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The Chestertons

In response to:

Innocent at Home from the April 28, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

No one who chose to write a biography of G.K. Chesteron “who had no enemies” can really take offense at being called “the author of a detailed but…somewhat ramshackle…life.” The very phrase sounds so much like a Chestertonian paradox, and I used that adjective myelf to describe GKC’s protagonist in The Wild Knight.1 But both J.M. Cameron and I need to be a bit more careful in our choice of words, for neither of us quite meant that my book or Chesterton’s Wild Knight are “rickety” or “falling to bits.”2

Like many other reviewers Cameron has chosen to demonstrate his wide knowledge of Chesterton rather than to discuss my book, an endearing habit I hope leads his readers to Chesterton himself. It is also very Chestertonian to be asked to tackle one subject, but turn and talk about another. I only wish Cameron had done his readers the courtesy to explain that I, for example, do not agree with his thesis that the “Chesterbelloc” is alive and well and worth critical consideration. I took great pains not to write another biography of Chesterton which took Belloc as its chief subject because I do not consider him either the greater or the more mature of the two.

I am sorry that Cameron feels that even British (let alone American) schoolboys would be defeated if asked to comment on “the importance of the Liberal electoral victory of 1906, the Marconi scandal, or …Conservative sedition in Ireland.” Recent biographies of Winston Churchill chart the significance of these events for our present condition, and like a good Chestertonian, I simply do not agree with H.G. Wells that progress is history and that current events taken out of context have much meaning. It was to address that heresy I wrote this biography.

In his last paragraphs Cameron attacks proofreader’s errors and historical and literary judgments with equal zest, often making no distinction between them. Alas, yes, the state of the art of publishing did mean that there were no galley proofs and hurried page proofs. But thanks to my many friends, the second printing should see correction of all the mispelled [sic] proper names. Cameron is welcome to think that when I said “depreciated” (to belittle) I meant “deprecate” (to express disapproval of) but he happens to be wrong. Dean John Colet, son of a rich Lord Mayor of London, did reorganize St. Paul’s School, using his inheritance to do it. He thereupon gave it the first Public School Board of Trustrees [sic] who were non-clerical, the Company of Mercers. To me that makes my term “middle-class” appropriate.3

It is really a matter of judgment whether one feels that William Blake’s lyric but loony verses “rhapsodized” (to use ecstatic speech or writing) over heavy industry; Chesterton and I both felt that his meaning was obscure. Stephen Spender perhaps might better have been called a literary and political “fellow traveler” than leaming [sic], but he does echo the fashion of his times. Any number of people have put me right on the fact that Mg. Ronald Knox had only one father and one brother who were Chruch of England clergy, thank you; and I am sorry that I hurried my statements enough to give the impression that in addition to good secondary schools, there were undergraduate Roman Catholic Colleges.^4 So far as Chesterton’s views on George V and Alfred the Great, both he and Shaw admired George V while I took my statement about Alfred from an impecable [sic] source who wrote, “There is, from the first, something humble and even accidental about Alfred. He was a great understudy.”5 Finally, on “draft” champagne. That comes from a primary but often unreliable source, Mrs. Cecil Chesterton, who says, “The summons [for libel] was duly framed and hung up in the office…and we solemnly drank to the Editor’s success in champagne, which could be had on draught at the El Vino.”6 Perhaps I should have corresponded with the present proprietors of El Vino, still flourishing in London, but it did not seem like the kind of detail the lady would make up.

Alzina Stone Dale

Chicago, Illinois

J.M Cameron replies:

Ada Chesterton was certainly dislikable. But as a working journalist in a period when it was hard for women to succeed, and as the founder of the Cecil Houses for homeless women, she deserves judicial and perhaps charitable treatment. Justice and charity are virtues Mr. Greene has often commended. I don’t know why his recalling a single meeting with her should move him to speak so violently.

I am sorry Ms. Dale has been afflicted with incompetent proofreaders, and that she wasn’t able to do much proofreading on her own account. Her letter offers some evidence that the printer may have had a difficult typescript to work from.

She defends what she writes about Colet and St. Paul’s without recognizing that she is mistaken in placing his reorganizing of the school (1509) in the Reformation period; this is a mistake the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, would have saved her from. About Blake: whatever he meant by the “dark Satanic mills,” it is certain he wasn’t referring to heavy industry; and he certainly doesn’t rhapsodize about them. I must protest against Ms. Dale’s vulgarity in referring to the work of this great poet and great if eccentric theologian as “loony.”

My list of Ms. Dale’s errors and misjudgments was chosen from many examples, and few of them can be attributed to the negligence of the proofreader(s). There is a wild passage (p. 150) on Evelyn Underhill, who is said to be a follower of Annie Besant. A curious judgment (p. 226) is that Chesterton “refused to follow Sinclair Lewis’s elitist ‘Henry Jamesianism’ and despise Main Street.” Perhaps Lewis did come to despise his own novel, though I have never heard of this; that he should have done so from a Jamesian standpoint I find unbelievable. I won’t continue to pluck examples from my long list.

  1. 1

    J.M. Cameron, “Innocent at Home,” review of Alzina Stone Dale, The Outline of Sanity, in The New York Review, April 28, p. 23; Dale, The Outline of Sanity (Eerdmans, 1983), p. 64.

  2. 2

    Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (Macmillan, 1971), p. 614.

  3. 3

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, volume 5 (1910), p. 681. In matters of this kind I find the 11th edition superior to its successors.

  4. 5

    Gilbert K. Chesterton; A Short History of England (London: Chattus [sic] and Windus, 1920), p. 40.

  5. 6

    Mrs. Cecil Chesteron, The Chestertons (London: Chapman and Hall, 1941), p. 95.

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