Knocking on heaven's crystal floor

Edward Pearce finds that dodgy politics and childish whimsy spoil the charm of an eminent Edwardian
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The Independent Culture
Wisdom and Innocence: a life of G K Chesterton by Joseph Pearce, Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 25

Kipling put it well. Having agreed that there was "any amount of promise in the work" of the young G K Chesterton, he added "Merely as matter of loathsome detail, Chesterton has a bad attack of `aureoles'. They are spotted all over the book." The aureoles of their equivalents - bits of breathless, ardent, overwritten language - never were got out of Chesterton's system. He formed his style in the decadent 1890s when Wilde was interior-decorating in "red gold". And though he shrank from Wilde, Chesterton, alternately flashy and amorphous, qualifies as a wholesome decadent. Joseph Pearce has written a devoted but decently scrupulous book which comes with the discouraging acclaim of the Chesterton Society. It was an interesting life in exciting times, but 60 years after, it isn't easy to understand his contemporary reputation. Chesterton's poems are either kitsch like "The Donkey" or bombast like "Lepanto". The prose is a big woolly toy, charming but too charming. The Father Brown books and The Napoleon of Notting Hill seem insubstantial today.

He was a nice man, who reached out to children and had in spades the English instinct for animals, but was no good with adults or politics. He was also a soft man moulded by fanatics.

But the softness protected him. He had with Bernard Shaw an incestuous, narcissistic relationship. They flipped light punches and large compliments at each other and rested on each other's gloves. Both were big personalities who would have flourished on television, though Chesterton was your man for sound-bites.

But Shaw has survived his admiration for Stalin and tolerance of Hitler; he flourishes and is performed. Chesterton, who half-admired Mussolini, is just about in print. So politics are not the reason.

Pearce quotes and excuses Chesterton's anti-semitic remarks and verses, such as: "Oh I knew a Dr Gluck/ And his nose it had a hook/ And his attitudes were anything but Aryan/ So I gave him pork/ That I had upon a fork/ Because I am myself a vegetarian." Pearce says this "was intended primarily as a jocular attack on vegetarianism." Was it now? Admirers stress the child-like aspects of the man. But there was a recurring element that is better characterised as childish.

It would have been a sounder defence of Chesterton to say that the things which (in his own phrase) "leave a bad smell in the mind" derive largely from Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton was truly shocked at "fanatics who murder Jews on the street." Belloc, after an Atlantic crossing among Jewish fellow- passengers, day-dreamed about New York rising to slaughter "the creatures of the deep". Belloc's anti-Semitism was French Catholic - following the pattern of the Jeunesses Patriotes and the Anti-Dreyfusards - but rooted also in the "crucifiers of our Lord" mentality, once virulently expressed across the Catholic Church. The Church Chesterton joined in 1922 was not that of Pope John XXIII.

He was devoted to a Father Vincent McNabb, who inspired him to a good example of Chestertonian gush and rapture: "I have no more doubt that a man like Father McNabb is walking on a crystal floor over my head than I have that Quoodle (Chesterton's dog) has a larger equipment of legs than I have." There is a lot of Chesterton in that letter: endearing charm, self-deprecation and emotional self-indulgence. But from McNabb he took much of his blind hostility to industry and capitalism. It led him at best into a gilded Luddism, but also to greet Mussolini's "new Italian government" as " distinguished and divided in a most startling manner from anything to which we are accustomed as capitalism".

Chesterton, unlike Belloc, lacked the rage and malice to be a fascist. The man who sends a telegram saying "Am at Crewe, where should I be?" is too good for such rubbish. But one of his best apercus turns back upon himself. "If men cease to believe in God" he said, "they will not believe in nothing. They will believe in anything." As much might be said of those, like Chesterton, who cease to believe in industrial capitalism. His own favoured notion, Distributism, was a cult of smallholders and small craftsmen. It fitted his anti-industrialism, Gothic tastes in art, and his chocolate-box vision of "the age of Faith" - the undernourished, book-and-dissident-burning Middle Ages. And, as an idea, that qualifies as "anything".