Oddie on Chesterton

June 13, 2014

Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy
The Making of GKC, 1874-1908
William Oddie
(Oxford, 2008)
411 p.

In this book William Oddie examines Chesterton’s early life, from his birth in (so we are told) 1874 through his boyhood, schooling, and eventual emergence into the journalistic and literary world of England in the early years of the new century, culminating in the watershed year of 1908 in which Chesterton, still in his early 30s, published two of his most enduring and widely read books, The Man who was Thursday and Orthodoxy, and had reached a point at which, in Oddie’s words, “he had fully established the intellectual foundations on which the massive oeuvre of his last three decades was to be built.” Oddie’s purpose is to trace the development of his mind and his talents, in an effort to understand how Chesterton came to be Chesterton.

He is greatly assisted in this enterprise by the British Library’s recently completed cataloguing of many previously unpublished — and even unknown — early papers, which collectively provide a good deal of new evidence about Chesterton’s intellectual and spiritual development.

Chesterton came from a lively home. He had an argumentative younger brother, Cecil, and a creative father much devoted to a variety of hobbies: painting, drawing, writing, and theatre. (Chesterton’s life-long love of toy theatres was an inheritance from his father.) It was a fine home for the cultivation of a young writer, but it was not the sort of home from which one might expect a noted establishment critic and Christian apologist to arise. He had little in the way of religious formation, and that he did have was at odds with his later views: he was anti-clerical and anti-dogmatic as a teenager and young man, though these tendencies were counter-weighted by a longstanding fascination with the Blessed Virgin and an enduring admiration for medieval culture, both of which would eventually have a hand in moving him toward Catholicism.

While still in grade school Chesterton formed, together with several friends, the Junior Debater’s Club (JDC), of which he was the official chair and the unofficial heart. It was in the context of this club that he really began to stretch his intellectual wings as a critic, a moralist, and a debater. It was here that we first begin to hear his distinctive voice. (“A dragon is certainly the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities,” began one paper, given at age 16 but already characteristically “Chestertonian”.)

After his graduation from high school, when his friends went off to university, Chesterton chose instead to enrol at the Slade School of Art. The time he spent there was probably the most unhappy of his life. This period is usually characterized as something like his “dark night of the soul,” and though Oddie cautions against overstating the case, it is true that it was during this time that he confronted, in his heart, as it were, a moral and intellectual darkness that he saw gathering around him, and indeed around Western society as a whole. “I dug quite deep enough to discover the devil,” he later wrote. He was particularly troubled by the decadents in the English artistic world, represented by Oscar Wilde, with their cry of “art for art’s sake”, a formula that filled Chesterton with dismay, and even horror, for he always saw art as having a moral purpose.

It was Walt Whitman who had a large hand in helping Chesterton through this trial. Under Whitman’s influence he was fortified in a basic belief in the goodness of all things, in the equality and solidarity of men, and in “the redemption of the world by comradeship”. He emerged from this bleak period with a fresh sense of gratitude for life and art, as captured in the famous quotation from his Autobiography:

“At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”

Oddie argues that he began at this time to take a greater interest in theological questions, and even described himself as “becoming orthodox” because “heresy is worse even than sin”. At this time Christian theology began to be for him a point of reference. But it was only when he met Frances Blogg, his future wife, that his interest in religion and doctrine was really catalyzed. Frances was a devout Anglican, and in her social circle Chesterton met, for the first time, a group of intelligent and articulate Christians. Interestingly, the influence of this group on Chesterton’s thought is largely hidden from view to the biographer; we simply do not know very much about the arguments and ideas which Chesterton found persuasive at this time.

We do know that by 1903, being by now a well-established columnist with The Daily News and having published a well-received study of Robert Browning (which really marked his entrance into the world of serious English letters) he was ready to enter public debate in defence of traditional religious ideas — these are the so-called “Blatchford controversies,” after his principal opponent, Robert Blatchford.

There are many other threads to Chesterton’s intellectual and literary development during these years: his talent for posing fruitful paradoxes, his social and economic advocacy (in which an early socialism eventually turned into distributism), his love of the Middle Ages (in Oddie’s words, “a parallel dimension…in which truthfulness and humanity perpetually and exuberantly flourish”), his belief in the wisdom of fairy tales (in which “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition”), and many others. Oddie does a very good job of pulling them together into a unified portrait of the man.

As already mentioned, the two great books Chesterton published in 1908 mark, for Oddie, his maturity as a thinker and write, and he closes the book with an interesting analysis and appraisal of each.

Over the years I have read quite a few books about Chesterton; this is among the best. It is certainly one of the most scholarly treatments of Chesterton’s life and thought that I have encountered, but never at the expense of accessibility. What sets it apart from other biographies — of which there are quite a few now — is, first, the thoughtful detail in which these early years are treated, and, second, the access Oddie had to previously unavailable papers. The story of Chesterton’s life comes alive in these pages. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

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