Chesterton on Chesterton

February 9, 2010

G.K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908)
Anonymous [Cecil Chesterton] (Inkling Books, 2007)
179 p.  First reading.

To publish a critique of the thought and writings of G.K. Chesterton in 1908 might have seemed a little overhasty. At that early date only a few works of stature had appeared, with Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill preeminent among them.  This, one might think, was rather early and slender evidence on which to hang a character study.  Under normal circumstances that would be a sound conclusion, but these were not normal circumstances: the author of this anonymous study was none other than Chesterton’s own brother Cecil, who knew the man as well or better than anyone.  It is therefore a very interesting book, with good insight into Chesterton’s body of work — including the part that had not yet been written.

The key to understanding Chesterton, says Cecil, is to understand that he is a fighter and a romantic.  In everything he writes he has some opponent in mind whom he is seeking to persuade with his arguments and charm with his wit; he rarely writes simply to explain or describe; in everything he is a knight, riding out to meet the challenger with his own private trumpets sounding and banners flying.  This amiable combativeness suited him well, for he was temperamentally and intellectually inclined to defend causes which were, in his own time as much as in ours, lost, or at least losing:  he was an anti-imperialist, in the sense of being an unabashed nationalist; he loved Catholicism and defended it for many years before himself becoming a Catholic; and he was in revolt against the marching forces of modernity.

Cecil attributes his spirited opposition to modernity to several factors.  There was, first, his love of tradition, which naturally disposed him to reject habits of thought that held tradition in contempt.  He was also opposed to the scepticism that he saw as both tending to obstruct clear thought and as serving to loosen the influence of the past on the present.  And he disbelieved the theory of progress from which “progressives” derived their own name and that of their favoured causes; revolutions, which appealed to Chesterton’s romantic spirit, were in his mind not properly intended to create a new utopia, but rather to help the world return to a sanity which it was always threatening to forsake; revolutions were properly restorative, not radical.

All of this is familiar territory to those who have spent time with Chesterton.  More surprising, to me at least, were the literary influences which Cecil names as having had an early formative influence on Chesterton.  Decisive, in Cecil’s mind, was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “He embraced passionately the three great articles of Whitman’s faith, the ultimate goodness of all things implying the acceptance of the basest and meanest no less than the noblest in life, the equality and solidarity of men, and the redemption of the world by comradeship.” Chesterton’s early poetry collection The Wild Knight was especially under the sway of Whitman.  I had not suspected the connection (and now I suppose I am obliged to dig out my copy of Whitman’s poem and actually read it).  Second in importance, though more obviously, was Stevenson, from whom he learned that fighting can be noble and romantic, “but only if you fight against odds”.

Cecil has some insightful remarks to make about Chesterton’s fiction.  He was “a born story-teller, but not a born novelist”.  It is an astute observation.  Chesterton never had the talent for characterization and close observation that are the novelist’s art.  His fiction was largely a draping of narrative garb over a bony conceptual skeleton.  “Mr. Chesterton’s intellect sees ideas more clearly than persons, yet his temperament leads him to think about ideas as romantically as romanticists think about persons.  He wants to give every idea a feather and a sword, and a trumpet to blow and a good ringing voice to speak.”  His best work (to the time at which he was writing) Cecil judged to be The Napoleon of Notting Hill (“because Wayne and Auberon are the two lobes of Mr. Chesterton’s brain”), and, on the non-fiction side, his literary study Charles Dickens (“because Dickens is the author whose way of looking at life was most like his own”).  Cecil remarks that Chesterton’s talents might be better served in another genre: the musical comedy!  It is an inspired idea, and it is a pity that Chesterton never took up his brother’s suggestion.

It may well be, however, that Chesterton did take another suggestion from this book.  In his discussion of Chesterton’s literary prospects, Cecil proposes that his talents might be well served by a character who is “a sort of transcendental Sherlock Holmes, who probes mysteries, not by attention to facts and clues, but by understanding the spiritual atmosphere”.  This, of course, is a fine description of Father Brown, three years before the first Father Brown stories appeared in print.

In his closing pages, Cecil makes a comparison that has frequently occurred to me, but which I cannot recall having seen in print before.  He marks a similarity between Chesterton and Dr. Johnson, who was “regarded in his own time as a classic and in ours as a contemporary”.  There is something very apt about the phrase when applied to Chesterton; he was in his own time an oddity in many ways, yet today he is, if not exactly a contemporary, then at least someone who continues to provoke and fascinate, long after he might have been expected to go gentle into that good night.

For someone with a more than passing interest in Chesterton, this is a very worthwhile book.  Though based, by the nature of the case, on relatively little direct literary evidence, the book makes more than its fair share of shrewd comments about Chesterton’s character and style (some of which are appended below). This edition of the book, published by Inkling Books to mark the centenary of the original publication, is supplemented by an interesting set of essays by, among others, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Chesterton himself.  They include the essay in which Wells asked that, instead of simply criticizing others (as he had done in Heretics), Chesterton ought to state his own positive positions, a challenge that provoked Chesterton to write his wonderful book Orthodoxy.  The essay by Shaw invokes (for the first time in print?) the Chesterbelloc, that amiably pugnacious double-humped creature of legend. These essays make nice addenda to the main text. There are some odd variations in the weight of the book’s font, which I found a bit distracting, but basically the edition is very nicely done, and it is good to have this study back in print.

[Chestertonian paradox]
The typical Chestertonian paradox consists not in the inversion of a proverb, but in the deliberate presentation of some unusual and unpopular thesis with all its provocative features displayed, with all the consequences which are likely to startle or anger opponents insisted on to the point of wild exaggeration.

[Farce in Chesterton]
There is nothing more characteristic of G.K.C. than that he becomes farcical in proportion as he becomes serious.

[Chesterton as a writer]
To summarize Mr. Chesterton’s position as a writer we may say that, while he lacks the careful workmanship, the regard for true proportion, the sensitive aesthetic conscience which would make him a great artist, he has enough artistry for the work he wants to do, and a little to spare, and this is backed by so prodigious a stock of vital energy, by so much humour, imagination, pugnacity, and sense of romance, that one forgets the slips and defects in the great mass of achievement.  Probably, to Chesterton, at any rate, that achievement would be impossible without those defects.

[Quantity and quality]
Mr. Chesterton’s extraordinary versatility and copiousness of output is beyond question a danger to his permanent position in literature, if he cares to have one.  It is true that, considering the amount he writes, his level of work is remarkably high.  But, unless he controls his effervescent desire to write everything that comes into his head, he will never write the best that he might have written.

2 Responses to “Chesterton on Chesterton”

  1. Nick Milne Says:

    A strange point of order: whatever the contents of the H.G. Wells essay (which I freely grant I haven’t read), it remains the case that Chesterton attributes the challenge to express his own position to G.S. Street in the preface to Orthodoxy. If Wells’ essay played any part in his decision to write that seminal work, I don’t recall him saying so.

    In any event, a fascinating review. I had looked through this book on a number of occasions in service of a few different academic projects, but I’ve never read it straight through. The same is true of Belloc’s post-mortem appreciation of Chesterton, which also deserves attention.

    I find this work all the more poignant in view of Cecil Chesterton’s eventual fate. His decision to enlist in the Highland Light Infantry during the Great War saw him wounded several times; he suffered greatly, as we might expect, and then died of illness shortly after the Armistice of 1918. The crushing fury this wrought in GK is worth keeping in mind when we read of war in his later works.

    Cecil was not alone in this, of course. John Buchan’s brother, Alistair, died in action in 1917; Belloc’s son Louis was killed in 1918. Rudyard Kipling’s son, John (“Jack”) Kipling, was famously killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915; Ezra Pound’s artist friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at Neuville the same year. H.H. Munro, also known as Saki, likely the greatest writer of the age (I say this in all seriousness), was killed by a sniper’s bullet at Beaumont-Hamel in 1916.

    The impact of the war on England’s literary figures and their output is something I intend to pursue at greater length in some paper or other, but for now it’s enough to simply look upon it and weep.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for the correction. I had forgotten that Chesterton named G.S. Street as provocateur. In any case, Wells does call him out, even if not in a sufficiently provocative manner.

    What you say about Cecil’s death is quite true. I gather that it hit GKC pretty hard, as one would expect. The scale of the killing in WWI affected most everybody involved, writers included. I often think of the closing pages of Mann’s The Magic Mountain when I want to understand how that war changed things.

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