An edifying but still incomplete sampling from the work of the great British novelist, moralist and philosopher.
Though he died 75 years ago, Gilbert Keith Chesterton's (1874–1936) influence is still strong, particularly among Catholic intellectuals of a moderately conservative bent—the same audience, say, that reads Garry Wills and Cardinal Newman for fun. Ker, whose biography of Chesterton will appear later this year, does a good job of selecting material that readily illustrates why this influence should continue. It also shows what a fluent, often entertaining writer Chesterton was. The selections from the fiction, apart from the beloved Father Brown stories, are lighter than some might wish; particularly noticeable is the absence of what many hold to be Chesterton's best novel,The Man Who Was Thursday. Ker explains that the absence owes to the fact that it andThe Napoleon of Notting Hillare readily available—but so are the Father Brown yarns. The editor does help reestablish Chesterton as a literary critic with a particularly extensive knowledge of the Victorian era in which he came of age; the selections from Chesterton's studies of Victorian literature, from the novels of Dickens to the poetry of Browning and the essays of Ruskin, are extensive and satisfying. Welcome, if also too brief, are selections from Chesterton's autobiography, in which he confesses, "I look back to that landscape of my first days with a pleasure that should doubtless be reserved for the Utopias of the Futurist." Was he a happy writer? Yes, and even when Chesterton was locking horns with Marxists and reactionaries on either side, he tended to be gently civil—even if he dismissed his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche for harboring "a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil." Of particular interest are Chesterton's thoughtful notes on Christianity ("In a word, St Thomas was making Christendom more Christian in making it more Aristotelian"), which are of a piece and lineage with the better-known writings of C.S. Lewis.
A welcome taste of Chesterton, who remains most readable today. Now for a second volume to fill in the gaps.
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From the Introduction by Ian Ker
Making a selection from the works of any writer obviously involves the editor in critical judgements. When the writer in question is as prolific and multi-talented as Chesterton, and so engaged in the controversies of his own day, the task is that much harder. So much he wrote is of the highest quality yet so much remains relatively unknown. For that reason I have chosen in this anthology to emphasize the lesser known Chesterton. Of course I might have reprinted his well-known novels — The Napolean of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday — but they are already available in many editions, and it is arguable that they are not his best works. The purpose of this collection is, first, to introduce readers to the rich treasury of his other work and, second, to show that much of that work is at least as good as the more famous stories and poems, fine though these are, and often better.
There is a close parallel here between Chesterton and a nineteenth-century writer, like him pre-eminently a controversialist and convert to Catholicism, and that is John Henry Newman. Chesterton, of course, was a professional journalist, but Newman edited two periodicals and one of his best literary works was The Tamworth Reading Room (1841), a collection of seven lengthy commissioned letters to The Times, a slim publication of fifty pages and one of his two satirical masterpieces. Then again, both writers' main output lay in non-fiction prose, but both published fiction and verse, including two innovative novels and two long poems that were immensely popular in their time and which still resonate with religious believers, although neither the novels nor the poems could be called, except by uncritical enthusiasts, major works. Thus, just as Newman's Loss and Gain (1848) introduced a new kind of introspective self-questioning into the English novel, while Chesterton's nightmarish fantasy The Man who was Thursday anticipated the sinister world of Kafka; s too, Newman's The Dream of Gerontius (1865) was the second most widely-read work on death and the future life after Tennyson's In Memoriam in an age preoccupied with death, as well as inspiring Elgar's great oratorio, while Chesterton's immensely popular The Ballad of the White Horse inspired soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, as well as the famously terse leader in The Times during the Second World War which quoted two verses from it after the disastrous fall of Crete. But, whereas Newman has come to be recognized as a major literary figure to be ranked with his contemporaries, Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold, Chesterton, seen principally as the author of The Man who was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Ballad of the White Horse, and the Father Brown stories, is surprisingly dismissed as a minor writer. But this selection claims, on the contrary, that, just as Newman's great works are his non-fictional prose writings, so too is that true of Chesterton. The Chesterton, then, of this anthology is the successor of Newman and other great Victorian 'sages', as they have been called.
Chesterton in fact used the word of himself when he wrote that as 'the sage, the sayer of things' he was 'forced' in the age in which he lived 'to pretend to be something else, a minor poet or novelists'. (1) Chesterton felt that one reason why he was not 'able to be a novelist' was that he always had been 'and presumably always shall be a journalist'. Not that he is the least self-deprecatory about this, since it was the 'serious or even solemn' part of him that made him a journalist. He was not a serious novelist simply because of incapacity, but 'because I really like to see ideas or notion wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women'. The truth was that he was not really interested in the imaginative creation of real fictional characters that was the work of a novelist: 'But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist." (2) Nor was he in the least deprecatory about the profession of journalism, writing that what was apparently 'ephemeral journalism' can be 'eternal journalism'. (3) But he knew he was no novelist: 'The novelist can do something very splendid which I cannot do at all — something that may well be much more splendid than theorizing or thinking; he can call up living souls out of the void . . .' (4) But there are two exceptions to this depreciation of his fiction: The Man who was Thursday, which takes the form of a nightmare in which no one turns out to be what he seems to be, and the Father Brown detective stories, in which the only character who can be known to the reader is the detective himself. And so it is not surprising that these are Chesterton's most successful attempts at fiction. This selected volume, therefore, contains a substantial number of the Father Brown stories which are self-contained in themselves, although nothing from the novel, from which it is hardly possible to make selections and which anyway, as I have already indicated, is not in my view one of Chesterton's major works, let alone a work that would justify its inclusion in its entirety. As a self-confessedly minor poet, Chesterton's verse is represented here by a handful of his best poems, but to make selections from The Ballad of the White Horse — a work of 'first-rate journalistic balladry' in T. S. Eliot's words (5) — would be almost as awkward as attempting to select from one the novels.
Chesterton's posthumously published Autobiography (1936) has been strangely neglected by his biographers and critics. And yet it is surely a classic of autobiography in the same class as Newman's Apologia pro Vita sua and Ruskin's Praeterita. There are many delightful vignettes in this book which radiates Chesterton's joyful humour, but to include them all here would mean a somewhat fragmentary and disconnected selection. I have therefore selected only the first two chapters, the best part of the autobiography, with their marvellous insights into childhood.
Chesterton's critical masterpiece Charles Dickens, published in 1906, one of the classics of literary criticism, is one of his half-dozen or so major works, possibly his greatest. It is unusual for a literary critic to be at his best when writing about writers of the immediately preceding generation, but Chesterton is at his best when writing about Victorians. For Chesterton, Dickens was the English literary response to the French Revolution, who gave expression to the idea of equality and liberty. No writer had ever 'encouraged his characters so much' — they were like 'spoilt children. They shake the house like heavy and shouting schoolboys; they smash the story to pieces like so much furniture.' The fundamental democratic doctrine was that 'all men are interesting', so that when Dickens tried to create dull characters 'he could not keep them dull'. Like Chesterton, Dickens knew what it was 'to feel a joy so vial and violent that only impossible characters can express that'. He also understood the immense seriousness of humour, that 'exhilaration can be infinite, like sorrow; that a joke can be so big that it breaks the roof of the stars. By simply going on being absurd, a thing can become godlike; there is but one step from the ridiculous to the sublime.' (6)
Unlike contemporary intellectuals like Shaw and Wells, with their contempt for the masses, Chesterton like Dickens was 'spiritually at one with the poor, that is, with the great mass of mankind'. Dickens understood, for instance, that there were 'no pleasures like the pleasures of the poor'. No other writer had 'ever come so near the quick nerve of happiness as his descriptions of the rare extravagances of the poor'. Unlike the so-called 'philanthropists', he had 'sympathy with the poor in the Greek and literal sense; he suffered with them mentally; for the things that irritated them were the things that irritated him. He did not pity the people, or even champion the people, or even merely love the people; in this matter he was the people.' (7)
Except where otherwise stated, all references are to the Ignatius Press Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton.
(1) A. L. Maycock, ed., The Man who was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G. K. Chesterton (London: Dennis Robinson, 1963), 163.
(2) Autobiography, 276–7
(3) J. P. de Fonseka, ed., G. K. C. as M. C.: Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions (London: Methuen, 1929), 77.
(4) Illustrated London News, xxxiv. 88.
(5) The Tablet, 20 June 1936
(6) Charles Dickens, 46–47, 49–50
(7) Ibid, 61, 68, 138, 191.