Oxford, £35, 747pp. £31.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
GK Chesterton: A Biography, By Ian Ker
Friday 29 April 2011
The sanctifying process that preserved so many early 20th-century literary figures in the popular imagination never really caught up with GK Chesterton (1874-1936). HG Wells is briskly re-imagined every half-decade or so, the shade of George Bernard Shaw stalks on through Michael Holroyd's three fat volumes of biography, but the standard life of the author of The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) dates back to the year of the Normandy landings.
There are several reasons for this neglect. One is that there is so much to sanctify. As John Gross once put it, even the most fervent Chestertonian might sometimes wish that he hadn't written so much, so fast and under such pressure. The other is that Chesterton spent the greater part of his life as a Christian, specifically Catholic, apologist, with the result that most of the proselytising done on his behalf has been by and for the converted.
The most obvious point to be made in Chesterton's favour is that he was a genuine democrat. Unlike most of his Edwardian contemporaries, he believed not only in giving the ordinary man a vote but in listening seriously to his opinions. His disillusionment with the pre-1914 Liberal Party, which might have been regarded as his natural home, was largely a consequence of his having grasped that its animating spirit was oligarchical, and that working-class votes were there to supply ballast rather than direction.
Undoubtedly the conviction that "democracy" meant more than simply offering the newly enfranchised a ballot box led him into some blind alleys. It informs his trademarked Medievalism, against which even the die-hard Chesterton fancier sometimes wants to revolt. Like practically ever other idea he produced, it was founded on paradox (we approve of "the common man" because no such thing exists etc). But set against some of the high-minded Fabians on the Edwardian lecture circuit, Chesterton in full flow can be a bracing experience.
The second point in his favour, much stressed by his latest biographer, Ian Ker, is his sense of humour. Again, Chesterton's endlessly cultivated comic side is bolstered by paradox: it takes a very serious man, he might have said, not to take himself wholly seriously. Significantly, the humour extended to his apologetics - the truly religious person, he insisted, is more likely to laugh than turn a disapproving face to the world – but it also lay at the heart of his egalitarianism. "Whenever you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea," he maintained, for to see a joke is to see "something deep" which can only be expressed by something "silly and emphatic".
Clearly a writer with this kind of stylistic armoury would have flourished in any age but, as Ker points out, the Edwardian literary market was peculiarly suited to Chesterton's industry and temperament. With the Victorian certainties as moribund as the people who had proclaimed them, it was an epoch in search of sages.
Chesterton, a frustrated artist from middle-class west London with an intensely romantic view of the Fourth Estate, fitted the bill. An apprenticeship on the Speaker led to an influential weekly column for the progressive Daily News (1903-1912) and by his early thirties he was hobnobbing with such titans of Liberalism as HH Asquith and the former premier, Lord Rosebery.
Meanwhile, the books continued to flow, often two or three a year. The difficulty with Chesterton's prodigious output is not so much to separate the wheat from the chaff - the collection of routine newspaper articles from the pioneering work on Dickens - as to acknowledge that the millions of words which remain are all of a piece. Rather like Wells, everything he wrote - from the Father Brown detective stories to the highly unorthodox Orthodoxy (1908); the good, bad or indifferent - is, in the end, an argument for himself.
Heroically researched, and sensitive to the shifts and eddies of its hero's intellectual position, GK Chesterton: A Biography is simultaneously an impressive and rather asphyxiating book. It is at once exorbitantly long and yet somehow constricted by the sheer volume of material at the biographer's disposal. Take this immensely convoluted sentence from about half-way in: "The Zeppelin air raids, which were launched from occupied Belgium and always took place at night, inspired Ford Madox Hueffer (who would change his name to Ford Madox Ford in 1919), the son of a German father, Francis Hueffer, a music critic of The Times, and an English mother, the daughter of the painter Ford Madox Brown, to publish, with Violet Hunt, Zeppelin Nights in 1915." Zeppelin raids, Ford Madox Ford, his change of name, antecedents and co-author: the problem with half-a-dozen vacant coat-pegs, alas, is that you always wonder where to hang your hat.
Though sparing with his socio-cultural backdrops – his argument about the climate of the 1890s is borrowed entire from John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) – and light on the view of Chesterton taken by his fellow-writers, Ker conveys a powerful sense of his personality. He was a genuinely nice man who got on well with children (always a good sign) while childless himself; he was uxorious; genial; overworked; and, it scarcely needs saying, unpunctual, disorganised and improvident.
As for his "thought", one is struck, 75 years after his death, by the sanity of most of Chesterton's judgments: his idea that convention is actually a form of freedom as it offers a framework to develop or subvert, or his rebuke to Shaw's solemn refusal to celebrate his birthday. "Mr Shaw is quite clearly aware that it is a very good thing for him and for everyone else that he is alive. But to be told so in the symbolic form of brown-paper parcels containing slippers or cigarettes makes him feel a fool; which is exactly what he ought to feel."
All the same, I put down this bumper celebration of Chesterton's life, mind and art feeling that there were at least half-a-dozen topics that I never wanted to hear about again. They include Hilaire Belloc, late-night carousings in old Fleet Street, jolly jaunts in the country, the alleged superiority of beer to tea, rolling English drunkards and rolling English roads. What is really needed, at this late stage in the proceedings, is a short, selective and impressionistic study along the lines of Chesterton's own Charles Dickens (1906): something that is less seduced by the totality of Chesterton than by the half-dozen areas where the really striking contribution he made to early 20th-century letters is in danger of being forgotten.
Or perhaps these distinctions are simply impossible to make, and like the grand Victorian panjandrums from whom he directly descends, the mounds of pitch are a price worth paying for the radium gleams within. But whatever view one takes of Chesterton, it is always heartening, in an age of eugenicists and autocrats, to find a writer who believes that at least some of humankind's difficulties can be solved by the efforts of ordinary people.
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