G.K. Chesterton: A Biography

July 28, 2011

This is a brilliant biography for a brilliant man. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a cape swirling around him, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was an unmistakable figure. An eccentric and extremely absent-minded individual, he once sent his wife a telegram that read: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" His bulk, prob-ably the result of glandular problems, led William James, the psychologist and brother of the author Henry James, to describe him, rather unkindly, as "a sort of elephant with a crimson face and oily curls". "A fellow of infinite vest", as was once quipped, is a much better comparison and closer to the truth.

Chesterton was extremely witty. At the end of one lecture, a woman remarked that he seemed to know everything, to which he retorted: "I know nothing, madam, I am a journalist." During the First World War, he was asked why he wasn't "out at the Front". Quick as a flash, he replied, "Go round to the side, madam, and you will see that I am." Hatred of cocoa and a love of talking to himself were two of his eccentricities, but the one he cultivated most assiduously was the brandishing of a swordstick, which symbolised romance and adventure. Chesterton would flourish it while dictating articles to his secretary, often two at the same time.

"I never was really modern," Chesterton reveals in his autobiography, a remark that offers a clue not just to his character but to his significance in the world of letters. He loved the literature of the Victorian age and could quote whole chapters of Dickens. Ian Ker rightly says that Chesterton's 1906 work Charles Dickens: A Critical Study is "one of the great works of literary criticism". It certainly contains a marvellous description of Dickens' characters: "they live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves".

The purpose of art is to awaken our sense of wonder, Chesterton believed, and he shared Walt Whitman's delight in creation. It is easy to write "he is going to post the letter in a red pillarbox", but how much more vivid is it to write, as Chesterton did, that he is going to pop it into "the mouth of the little red goblin across the street"? This was part of Chesterton's quarrel with the Modernists. They lacked vitality. Their work was shapeless. For art to stir, excite and delight us, it must be firmly bounded, he argued: "There is one thing that is essential to everything which is to be intensely enjoyed or intensely admired - limitation."

Chesterton is largely unknown today. If he is mentioned at all, it is with a sneer. Wasn't he a convert to Catholicism? An anti-Semite? Guilty of the first charge but not of the second, concludes Ker, after much careful sifting of the evidence. And as for his apparent mania for paradox, well, that simply expressed his view that existence was paradoxical. Ker succeeds in presenting a much more rounded picture of Chesterton than is dreamed of in departments of literature. Through his myriad writings, he fought against the prejudices of his time. He did not despise "the common people" like his Modernist counterparts, and he had no truck with eugenics.

W.H. Auden wrote that "we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart (for) then we would have to forgive them". Chesterton doesn't need our forgiveness - he had God's - but he deserves our understanding and also our respect. After reading this towering biography, not the least of whose virtues is its splendid index, he is likely to have both. Finally, I don't want to spoil the ending, but he dies.

G.K. Chesterton: A Biography

By Ian Ker. Oxford University Press. 784pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780199601288. Published 21 April 2011

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