In the last of our series of Great Catholic Britons,
William Oddie makes the case for G K Chesterton Gilbert Chesterton today tends to attract (from those who have heard of him at all) one of two reactions, depending on whether you are talking to a Catholic or not. Non-Catholics mostly think of him as the author of the Father Brown stories; Catholics see him as one of the great critics of modern culture and apologists for the faith.
After a long period of neglect, his prophetic stature is more and more becoming recognised. Well before the end of the last century Chesterton’s distaste for state socialism, his suspicion of internationalism, and his support for the independence from imperial domination of small nations like Poland – which were in such stark contrast to the fatalistic internationalism of the post-war years, which led among other things to Pope Paul VI’s disastrous Ostpolitik – had once more become understood as being at the centre of Catholic thinking, and they were validated by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet bloc. Rerum Novarum – the basis of much of Chesterton’s writing on social and economic questions – was celebrated and brought into the new age by John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.
Most relevant of all to the modern age, perhaps, was Chesterton’s instinct to be what John Paul II called on all Christians to be: a “sign of contradiction”. Chesterton’s ideas on monopoly capitalism, on marriage and the family, on eugenics, above all on the dignity of the human person and the central importance of the defence of free will in a determinist age were all directly pertinent to modern Catholic teaching: indeed, it would not be too much to say that in many ways, the thinking of both the present Pope and his predecessor can be seen as distinctly Chestertonian. His social and economic ideas particularly are once more, in the new millennium, what T S Eliot called them after Chesterton’s death in 1936: “the ideas for [the times] that were fundamentally Christian and Catholic”.
Chesterton always recoiled, however, from the idea that he was a great thinker. One lady asked him, after one of his famous lectures, how he came to know so much: “Madam, I know nothing,” he replied. “I am a jolly journalist.” And yet, his erudition was real and massive. The great Thomist scholar, Etienne Gilson, said of his work on Thomas Aquinas that he considered it “as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St Thomas”, and that “nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. [Those] ... who, perhaps, have spent 20 or 30 years on the subject... cannot fail to perceive that the so-called ‘wit’ of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame.” His books on Browning and Charles Dickens are still taken seriously today by scholars and critics; one could go on at some length.
All this is more than enough to establish his intellectual stature. But such an account omits one vital factor, one which makes him not merely a great Catholic writer but a great Catholic, tout court; it is that the engine which powered all his literary and apologetic instincts was his closeness to God, so that underlying all his writings on social and economic affairs as well as on religion was an implicit longing for God’s will to prevail, on earth as well as in heaven. Professor J J Scarisbrick points to the connection between his thought and his spiritual life: “Above all,” he thinks, “there was that breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural which only a truly holy person can enjoy.” His holiness was not, of course, of a solemn or ascetic kind; in this, he was reminiscent of St Philip Neri. Typically, we think of him seized by laughter. He used to sit in a Fleet Street restaurant (he loved Fleet Street and drank there mightily, though rarely to the point of inebriation) writing his articles and absentmindedly “mixing”, according to the critic, Charles Masterman, “a terrible conjunction of drinks”, while many waiters hovered about him “in awe”. One day, the head waiter came up to Masterman. “Your friend,” he whispered, “he very clever man. He sit and laugh. And then he write. And then he laugh at what he write.” Later, when the Chestertons moved to Beaconsfield, his Fleet Street friends came down to visit; their housemaid later recalled that “you could hear the roof lifting with their laughter”. After his death his lifelong friend E C Bentley (inventor of the clerihew) wrote of his “exuberantly joyous and love-compelling personality”.
The point seems to be that there was nothing merely facetious about what Hilaire Belloc called the “constant and exuberant geniality which all around him ... felt at once, and feeling were in a sense nourished”. Belloc explained it as a “genius for good humour lifted to the plane on which it becomes a moving and efficient virtue”.
The difficulty is that Chesterton’s perpetual strain of exuberant comedy is almost designed to discourage the notion of him as a thinker, let alone a saint: but thinking, nevertheless, was his great passion. Once seized by this passion, the reality of the material world could without warning fade into oblivion. One of his friends once saw him “emerge from Shoe Lane, hurry into the middle of Fleet Street, and abruptly come to a standstill in the centre of the traffic. He stood there for some time, wrapped in thought, while buses, taxis and lorries eddied about him in a whirlpool and while drivers exercised to the full their gentle art of expostulation. Having come to the end of his meditations, he held up his hand... and returned to Shoe Lane.” This legendary absentmindedness, suggests one writer, demonstrates that “here was a true contemplative, given (as few people are) to the habit of prolonged and concentrated thought”.
The result was an essentially God-centred vision of the world. This was evident to those who knew him very early in his life. A close friend told his biographer, Maisie Ward, that even at the age of 16 “we felt that he was looking for God”; another, the playwright Rann Kennedy (who knew Chesterton well at the beginning of his writing career) told her that “He had an excessive calm of soul. He enjoyed a perpetual Eucharist, the Eucharist of desire... Gilbert, busy always with the other world, was ministered to by angels like Our Lord.” In everything Chesterton wrote emerges the deep conviction that “the modern world has had a mental breakdown” and that it needs to be restored to sanity. He was almost alone in seeing the dangers both of state socialism, and of political systems based on racial theories, long before they existed in grim reality. “The earnest freethinkers,” he wrote in 1906, “need not worry themselves so much about the persecutions of the past. Before the Liberal idea is dead or triumphant, we shall see wars and persecutions the like of which the world has never seen.” He was, like Newman, above all a controversialist. Chesterton hated heresy: but he had an extraordinary capacity for loving the heretic. Shaw and Wells embodied everything he most detested intellectually: but they loved him (the nasty-tempered Wells, indeed, was greatly irked by his inability not to love Chesterton).
Here, perhaps, is another “heroic virtue” to add to his passion for truth: with very few exceptions, he really did actually love his enemies. In controversy, no matter how fierce, as Belloc noted, “he seemed always to be in a mood not only of comprehension for his opponent but of admiration for some quality in him... it was this in him which made him, with other qualities, so universally beloved.” “Universally beloved” is no mere obituary cliché. At his funeral, the streets of Beaconsfield were lined with mourners: the police asked if the funeral cortege could take a longer route from the church to the cemetery, so that more people might “have a chance to say goodbye to Mr Chesterton”. He was especially loved by children. He and his wife, Frances, had been unable to have children, but he gave a children’s party every year from which adults were rigorously excluded. One parent (somewhat miffed by his exclusion) asked his daughter if Mr Chesterton really was as clever as everyone said. “Oh yes,” came the enthusiastic reply, “you should see him catching buns in his mouth.” A G Gardiner, editor of the Daily News (in which for many years Chesterton wrote a column), described him as having “the freshness and directness of the child’s vision... He lived in a world of romance... [in] the days when the horn of Roland echoed again through Roncesvalles, and Lancelot pricked forth to the joust, and Above all he was seized by what he called “the Romance of Orthodoxy”; for him, “Catholic truth” was a glittering sword liberating the captives of rationalism and the servile state.
There were many epitaphs. The maid at a house Chesterton used to visit said, with tears in her eyes, “Oh Miss, our Mr Chesterton dying – he was a sorter saint Miss, wasn’t he – just to look at him when you handed him his hat made you feel sorter awesome.” Pius XI sent a telegram describing him as a “gifted defender of the Catholic Faith”. But for most of those who loved him his true epitaph was that written years before by the poet laureate, Walter de la Mare, which by the wish of his widow Frances appeared on the service sheet at his funeral Requiem Mass: