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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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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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