Thoughts on ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Criticism’

This is really one of the most valuable books on Chesterton that I think I have read. Coming from a loving, but clear-sighted brother, it avoids the two errors that many people fall into regarding GKC; that of overpraising him as an infallible or only semi-fallible prophet and of simply dismissing him as an out-of-date exemplar of sloppy writing and prejudice.

Cecil Chesterton, five years the younger of his famous brother (but who yet pr-deceased him by many years, dying mere days after the end of the First World War from illness contracted in the trenches), is naturally only able to cover the first part of Chesterton’s life and career; a time when The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, and The Man Who Was Thursday constituted his most distinguished works, while Orthodoxy and The Ballad of the White Horse are but unfulfilled promises, The Everlasting Man is not yet thought of, and Father Brown is merely a gleam in the author’s eye. But nevertheless he has a shrewdly perceptive view of GKC’s signature style, his inimitable tone, and his loose and sometimes inconsistent views. The points he notes remain much the case for the remainder of Chesterton’s storied career, save at least the criticism that Chesterton was more apt to say what he didn’t believe than what he did in terms of Religion: a complaint that could only have come from these early, pre-Orthodoxy days.

It’s curious that we rarely think of young Chesterton, anymore than we think of young Churchill. He steps forth into our imagination fully formed as the rolly-polly middle-aged man of letters, stumping up the street in his cape and hat, blowing laughter and cigar smoke out of his nostrils on the way to converse genially with the foremost intellectual fools of his day. We meet him here, by contrast, as the eager scion of a staunchly liberal middle-class family of the latter Victorian Age, the sort who drank new theories of religion, science, and society with the intemperate thirst of college students from teetotalling households.

It was the kind of family where children were never made to read, but all topics under the sun were debated around the dinner table; where intellect was prized more than industry, and where no particular religion was practiced, but God and goodwill were assumed (and it occurs to me that several of the intellectual giants of 20th century Christianity came from such backgrounds).

From there, we see young Chesterton going to school to impress the intelligent masters and annoy the dull ones, trace his fervently dogmatic devotion to the legend of the French Revolution and the myth of democracy, and behold his epochal discovery of Walt Whitman, who for a time exercised an almost complete dominance over his views and style. We touch on his brief flirtation with being an artist, though with the tact of an in-law we only take a glancing view at his more fruitful flirtation with Miss Frances Blogg. There are the famous stories of his meeting every kind of blackguard and overhearing the sorry Satanist’s fearful refusal to take some final step in wickedness.

All of this is familiar ground to aficionados of Chestertonia, though they take on a new interest and luster at being seen through the eyes of one who knew him intimately, rather than of scholars piecing them together years after his death (also about this point the author rather cheekily makes allusions to “his brother Cecil”’s rejection of Liberalism and flight into a brand of Tory-Socialism “which he still, I believe, professes”).

Then, of course, comes GKC’s almost over-night eruption into public life with the poetry collection The Wild Knight (including one of the more amusing anecdotes, in retrospect, that one critic confidently ascribed the poems to John Davidson writing under a pseudonym: probably the last time anyone ever mistook Chesterton’s work for the writings of any other man), his newspaper articles, and his prominent opposition to the Boer War then raging in South Africa.

Having covered the biographical material, CC proceeds to make good on the promise inherent in the title by examining his brother’s then-most-prominent work, dissecting the common threads, and describing where he feels GKC has triumphed and where he has faltered.

One thing his puts his find on is that Chesterton was an inveterate fighter, who could not keep off of controversy to save his life, and who loved nothing better than to turn every piece of writing into a jolly thrust against his opponents. Indeed, CC judges that his initial flight into religious orthodoxy was motivated as much by the need to have grounds with which to oppose the then-current mainstream as by anything else. Though it must be remembered, this was yet early in his career, long before his final return to Rome, and when his public statements of religion were as yet such that C2 can lament that he still owes the world that book on ‘Orthodoxy’.

The most refreshing thing, for me, is, as noted, the fact that CC, for all his evident love and admiration of his elder brother, thinks nothing of dealing him some fairly severe criticisms, including lamenting over his essay on Ibsen in Heretics and pointing out that, as a literary critic, Chesterton had an unfortunate habit of sometimes talking less about his subject than about whatever happened to interest him at the moment.

Of his then-two major novels – The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday – Chesterton-the-younger unknowingly sets himself at odds with posterity by selecting the former as the better work, though his critiques of both are as apt as anything else in the book. In particular, he notes that Chesterton-the-elder can’t actually write a novel of the usual type; one of living characters and personalities, but instead makes stories filled with living ideas enacting his own dreams of romantic vigor and adventure. This was a skill that I think he developed more of later on, such as in the Father Brown stories, though it’s undeniable that Chesterton’s approach to fiction is very much his own and his voice often drowns out those of his characters.

It is unsurprising to the last degree that CC reports his brother as writing almost constantly, repeatedly stressing that he tosses off compositions for his own amusement and that of his immediate companions that neither have nor ever will be published. Though where he found the time to do so when he seems to spend every waking hour reading, drinking, or getting into discussions with anyone who will talk to him is a mystery (partially answered by the fact that he seems to have rarely bothered to edit his own works, as double-C illustrates by pointing out a glaring continuity error in the climax to Notting Hill). Chesterton emerges here, as in all his portraits, as a man of titanic vitality, so much so that one has to wonder how he ever retained so many calories when he seemed to be in constant activity for the bulk of his natural life (and I can only assume retains the habit in his supernatural one).

Personally, I found one of the most enjoyable chapters to be the one where the author critiques his subject’s political views, claiming that his idea of them does not match their actual categorization very well; GKC called himself a Liberal, yet he set himself against almost everything the Liberal party of the day stood for, and rather more than everything that the Liberal party of after years would come to stand for. He was allied with them in opposing Imperialism and plutocracy, but that is about it.

I have to wonder what he thought of that chapter, and of the book in general. Probably none of it was particularly new to him, as I’m sure the brothers hashed all this out a hundred times over drinks. I’m sure he must have laughed at the concluding personal portrait of himself, describing him doing things like hiring a cab to go a hundred yards up the street, then keeping the cab waiting for an hour while he got drinks and chatted with a friend before taking it another hundred yards up the street to the newspaper office. Or the time he walked into a publisher’s office at the exact time they had scheduled a meeting and handing the man a letter explaining, in great detail, why he was unable to keep the appointment.

As I say, this book is invaluable to anyone with interest in Chesterton; admiring, but clear-sighted, with a sharp interest and intimate knowledge that few later commentators could match. And, coming during his lifetime, and indeed before most of his greatest works, it is an interesting time capsule. Speculating on his brother’s legacy, Cecil wonders whether he’ll be remembered at all, or if, like Dr. Johnson, he’ll be more remembered as a personality than as an author. GKC’s most accessible creation – Father Brown – is still yet to be born. His great religious works – among them the book that converted C.S. Lewis – are far in the future. His poetic masterpieces – Lepanto and the Ballad – are, at best, only in fragmentary form (CC quotes from an embryonic version of what he calls “a promised King Alfred ballad”, one that shows a passage mostly familiar, but with a few interesting word substitutions).

Which is all to say, the book concludes with Chesterton already a famous and respected man of letters, but with yet little idea of the giant he was to become.

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Mr. Chesterton.

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