The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton
From 1900 to the early Thirties Britain—Canada, Australia, and the United States were sometimes brought into it—was loud with the pronouncements, arguments, jokes, campaigns, novels, plays, poems of four men: Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and H.G. Wells. Sometimes the novelist Arnold Bennett became a fifth member of the band. Public entertainers, they were surrounded by a great cloud of other practitioners of controversial literature, but these four, or five, were the most striking figures. This reviewer was a schoolboy in the Twenties and remembers clearly the excitement generated by the exchange between Belloc and Wells over some themes from the latter’s Outline of History, the fever caused by reading Shaw’s prefaces to Man and Superman, Saint Joan, and Back to Methuselah, the larkiness of Well’s early novels, the intense feeling injected into Bennett’s Clayhanger with the appearance of the mysterious Hilda Lessways.
Accompanying all these proceedings, like the jester of a disorderly court, was G.K. Chesterton: very tall, immensely fat, with pince-nez (what Henry James called “nippers”) insecurely on his nose, a large black hat and a sweeping cloak, a sword stick never used except in pantomime, and a perpetual flow of paradox to be read weekly in the Illustrated London News and other periodicals. He wrote much verse, some of it a bit jingly in the style of Swinburne or Kipling, some of it deadly satire (“Ballade d’une Grande Dame,” “The Revolutionist, or Lines to a Statesman,” “Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom”), some of it in a distinctive, opulent voice (“Lepanto”). He wrote amusing fantastic novels—The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Flying Inn—and he invented a new detective, Father Brown.
What Chesterton most enjoyed in his life at school was membership in the debating society; and life kept for him the excitement of a set debate, in which great ideas were distinguished and fought over. Then the setting of debate was provided for him by popular daily newspapers, and weeklies, of a kind that have now vanished. The most important of them was the Daily News, sustained by Cadbury’s cocoa and long edited by A.G. Gardiner. Newspapers such as this engaged writers of some quality; what they wrote was printed pretty well as they wrote it; ideas were discussed at a level of complexity that astonishes us if we compare it with what appeared in the popular English press after the Second World War. The audience was provided by sections of the middle and working classes, many of them those whose fathers had been brought to intellectual life and to an interest in politics by Ruskin and William Morris, by Mill and Huxley, by Gladstone. They provided students for the classes of the Workers’ Educational Association and the extension lectures of the universities, they bought popular literary magazines such as John O’London’s Weekly, and they snatched from the bookstalls with a greedy excitement Wells’s …