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 Outline of History when it was first published in fortnightly parts.
There were less worthy examples of the popular press, but if we place them beside today’s squalid tabloids even these seem sober, well-crafted periodicals. The last institutions to be animated by this now deliquescent if not quite extinct culture were the old Manchester Guardian, before it moved to London and became The Guardian, and the BBC in its earlier years. In 1927 the BBC staged an entertaining debate between Shaw and Chesterton, with Belloc in the chair. Toward the end of Chesterton’s life the BBC used him as a radio broadcaster, and he showed himself a natural master of the medium and was much listened to.
To look back is to see all this as through a diminishing glass. But more than the others Chesterton keeps returning. Alzina Dale’s Life is only one of half a dozen studies to have appeared in recent years: Dudley Barker’s G.K. Chesterton (1973), Ian Boyd’s The Novels of G.K. Chesterton (1975), Margaret Canovan’s G.K. Chesterton: Radical Populist (1977), to pick out some of the more notable. Each book is an attempt to account for his persisting power to attract. The best biography, despite some gaps and inaccuracies, some of them demonstrated by Dale, remains Maisie Ward’s Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1943). Dale’s detailed but, as we shall see, somewhat ramshackle account of Chesterton’s life contains much of the material we need to account for the continued interest in, sometimes shading into a cult of, Chesterton.
We do need to account for it. His literary accomplishment seems a little thin compared to Shaw’s plays, Wells’s science fiction and novels (before the steep decline after Tono-Bungay), and Bennett’s best novels. To compare him with Belloc seems more apt. Belloc too wrote many books of various kinds, comic and satirical verse, novels, history (much of it potboiling but with some near misses at greatness), and a substantial work of social theory, The Servile State. He was a master of prose and drew some artistic profit from the bitterness that overcame him, without quite killing his spirit, in middle life. Set beside Belloc’s masculine intelligence, deeply skeptical temperament, and rough manners, Chesterton seems a charming, gifted child.
He had no enemies—who could resist Chesterton’s goodness and simplicity?—whereas Belloc’s were innumerable. Chesterton’s intellectual power is evident; but it is a native endowment, wild and uncultivated and thus captivating, not something disciplined through hard reading, scholarly toil, and tempered by the harshness of life as it comes to most of those who survive childhood. Perhaps Gilbert Chesterton really was a wise, gifted child; and his power to attract comes from this curious innocence which Shaw so much loved, which Wells could never resist for long, and which Belloc perhaps a little envied.
One of the best critics of Chesterton is the late Aurel Kolnai, a Hungarian philosopher who in Budapest and Vienna first came across Chesterton in bad translations. From these he caught some of Chesterton’s spirit; and in his later years, as a refugee from Nazism, in Canada and later England, he continued to think about Chesterton, and to find him, despite many imperfections, one of the wisest men of the time. He wrote about Chesterton in his “Twentieth-Century Memoirs”—some courageous publisher should really give us the whole of this work—and some of what he wrote has recently been published in The Chesterton Review.
Kolnai tells us that for him Chesterton’s achievement was to have expressed his (Kolnai’s) own as yet inarticulate thoughts and to have given some shape to his response to the intellectual currents—Marxism, phenomenology, Christianity—in which he was immersed. He had difficulties with some of the things Chesterton shared with Belloc:
…an excessive resentment at the English post-reformation and nineteenth-century “plutocracy” and “the wealth” in general; an over-simplifying dialectical preference for the peasantry, for things Latin as against Teutonic, for sudden and noisy “mob” eruptions as against slow and silent evolutionary trends, for the popular as against the constitutional aspect of democracy….
But, he adds:
Chesterton’s intellectual responses used to be less rigid and dogmatic…and more adapted to the soul of the object than Belloc’s…but just because his was a medieval and not a baroque mind, imbued with a primeval, unmodern objectivism rather than with a preconceived anti-modern doctrine, he was much less of an historian and, therefore, more naively impaled within the perspective of the early twentieth century.1
This is admirable. It fastens upon Chesterton’s characteristic weaknesses, prejudices, and ill-thought-out generalizations, derived from Belloc; of these the most limiting was a preoccupation with the supposed political power of rich Jews. This came through Belloc from Drumont and Maurras and the milieu of the Dreyfus affair, something about which Chesterton had absolutely no means of judging. (It is sad to find this particular delusion still active when he writes his autobiography; he quotes with approval Déroulède’s perfectly idiotic comment: “Dreyfus may or may not be guilty; but France is not guilty.”) Kolnai picks out what is most striking about Chesterton: his having “a medieval and not a baroque mind” and his being “imbued with a primeval, unmodern objectivism rather than with a preconceived anti-modern doctrine.” The latter is his true strength, removing him infinitely far from such a man as Maurras who needed a modern thesis, derived from Comte, to wind himself up. This strength comes through most of what Chesterton wrote. It is never set out systematically; but in its purest form it is to be found in Orthodoxy (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925).
Orthodoxy is an account of Chesterton’s discovery that he was a natural Christian and able to break the power of received ideas.
…the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type.
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery…. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales…. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense…. I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales…. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable. There is the terrible allegory of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which tells us how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.
When he touches upon epistemology we find:
…as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three…. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
This is like Hume laced with Wittgenstein. The world’s existence, in its rich variety, shakes the mind; and it moves Chesterton to accept divine creation to account for the world’s existence and the Incarnation to illuminate its history and to penetrate what is, without the self-disclosure and act of God, a mere darkness.
The Everlasting Man speaks of human life and the world in the same way, though the occasion of the book is the appearance and success of Wells’s Outline of History. (It is characteristic that whereas Belloc sneered at Wells and called him provincial, Chesterton congratulated Wells “on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work.”) The method and doctrine are the same as in Orthodoxy, though this time, with the opening chapter, “The Man in the Cave,” and the opening chapter of Part II, “The God in the Cave,” there is more care for the formal balance of the argument.
It is not easy to judge Chesterton as an imaginative writer and critic. Of his novels the most admired, and the only one likely to endure, is The Man Who Was Thursday. Some readers have seen in this novel something a little like Kafka. There is the same respect for the logic of nightmare and the same exhibition of a scheme of correspondences that suggest allegorical interpretation, but in both cases interpretation resists analysis. In other respects the resemblance is not close. Chesterton’s personages—one can scarcely call them characters—are flamboyant, even melodramatic, at once revolutionaries and police detectives, quite unlike the baffled bank official and the frustrated land surveyor in Kafka’s two novels.
Perhaps Chesterton’s greatest literary achievement is his work as critic. His books on Browning and Dickens and his The Victorian Age in Literature are rich in insights. He was not a critic in any of the modes now fashionable. He was concerned with the large features of books and with the links joining literary work to religious and political themes. But he had a capacity to understand the imaginative worlds of writers with whom he had some sympathy and to say things about them that, as Auden put it, “seem so obviously true that one cannot understand why one had not seen them for oneself.”2
The political Chesterton is not an easy target to hit. The political conditions in Britain and Europe before 1914—it is in this time that his views harden—have become obscure with time. The First World War, the Russian Revolution, Fascism and National Socialism, the great massacres of our time: these dazzle and deafen us, and it is hard to feel the importance of, say, the Liberal electoral victory of 1906, the Marconi scandal, Conservative sedition in Ireland by Sir Edward Carson and F.E. Smith (something for which the British are still paying a high price). These events would defeat even British schoolboys asked to comment on them.
Chesterton was a Liberal; he was also a liberal in some respects and not in others. He was against the aristocracy and the plutocracy, he was for trade unions and didn’t blanch at rough tactics in dealing with scabs and blacklegs; he was against the public authorities’ caring for the poor, thinking it a middle-class conspiracy to bully families and supplant the parents; he was against a system that limited the hours during which working men could drink but allowed the rich to drink in their private clubs as and when they wished, that put down cash betting by the poor but allowed the rich to bet by telephone and telegram. He was against monopolies, big stores, mass production and for small farms and individual craftsmen.
He was against imperialism, for small nations, and was a Little Englander during the South African war. He was the gentlest of men, but he romanticized the American and French revolutions and loved to speak of revolutionary violence and revolutionary war: “Death and the splendour of the scarlet cap, / Boston and Valmy, Yorktown and Jemmappes.”
In the latter part of his career he allowed himself to be persuaded into contributing to a social program, that of Distributism. This wasn’t politically serious. Neither Chesterton nor his collaborators looked carefully at possible ways to bring about a Distributist society or looked hard at the problems imposed by the existence of a vast urbanized population. A Distributist society was conceived as being largely composed of small peasants and craftsmen, and merchants on a frugal scale, and, presumably, the army, the post office, and the railways. It inspired a few social experiments, such as the Ditchling community (what today we should call a commune) headed by Eric Gill, and it is one of the influences behind Fritz Schumacher’s idea that “small is beautiful” and behind the theory and practice of the Catholic Worker movement in the United States.
It is, of course, extraordinary that much of this should have come from a man who was as urban as Dr. Johnson and in the movement of his mind and sensibility a product of Kensington and of St. Paul’s School at one of its richest periods (beautifully caught in Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street). One is inclined to think that again it was Belloc, with his rage against the plutocracy, who was the decisive influence.
Alzina Dale’s biography has much precious detail, some corrections in matters of chronology, and for these we must be grateful. She often picks out just the right detail, and illustrates a point by finding in the great jungle of Chesterton’s writings and those of his contemporaries just the right remark. She brings out the crucial importance for Chesterton of the death of Beatrice, his sister, when she was eight and Gilbert three. She reminds us that Whitman had a place in Chesterton’s early imaginative development; here is certainly one source of his belief in the virtue of ordinary men. She reminds us of many good things: Ada Jones, later to marry Gilbert’s younger brother Cecil, on Gilbert’s wife Frances—“the eternal voice of woman summoning man from the tavern”; how delighted with the United States was Cecil, on the ground that it was a “fresh and violent” culture in which “police shot down strikers but the strikers bombed the police”; Chesterton’s “Shaw is like the Venus de Milo; all there is of him is admirable.”
Nevertheless, this biography is not worthy of its subject. Despite its provision of a lot of information—so much, indeed, that the line of the narrative often wavers—it isn’t to be put in the same class as Maisie Ward’s biography, or Dudley Barker’s. Dale’s literary powers are not equal to her chosen task, nor is her information about the period—or other periods—sufficient. One can see her lack of capacity in the way she uses the language. For example, she writes “many hymnals of all denominations” when she must mean “hymnals of many denominations”; we have “capsule sketches” and, often, “points up” (for “emphasizes”); she writes “depreciated” when she means “deprecated”; and she many times writes the kind of sentence—superfluous, padded—that is the sign of an essay writer in distress, e.g., “during the early part of 1932 the Chestertons [i.e., Gilbert and Frances] had the unhappy experience of having both their mothers ill.”
The following are examples of her lack of information. “During the Reformation [St. Paul’s School] had been reorganized as a ‘middle-class’ institution by the great Greek scholar Dean Colet.” This is stupefying, as also when she tells us that William Blake “rhapsodized about the horrors of industrialism.” She tells us, too, that T.H. Green taught that “man as an individual was nothing” and that “Green’s point of view had also been adopted by Herbert Spencer.” She thinks there is such a thing as draft champagne, that Belloc made his own wine (in fact, he bottled it), that Ronald Knox had “several brothers” who were clergymen (Knox had one brother who was an Anglican priest, one who was the editor of Punch, and one who was a notable cryptographer and an atheist—he complained, on his deathbed, about Ronnie’s “bothering God in the passage” about his soul). She thinks that there were in Chesterton’s time Catholic colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, that Eric Gill’s sculpture is “Giotto-like,” and that “young [Stephen] Spender was a lemming, always in the swim of intellectual fashion.” She writes: “Alfred [the Great] also appealed to Chesterton because he was a younger son, sincere and hardworking, but not charismatic—a George V, not an Edward VII.”
I will only add that she has an extraordinary propensity for getting proper names wrong: thus we have “Stopforth Brooke,” “Gungadin,” “Blakenbury” (for Brackenbury), “Lyttleton” (for Lyttelton), “Ford Maddox Ford,” and others. The publisher must share some of the blame for this kind of thing. Is copy editing a lost art?
On questions about Chesterton’s relations to those around him, and especially on questions about who was good for Chesterton, who bad, I think Dale is often right: his brother Cecil, and Belloc, often imposed views upon him and dragged him into ventures he ought perhaps to have avoided. But she is not judicial in her view of these two, and she is waspish about Ada Jones, who married Cecil. Of Cecil, Dale says that he was “always lurking in Chesterton’s shadow.” “Lurking” is not at all the right word to apply to the bold, opinionated, irrepressible Cecil. If anyone lurked (in an entirely amiable sense) it was Chesterton himself, often in the soft shadows of the vaults of a tavern. There is a glimpse of him in an almost forgotten novel:
…a crypt, vaulted and cool, under the railway…. A famous literary man, whom Jimmy recognized because he was even more pleasing than the familiar and outrageous caricature of him, sat by himself, a black cloak falling from his shoulders, at a round table which was like a toy out of a doll’s house beside that expansive rotundity. He was nursing a comparatively minute bulb of wine on his knee with an expression of child-like faith and dreamy beatitude.3
There, as he radiates faith and enjoys a foretaste of beatitude, we may leave him.
Aurel Kolnai, "Chesterton and Catholicism," The Chesterton Review (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), vol. VIII, no. 2 (May 1982), p. 147. On Kolnai, see Ethics, Value, and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai (Hackett, 1978), and my review in The New York Review, April 5, 1979.↩
G.K. Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, selected with a foreword by W.H. Auden (Faber and Faber, 1970), p. 15.↩
H.M. Tomlinson, Gallions Reach (Harper, 1927), pp. 25-26.↩
Aurel Kolnai, “Chesterton and Catholicism,” The Chesterton Review (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), vol. VIII, no. 2 (May 1982), p. 147. On Kolnai, see Ethics, Value, and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai (Hackett, 1978), and my review in The New York Review, April 5, 1979.↩
G.K. Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, selected with a foreword by W.H. Auden (Faber and Faber, 1970), p. 15.↩
H.M. Tomlinson, Gallions Reach (Harper, 1927), pp. 25-26.↩