Friday, January 30, 2009


G. K. Chesterton and his wife Frances

In The Paradox Who Was Chesterton, A.N. Wilson reviews the latest biography of G.K. Chesterton.

He discusses the new evidence about the development of G. K. Chesterton's ideas and his progress towards Roman Catholicism

The new biography is : William Oddie CHESTERTON AND THE ROMANCE OF ORTHODOXY :The making of GKC 1874–1908, 416pp. Oxford University Press. £25 (US $50).

"Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy painstakingly follows the development of GK’s ideas from the schoolboy poet and debater of the 1880s to the author of Orthodoxy in 1908. William Oddie’s book demonstrates, sometimes with a little too much bluster, that although Chesterton did not actually become a Roman Catholic until 1922, his “position” as a robust defender of Catholic Orthodoxy was well in place fifteen years earlier. It is also Oddie’s intention to demonstrate that Chesterton absorbed many of his Catholic ideas not, as might previously have been supposed, from his friend Belloc, nor from Fr O’Connor, the model for Father Brown, but from his Anglo-Catholic wife Frances Blogg, and from some of her high-church heroes, most notably Charles Gore, Conrad Noel and Percy Dearmer. Oddie has produced an abundance of new material to substantiate his picture, notably Chesterton’s contributions to the Debater magazine (written when he was a pupil at St Paul’s School), and from the journalism. He has used newspaper articles which have hitherto been unnoticed, or only quoted in part. And he has also been attentive to the G. K. Chesterton manuscripts in the British Library, which contain unfinished poems, sayings and theological musings from Chesterton’s unformed youth. It is now possible to follow Chesterton’s development from schoolboy Communist to a sort of Unitarian under the spell of Stopford Brooke, to full-blown Anglo-Catholic husband of the clergy-loving Frances Blogg. ...

Chesterton’s fiction and journalism were dashed off at speed. This is not to say that they were not on some levels deeply considered. It could be said, truthfully as well as Chestertonianly, that he was never deeper than when he was being superficial. Many of his wisest remarks are the throwaways, but you do not necessarily preserve the truth of a throwaway remark by patching it together with other throwaway remarks to construct a Summa. Chesterton’s observation about angels – that they can fly because they carry so little weight – applies to his own writings. ...

W. B. Yeats, in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, recalled how the 1890s came to an end – “Then in 1900, everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic Church”. Oddie’s comment – “He was wrong about the Catholic Church of course” suggests that he has not quite caught Yeats’s tone. But maybe the joke tells us more than many more serious sentences about Chesterton.

Having abstained from the absinthe and, as in one of his funnier Ballades, decided not to hang himself, GK was perhaps never more “Nineties” than when he followed in the footsteps of Lionel Johnson, John Gray and Oscar Wilde himself, into the arms of Rome."