Every good name dropper has a vested interest in how his names are doing, their current exchange value, and the likely quotation when memoir time comes around. My own best coins, Chesterton and Belloc, have, alas, devalued steadily. Strictly speaking, I didn’t see that much of either of them in the flesh—Chesterton just once at my christening when I disappeared into his lap (sorry to sound like an English lady diarist, but that’s the way I heard it)—but they filled my childhood like Mardi gras balloons. I dimly remember Belloc advancing for Sunday dinner, behind a barrage of telegrams: “Belloc five miles away,” “Belloc getting closer”; finally turning up with a ham under one arm and a lettuce under the other, his diet of the moment; lustily polishing off both and eating the meal we were serving as well; all the while rolling his r’s ferociously, like a stage Frenchman. I’m told I later chased him around the garden with the branch of a chestnut tree, and I can almost believe it: he provoked that kind of response in many people.
My meetings with Chesterton were more spectral. My mother was working on his biography from roughly my seventh to thirteenth years, a strange way to encounter someone. I knew his letters and unpublished drawings before I exactly knew who he was: a bit like knowing a man’s galoshes and the smell of his pipe tobacco, but never quite seeing his face. Chesterton, I understood, was simply what the word genius meant: a spirit so huge and fertile that it could grow poetry, novels, detective stories, turnips and mimosa all at once. I’ll swear I grew up thinking that physical fatness had something to do with it.
At fifteen or so, I waded through his books on my own and found to my surprise that the estimate held up pretty well. It seemed to me that any writer combining imagination and good sense at that level of intensity could accomplish anything he wanted. So, when Lionel Trilling placed Chesterton’s social criticism on a line between Cobbett and Orwell, I agreed; when Jacques Maritain, the Thomist, called G. K. a better natural metaphysician than himself, I only wondered at the understatement. I even thought that a short essay of his on dreams knocked Jung out of the ballpark.
Larger than life, I suppose. No one is that good. Taking the lowest possible consensus, Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist, who wasted too much time cutting up other journalists and journalistic ideas, and an inspired dabbler in other forms; Hilaire Belloc was a grand master of language, so willfully cranky in its use that he seemed to demand a minor place in letters. Still, they towered over the hedge at our place; and to write about them now, with all the fake judiciousness that follows, seems dizzily unreal, as well as something of a betrayal.
Chesterbelloc was, I believe, a word coined by Bernard Shaw, in order to have a bigger and clumsier target to his right. If so, the old stage manager was being his usual shrewd self, because the two reputations have long since sunk of their combined dead weight, where either might have survived on its own. Potential Chesterton fans were always put off by having Belloc move in with them, while Belloc’s particular delicacies were lost in the noise that seemed to be coming from the pair of them.
Modest, independent salvage work has recently been attempted: W. H. Auden’s G. K. Chesterton, A Selection from His Non-fictional Prose1 and Herbert van Thal’s Belloc, a Biographical Anthology.2 But both will need much more than one book. Chesterton resists collection maddeningly since he seldom wrote anything hopeless and he never wrote anything perfect. Mr. Auden’s collection is pretty good, although leaning a bit heavily on Chesterton’s later wheezing period, when I gather he was so bored with writing that he dictated everything and rarely bothered to proofread. His famous word-play was mechanical and compulsive by then, an old music hall turn. Yet even limiting oneself to his very best years (say, 1900-14) one finds Chesterton’s virtues so prolix and slovenly, and so enmeshed in his vices, that there is no way of squeezing them into a single book. (On the same principle, his wife allegedly despaired of getting him into his clothes, and wound up buying him a cloak.)
Belloc contrariwise was extremely even in quality, so that a reader who supposes he’s getting the best might be disappointed, but a reader who knows he’s only getting the average might be more impressed. Mr. van Thal’s recent collection of Belloc conveys nothing more powerfully than Belloc’s eerie equilibrium: his 1891 style barely distinguishable from his 1936 style, either in prose or verse; and both so classically pure and stiffly graceful that they are almost outside time altogether—an effect more French than English. Where Chesterton was like a workman who wouldn’t clean up, but served you plaster, drop cloths, and all, Belloc was neat as a pin.
A matter of very different backgrounds, household gods, self-images: Belloc was halfway into the English upper class, but also just French enough to want to be more so. His father, a French painter, died when Hilaire was a child, and his boyhood was largely spent in England: hence he was able to study “Frenchness” in platonic abstraction, and become more French than de Gaulle. This meant things like lucidity, straight roads, military discipline. Chesterton was a middle-class Londoner at a time when Dickensian “character” was much in vogue, with its burdens of eccentricity, vagueness, improvisation. “The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road,” he wrote. That these two writers, straight and rolling, could be mistaken for one suggests how much play-acting went into both of them, and perhaps how much of the other each contained.
The toughest chain binding the dead men is undoubtedly their combined reputation for anti-Semitism, and this might be a good place to start separating them. Auden himself was put off by it, but finally blames the whole thing on Belloc and on Chesterton’s brother Cecil. There is some historic verification for this. Belloc and brother Cecil staked their good names, or at least that of their magazine, The New Witness, on exposing the Isaacs brothers in the famous Marconi scandal of 1913.3 In the eventual trial, Cecil floundered badly on the witness stand (Belloc having vanished to France). Gilbert underwent some kind of nervous crack-up in November, 1914, brought on, so his wife believed, by the strain of the trial and the onset of the war, leaving his stormy brain catatonic for some months. In 1918, Cecil died in a British Army hospital and a week later, Gilbert wrote an open letter to Rufus Isaacs—“Daniel, son of Isaac, go in peace—but go,” an act of feverish vengeance for his dead brother.
Rufus Isaacs had gone with Lloyd George to Versailles, “the chief Marconi Minister as our Chief Foreign Minister”: presumably to sell out the cause Cecil had died for. The anti-Semitism—and there really isn’t that much of it—all seems to date from that period. One chapter of The New Jerusalem, 1920, and a couple of cracks in The Superstition of Divorce, also 1920, are about the sum of it. Somehow the issues had become briefly jumbled in G. K.’s mind—his patriotic brother humiliated, the wily Jews running England: and, of course, Belloc with his theories.
Yet an explanation that blames it all on someone else bothers in its own way. Chesterton was in other respects a thinker of visibly painful independence, an arguing machine, who dearly wanted to agree with everyone he wrote about, but just couldn’t. Why did he swallow the Belloc line, even under stress? On the purely personal side, and particularly with his own stage sets around him, Belloc is reputed to have been a hypnotic personality, in strange parts formidable and reassuring: “There entered [the room] with him the smell of danger,” wrote Chesterton—a smell to which he had dubious title in any literal sense, but what a creation!
Belloc was also a virtuoso at playing the wise older man. His brief training in the French artillery (according to his biographer Robert Speaight, eight lonely, wretched months) had made him an expert on military affairs. He later won a seat in Parliament which taught him who ran England and how. His performance in these respects was a work of art compared with, say, Hemingway’s, and it gulled a better type of friend—no Leonard Lyonses or Gary Coopers in his set. “There is great psychological value in a strong affirmation,” he once said; and Chesterton for his part later claimed that he himself joined the Catholic Church for the sake of “Authority”—the exact thing Belloc seemed to offer so abundantly.
Soulmates, then, up to a point. This was the seamy side of their partnership. Chesterton had apparently doted on his younger brother and his brother had always been the real Chester in the Chesterbelloc. With Cecil gone, along with some of his own incredible vitality, he fastened on certain Bellocian positions out of simple loyalty, and with less of his early skepticism (he had always feared that his hairshirt itch to question everything might lead to madness; Belloc’s affirmations were an antidote). It could be that anti-Semitism was a small part of the package: although small to vanishing as his mind regained its strength.
Yet even this is misleading. Chesterton probably trusted Belloc as much out of laziness as anything else (he was always happy to have someone else go to the library); but he would have picked Belloc’s general philosophy to pieces in five minutes if it hadn’t paralleled some thought-out position of his own. Although his anti-Semitism (which he preferred to call Zionism—i.e., get them out of here) differed from Belloc’s in quality and stress, both were based on a doctrine of place: in Chesterton’s case a real place, the London of his childhood, in Belloc’s, a memory and a yearning.
Chesterton’s ruling political passion was always for local control—a passion which used to be considered reactionary once upon a time. His prophecy novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904, foretold that London would eventually (1984 by one reckoning) break down into separate kingdoms: a medieval notion which Mayor Mailer later tried to bring to pass in New York under a more-or-less radical banner. Local control, whether from left or right, often tends to anti-Semitism—as though the one thing that keeps a community from being itself is its Jews, a wildly unhistoric notion; it sometimes also tends (the Chesterbelloc might have considered this a different type of question) to anti-Catholicism, when the frenzy for self-definition gets out of hand. Anyway, Chesterton’s quarrel with the Jews was of this fuzzy kind, a distrust of their alleged universalism as Belloc gave him to understand it: that is, with a people who maintained their own identity at heavy cost, but seemed bent on persuading other people to blend theirs.
Copyright © 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed.
Faber & Faber, 228 pp., 40/—↩
Knopf, 386 pp., $8.95↩
In 1912 the British government signed a contract with Marconi Company of London, of which Godfrey Isaacs was managing director. Before this was publicly known, three cabinet members—Lloyd George, Murray of Elinbank, and Godfrey's brother Rufus (later Lord Reading)—bought shares in the American Marconi Company, whose value might be assumed to increase indirectly as a result of the contract. The ministers were slippery under questioning, maintaining that they had no shares in "the Company," not specifying which company. But The New Witness went beyond its evidence in accusing Godfrey Isaacs of bribing ministers. Godfrey sued and collected £100 damages. The story, like many jokes of the period, contained a Scotsman, a Celt, and a Jew.↩
Faber & Faber, 228 pp., 40/—↩
Knopf, 386 pp., $8.95↩
In 1912 the British government signed a contract with Marconi Company of London, of which Godfrey Isaacs was managing director. Before this was publicly known, three cabinet members—Lloyd George, Murray of Elinbank, and Godfrey’s brother Rufus (later Lord Reading)—bought shares in the American Marconi Company, whose value might be assumed to increase indirectly as a result of the contract. The ministers were slippery under questioning, maintaining that they had no shares in “the Company,” not specifying which company. But The New Witness went beyond its evidence in accusing Godfrey Isaacs of bribing ministers. Godfrey sued and collected £100 damages. The story, like many jokes of the period, contained a Scotsman, a Celt, and a Jew.↩