Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Man who was Chesterton

One is invariably being pursued by one’s own prejudices; it takes speed and dexterity to avoid being caught! Unfortunately Paul Johnson, journalist and historian, is not quick enough. In a recent review of The Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, a compilation of quotations by Bevis Hiller, he suggests that prejudice (“the BBC establishment has always hated him”) was responsible for a failure to televise the author’s Father Brown stories, though they are, in Johnson’s words, ‘a natural.’

A quick spot of research shows that this is not true. Some of the stories were televised, though not by the BBC. In 1974 ITV, the commercial television station, broadcast a series of thirteen episodes, staring the late Kenneth More in the title role. The series is still available on Amazon.

Johnson goes on to suggest reasons for this alleged hostility by the ‘establishment’, mentioning and dismissing Chesterton’s alleged anti-Semitism in passing, before alighting on the real cause as he sees it - the author’s Catholicism. Knowing Johnson, knowing something of his own background, I really have to say he would, wouldn’t he!

The more likely explanation, the explanation I see, is that Chesterton was one of those uneven writers who just stopped being fashionable. He stands in this regard in the same pantheon as Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc, somewhere on the outer reaches of imagination and taste; of their times, not ours.

This does not mean to say that he is a bad writer; far from it. I admit that my experience of his work is fairly limited, confined mostly to The Man who was Thursday, a novel published just over a hundred years ago, and some shorter pieces. I haven’t read the Father Brown stories and probably never shall because I consider the detective genre to be a lower class of fiction. There you are: a prejudice just caught up with me!

Still, sifting through The Wit and Wisdom has opened up possibilities, opened up some of the intellectual depths of this Oscar Wilde of the conservative right. I use this comparison deliberately simply because Chesterton made, in brilliant aphoristic style, one of the most telling observations about the fate of Wilde that I have ever read;

We feted and flattered Wilde because he preached such an attitude [a new immorality], then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out.

Chesterton adopted something of the method, if not the immorality, to carry out his own counter-attack on those aspects of modernity that disturbed him most. Some of his observations are trenchant and witty; others just ill-placed and bad tempered, hence the uneven quality. I’ve compared him to Oscar Wilde though Hiller draws an altogether more apt parallel with Dr Samuel Johnson, whom he resembled not just in literary grumpiness but in corpulence!

I suppose Paul Johnson is right in part in suggesting that Chesterton’s faith accounts for some of the prejudice to which he alludes. But it seems to me it was less because he was a Catholic - by conversion, incidentally - than because he was more orthodox than the orthodox, often a symptom of any kind of conversion. His Catholicism seems to have been of a particularly obscurantist, neo-medieval kind, allowing him to dismiss the Enlightenment in one sweeping announcement: “I know of no question that Voltaire asked which St Thomas Aquinas did not ask before him – only St Thomas not only asked, but answered the questions.” This is a mind not so much closed but bolted shut!

There is grumpiness here; there is prejudice, attitudes that do not quite harmonise with the modern age, an observation I feel sure that would have delighted the reactionary old fogey, who wanted to return to a feudal economy where every man – no mention of women – would be allocated “two acres and a cow.” Yes, grumpiness and dottiness but also charm, good prose and intelligence; wit, occasionally, of quite brilliant intensity. What more could one ask for?


  1. I think the real reason is that no one at the BBC has read a book since they left school. They simple remake all the series they saw on TV when they were younger, worse.

  2. Yes, I suspect there is a lot of truth in that.

  3. Good morning Ana, and Grrrr.

    I must turn my insomnia to good account by inserting a bit of balance to poor GKC's trashed reputation. I promise to be so brief as to be sure to disappoint you.

    First, he was most definitely not of the political right, but a Liberal in the days when that name had a true meaning.

    Second, he was not anti-Semitic ; but he opposed Judaism. Of course, the frightfully modern people forget the important differences in those matters.

    And what's this about his supposed prejudice? If that fashionable word means anything, it is to have pre-judged. But Chesterton never held an opinion without reasons, and good ones at that. Is everyone who holds an opinion prejudiced?

    Did I say that I had Grrrrred? Ah, yes ... so no need to repeat it. :-)

    I hope you're well, you young rascal, and will try to drop in more often to cheer you up.

  4. You know, I think I only ever started reading Chesterton to annoy my liberal, feminist, extremely protestant, flatmate who was unrequitedly in love with me as an undergraduate...

    Wilde is such an appropriate point of reference for comparison, for so many reasons... (William Oddie's recent book on Chesterton explores his fin de siecle phase)

    GK's fiction really is patchy, and marred by deliberately obscuratory prose and inappropriately placed puns. Overall (and I agree that "..Thursday" stands out), it is playful, and minor; mostly enjoyable, but inessential. Although there is plenty of fun for those who know London well, such are the wanderings over the city of his characters.

    His biographies *somehow* hang together, despite their infelicities and inaccuracies. But they are strange, unsatisfactory, works, neither journalistic nor academic. (Belloc's history books suffer from something similar, though they are angrier and more polemical)

    GKC is much, much better, as an essayist, where his verbal playfulness, and his skill in saying profound things in deceptively simple language, can really shine through. "Orthodoxy" (perhaps "The Ethics of Elfland", in particular) , "Heretics" - probably these are also some the best sources for his aphorisms of genius.

    I do agree with you that the fact of him being a Catholic is secondary to other reasons for his having largely fallen out of favour - other than with a somewhat cult-like group, who perhaps scare the horses (perhaps even me) rather too much...

    The obvious counter-example (albeit writing slightly later) is Evelyn Waugh, also a pretty orthodox Catholic, and immeasurably grumpier (and nastier, and also unambigiously antisemitic), but whose -far more polished and "complete" works of fiction - have never gone out of print.

    But GKC. Purveyor of Don Quixote-like medieval utopian fantasies compbined with impractical economic theories - indeed. Fogeyish - certainly. But above all, imbued with deep wisdom and insight. Childlike, in many ways, in fact. Which perhaps hints at his limitations as well as his greatness and charm.

  5. Jamie, it's a delight to see you, as always. A very Happy New Year!

    I hope I'm not doing Chesterton a disservice, because I enjoyed this book, enjoyed most of the things he had to say. He seems to me to be of the conservative right - an honour, so far as I am concerned - rather than liberal, though some of his ideas are just a tad too reactionary! But there is a romantic quality that I love, a quality that makes me want to dig deeper. I'm going to change anti-Semitism to 'alleged anti-Semitism', because I'm not really in a position to comment here.

    Yes, I am well, thanks, and busy as ever. Do please drop by anytime. :-)

  6. Dominic thanks for that brilliant response. You clearly know the man, much more deeply that I, my reading being wholly superficial. Your point about Waugh is spot on, a much better writer and a much less endearing man. I do so need to discover more. Hiller’s selection has whetted my appetite, so I think I should start by looking at Chesterton’s essays, the essay, as I said here recently, being my favourite literary form.

  7. It's always a pleasure a read a post such as this.

    The conservative/liberalism thing is difficult and I also don't think that the label "conservative" (in narrowly political terms, at least) fits him.

    Still, were he today I think he might have been impressed with some of the rhetoric, at least, of the Cameron government, in support of localism and "the little man", "big society" and so on..., but also sceptical of the will to make anything meaningful out of these fine words. (Something similar might apply to Thatcherite economic policies - which were presented as benefiting the small investor, but which really have ultimately proved a gift for the state-controlled utility companies of France, Germany, Russia...)

    But in his own words (and one of his great aphorisms)

    "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

  8. I disagree with you on Rudyard Kipling, though the bizarre thing is that, according to my "Science Fiction Century" anthology, Kiplings greatest influence was, oddly enough, in science fiction, even though he didn't actually write that much of it.

  9. This said, you're probably write about Chesterton, as I've barely heard of him!

  10. Jeremy thanks. Please do not misunderstand me: when I say that a writer like Kipling is no longer fashionable I do not mean that he is no longer read. I read him, and Plain Tales from the Hills is among my all-time favourite books. It's just that there are people, and Kipling is one, Chesterton another, who are shaped by their times. or who give shape to their times; and when the time passes they, so to speak, pass with it. I had no idea that Kipling had any influence on science fiction!

  11. Thank you, Ana and a Happy New Year to you. Is it this year that the world ends? or next? I can't keep up with today's revelations, so I will have to ask. At any rate, when all is dust and ashes, I imagine you will still be writing as radiantly as ever!

    But wait! Did you accuse GKC of being grumpy? I will prepare a special place for you in the nethermost region of the Underworld. You and Prometheus can tear each others livers out while the eagle starves.

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  13. Borges love him, he say Chesterton was one of the best writers from begining of century XX and Borges studied british literature all his life, he had a grandmother from England, I have many books from Chesterton but i did not started to read him because time and other books did not let me, you sound not to captive from him but I read that you respect his intelligence. Try others without doubts, not problem. I think people choose what writers love them, it is fair, we have decision, but we need know the difference between simple books from complex ones for understand literature and I am very secure you know but this is the problem of many readers. Respect is different than love, both together are the heaven but you can feel one thing or even none if you really want, people must be reasonable and have free will. A big kiss. Mario.

  14. Jamie, no, you have a little time yet. The world ends with a bang and not a whimper in 2012. I shall write to the very threshold of Armageddon, right up to my rendezvous with Prometheus! Are not all men of a 'certain age' grumpy? :-)

  15. Adam, yes indeed. You will know, of course, that Peter Sissons said recently that left-wing bias was written through the BBC’s DNA. However I must say think you are way off track about Reith. From what I know of him he gives me the impression of some fussy and didactic school master, full of the high-minded Presbyterian earnestness of his background. To describe him in the same sinister league as Goebbels is quite wrong, unless you can point out the BBC versions of Der ewige Jude and Jud Süß.

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  18. Mario, Borges was a genius, one of my favourite writers, as you rightly say, steeped in Anglo-Saxon culture, a lover of authors like Chesterton and Stevenson.

  19. Politics and religion be damned! Literary criticism as well! Hats off to this jaunty master of the aphoristic art.

  20. Adam, I almost never write about our present government, and certainly not in the form of 'propaganda'. Yes, Reith could also be described as a Roundhead, but I still fail to see the 'sinister' message in his fussy didacticism.

  21. NP, it's really just a form of intellectual aerobics. :-)

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  23. Awareness of reality and a few aches and pains are what make old men grumpy.

  24. "NP, it's really just a form of intellectual aerobics."

    Can be anyways, when detached from wisdom and practical experience.

  25. The following has been posted by me on behalf of Nobby, under some restrictions in the Gulf!

    Nobby said;


    "I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid."

    This is for your Chesterton Blog and is, of course, one of his quotes :-)

    Incidentally, it is my view that while the world has undergone Europeanization and a confirmation of Right Wing economic attitudes eg the ongoing influence of Reagan and Thatcher in political thinking; British society and culture has become increasingly Left liberal so that even the once regarded Left Wing Feminist writing of Rebecca West would, in BLGF, be viewed by many as quite Conservative.


  26. Adam if I can track this down I will.

  27. Anthony, the same process does not seem to affect old women, well, not to the same degree. :-)

  28. Nobby, thanks for that quote. I agree with your observations, particularly about West.

  29. Not much of a Chestertonian meself. He wrote that book didn't he? Orthodoxy which converts people to Christianity. I was given his poetry for airport reading on my way to the US back on '05.

  30. Rehan, I think he wrote quite a lot of Christian apologetics. Some of it is available on Amazon.