those who praised him, he pressed forward with his own vision. The next five years saw the publication of a string of his finest books: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and Orthodoxy, among others. The novels set forth a recognizably Chestertonian vision of the world, and the books of controversy set forth its intellectual foundations. I think it must have been clear to those paying attention that he was a man to be reckoned with, for he had something to say, and a way to say it.
He worked incredibly hard. Maisie Ward reports this trait with some regret, for she believed he worked far too hard than was good for him. It was typical for him to publish four or five books in a year; in one year (1926) he published seven. They ranged all over the map: novels, poetry, literary criticism, cultural criticism, biographies, essays, religious controvery, detective stories. Ward thought, and many have since joined her, that if he had written fewer books he could have written better books, for as fine as many of them are, they do show signs of having been put together hastily. But in truth he was not a man to polish, and he had little patience with literary pretensions. Nevertheless his efforts did cost him, for in 1914, as the Great War was breaking out, he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown and was gravely ill for six months or more. It was feared that he would die, and his convalescence was long. When he did finally recover, he promptly returned to his old ways. Perhaps it was the only way he could work.
He was famously disorganized, and it was as true of his private life as his public. His books were often attacked for their factual sloppiness, and it was true that he usually pulled facts and quotations from his (sometimes faulty) memory rather than checking them. In one case he quoted four lines of poetry, three of which turned out to be his own creations! In his business affairs too he was very disorderly, and it was a full time job for his wife Frances to track his spending and monitor his contracts. It was all she could do to keep up: at one time he had 30 books contracted to different publishers! And his personal life fared no better: one morning he appeared before guests at breakfast wearing two ties, and having the gaffe pointed out to him claimed that “it proved he paid too much, not too little, attention to dress”.
Witticisms such as that came naturally to him, and he was an overflowing fount of good humour. This was sometimes mistaken for buffoonery, and his reputation suffered for it, as much in his own day as in ours. He once said of Dickens, though it could as truly be said of him, that “he was accused of superficiality by those who cannot grasp that there is foam upon the deep seas.” Such critics must understand that, in Chesterton, great seriousness and fooling high spirits were conjoined. The surprising combination of personal amiability and intellectual ferocity is highly characteristic of his thought. The two elements came together beautifully when, late in life, he participated in a series of Mock Trials during a fundraising campaign for a hospital; participants dressed up in lawyers’ outfits and argued cases. Chesterton entered fully into the festive spirit of the event, but provoked surprise by insisting on pressing real arguments with intense persuasiveness, as when he prosecuted a Headmaster for Destroying Freedom of Thought. It was surely a nearly ideal forum for him.
I had not realized the extent to which he was engaged with the political controversies of his times. I knew that he wrote a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, and though he was formally forbidden from discussing politics and religion in that context, it is a fact that he often did. And many of his books, such as Eugenics and other Evils and An Outline of Sanity, deal with politics and economics. Yet I did not know that he worked, together with his brother Cecil and friend Hilaire Belloc, on a regular newspaper (called The New Witness from 1912-23 and G.K.’s Weekly from 1925-36) that engaged on a weekly basis the political events of the time. Little of this is widely read today, and one wonders what other books he may have written had he not poured so much energy into the project.
The actual content of Chesterton’s economic and political thought remains something of a mystery to me; I wonder if someone has written a book on the subject. In economics he promoted a system he called distributism which, insofar as I understand it, favoured private ownership of property and business on a small, family scale. He was as opposed to socialism as he was to big-business capitalism. In politics, too, he favoured the common man’s liberty and dignity against the encroachment of big government. He believed that people should work for their own benefit, and that charity toward others should be offered freely. A social system in which people are obliged by law to labour for the benefit of others he called servile. At the root of his social thinking was the belief that man’s nature is primary; attempts to rationalize or improve him will tend toward tyranny.
Throughout his life he had a great love of ritual, and he understood how it sustained and enlivened the sense of the mystery of life. An anecdote told by an acquaintance who visited Chesterton in his home in Beaconsfield illustrates his attitude:
“He had great satisfaction when a friend and I, driving away in the evening, knocked down a white wooden post outside the house in starting the car. He held that he had witnessed just how many a grand old local custom must have originated, in men covering up their mistakes by saying they were fulfilling a ritual which had fallen into neglect. You must say you did it on purpose, he said, say it was a rite too long omitted and it will soon be kept up every year and men will forget its origin, and it will be known as the Bump of Beaconsfield.”
No single image or episode could really capture the Chestertonian spirit, but, if I were forced to choose one, this would serve. Throughout his life he was alert to the romance of everyday things, to the fact that it is good to be alive, and he taught by example that for all our blessings we should give thanks. That was a good man.