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Seeker of Truth

A mind as wide as the legendary waistline.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By EDWARD SHORT
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G. K. Chesterton
A Biography
by Ian Ker
Oxford, 688 pp., $66

G.K. Chesterton

George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, 1927

Getty Images

Many will know Ian Ker as the author of the definitive life of Cardinal Newman. Now he has focused his biographical and critical skills on G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the great journalist, critic, poet, novelist, and biographer, and the result is a discriminating portrait that does welcome justice to the full richness of his subject’s hitherto undervalued work.

In his life of Newman, Ker encapsulated his subject’s quest for reality by translating Newman’s motto, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem: “Out of unreality into Reality.” In G. K. Chesterton he persuasively argues that his subject was Newman’s successor precisely because he shared the 19th-century convert’s passion for reality, a quality which Hilaire Belloc also discerned in his friend: “Truth had for him,” Belloc recalled, “the immediate attraction of an appetite. He was hungry for reality. But what is much more, he could not conceive of himself except as satisfying that hunger .  .  . it was not possible for him to hold anything worth holding that was not connected with the truth as a whole.”

Chesterton was a servant of the truth, as well as a champion of reality, and it is these qualities together that make him so salutary a figure for our own age, which is not only reluctant to acknowledge objective truth but embraces unreality with frenetic abandon. The entertainer in Chesterton might have been intent on making his readers laugh, but he also extolled what many in his time (and our own) wish to see diminished, including the Christian tradition, the sanctity of life, the dignity of the family, and personal liberty—and it is refreshing to see these vital aspects of the man given their prophetic due.

With the same critical distillation that distinguished his life of Newman, Ker has sifted through Chesterton’s massive output to identify several major themes which, taken together, demonstrate the unity and depth of his thought. In his introduction,
Ker writes:

Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder .  .  . is well known, but I have also highlighted the complementary principle of limitation that informs all his thinking about art, literature, politics, and religion. Linked, too, to his philosophy of wonder is his concept of the role of the imagination in enabling us to see the familiar afresh, as it were for the first time.

Unlike other commentators, who insist on seeing Chesterton the thinker as separate from Chesterton the funny man, Ker appreciates how the two were fused. For Chesterton, our misconceptions, our lies, our manifold allegiances to unreality cry out for exposure; and it was his abiding sense of caritas, no less than his keen sense of humor, that impelled him to use paradox to show his readers the comic discrepancies between truth and falsehood. Every reader will have his favorite Chestertonian sallies; one of mine is from his introduction to David Copperfield:

The wise old fairy tales never were so silly as to say that the prince and the princess lived peacefully ever afterwards. The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever afterwards; and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other. Most marriages, I think, are happy marriages; but there is no such thing as a contented marriage. The whole pleasure of marriage is that it is a perpetual crisis.  

Marriage meant a good deal to Chesterton, and it is another merit of Ker’s life that he shows how, at once, it saved and renewed his wayward hero. To appreciate this fully, however, the reader needs to know something of Chesterton’s life.

Born on Campden Hill in 1874, he was educated at St. Paul’s School and the Slade School of Art. His father worked for a firm of estate agents and his mother was of Franco-Scottish ancestry. Her Aberdeen forebears, the Keiths, gave Gilbert his middle name. A dilatory learner, Chesterton never shone in his studies, though he excelled at comic drawing. It was after becoming a publisher’s reader that he took up journalism, and for the rest of his life he would see himself as a journalist, who only wrote novels and plays, poetry, and biographies as a sideline.

This insistence of his that he was only a journalist has led some to conclude that Chesterton was shallow. Yet in a piece on Marshal Ferdinand Foch, which would have amused his mother, he gave the lie to such dismissive appraisals.

There was a great deal about Foch that was intensely and peculiarly French. Nobody but a Frenchman would have launched that direct and yet dazzling epigram in the midst of the Battle of the Marne: “My right gives way; my left retreats; situation excellent; I attack.” Where that phrase was so typically French is that it has three separate meanings, and they are all true. A superficial person will take it as a fine piece of fanfaronade, a romantic defiance and refusal to accept defeat. A more sagacious person will see that it is a piece of irony almost worthy of Voltaire. .  .  . The most sagacious person of all will observe that it was also a piece of cold, hard, scientific fact. It really was true that the Germans pursuing the Allied retreat on one side, and checking the attempted envelopment on the other, created the strain and the weak point at which Foch suddenly struck. That is the French genius; to say things that only look witty and are also wise. That is the achievement of all French literature and philosophy; it is the supreme and splendid triumph of looking shallow, and being deep.

Given his marked differences with the Modernists, it is ironic that Chesterton should have grown up in the same Bedford Park neighborhood as Yeats. Chesterton and Yeats make for an instructive contrast: Although inspired rhetoricians, they could not have taken more different roads philosophically. In 1922 Chesterton converted to Rome, what he called the “rock of reality,” while Yeats left the Protestant agnosticism bequeathed him by his father to convert to the table-tapping and hocus-pocus of Madame Blavatsky. Chesterton and Yeats also differed in their view of the common man: Yeats, the last hurrah of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy that had produced Swift and Burke, always took a seigniorial line with his Roman Catholic countrymen, speaking of them by turns as having been born in the peasant’s cot / Where men forgive if the belly gain, fumbling in a greasy till, adding the halfpence to the pence / and prayer to shivering prayer, and as base-born products of base beds. Chesterton, by contrast, exulted in the common man. Indeed, as Yeats’s friend Ezra Pound once observed, “Chesterton is the mob.”

On this theme, which runs throughout Chesterton’s work, Ker is revelatory. As he points out, “Aversion to the masses, Chesterton dares to suggest, is really aversion to their ‘energy. The misanthropes pretend that they despise humanity for its weakness. As a matter of fact, they hate it for its strength.’ ” For Chesterton, only the humble can appreciate the “colossal vision” of “things as they really are.” The intellectuals who looked down on the common man—especially such progressives as Carlyle, Shaw, and Nietzsche—were heretics in his eyes precisely because they discounted the common man’s dignity.

The amount of lasting work that Chesterton produced—despite his delight in the bonhomie of Fleet Street—is impressive. One can point to his novels, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908); to his great Father Brown stories; to his critical studies of Robert Browning and Charles Dickens; and to his wonderfully witty essays, his “tremendous trifles,” in which he managed to pack such a wealth of insight. His marriage to Frances Alice Blogg in 1901 transformed his life. In 1909 she removed her convivial husband to Beaconsfield, far from the beckoning public houses of London. She also moved him towards Catholicism. A devout Anglo-Catholic, Frances introduced her husband to many aspects of Christian orthodoxy of which he was ignorant. Without her influence, it is fair to say, Chesterton might never have managed his greatest work, including Orthodoxy (1908), The Everlasting Man (1925), St. Francis of Assisi (1924), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1933), the last of which Etienne Gilson considered the best book ever written on the subject.

Ker is excellent on Chesterton the critic, too, showing how trenchant he was not only on his beloved Dickens but on the Victorians as a whole. In The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Chesterton described how the English might have resisted the French Revolution but underwent a revolution of their own when the rich used their game laws and enclosures to turn England into a land not of common landowners but landlords, who then set about making the rationalism of Bentham, Mill, Darwin, and Huxley the new national faith. And in response to these depredations, Chesterton saw a series of spirited counterattacks, launched not only by the Romantic poets but by Cobbett, Carlyle, Newman, Dickens, Ruskin, Arnold, and the Pre-Raphaelites. The Victorian middle classes accepted the revolution of their oligarchs to avoid a more drastic democratic revolution but (as Chesterton recognized) this only emboldened the “enemies of the Victorian compromise” to intensify their own counterrevolutions.

Ker highlights the magnanimity of Chesterton. Again, like Newman, he looked for what was good in those he criticized—even those, like Matthew Arnold, who never shared his religious convictions. In his biography of the painter G. F. Watts, for example, Chesterton had occasion to praise Watts’s great portrait of Arnold, about which he said:

The portrait-painter of Matthew Arnold obviously ought not to understand him, since he did not understand himself. And the bewilderment which the artist felt for those few hours, reproduced in a perfect, almost an immortal picture, the bewilderment which the sitter felt from the cradle to the grave. 

Most critics would have left matters at that, but how typical of Chesterton to add that “the bewilderment of Matthew Arnold was more noble and faithful than most men’s certainty.”

In drawing his own portrait of Chesterton, Ker exercises an artful self-effacement, which allows the wit and wisdom of his subject to take center stage. In this, he embraces something of his subject’s own respect for limitation: Rather than interjecting his own views into those of Chesterton—or worse, paraphrasing him—Ker allows his subject to speak for himself. As a result Chesterton is not only funny but full of surprise and charm and profound good sense.

There are some genuinely good books on Chesterton. Maisie Ward, who knew him, wrote a lively biography in 1943. William Oddie recently wrote a groundbreaking study of Chesterton’s early life. D. J. Conlon edited two volumes of criticism on Chesterton by the likes of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, V. S. Pritchett, John Gross, Kingsley Amis, P. J. Kavanagh, and Wilfrid Sheed. But the need for a proper critical biography has long been acknowledged, and Ker has supplied it. Now, and for the foreseeable future, for any true understanding of the scope of G.K. Chesterton’s achievement, which captures not only the sage but the good, gentle, generous man, Ker’s biography will
be indispensable.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.

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