G. K. CHESTERTON
BY PATRICK BRAYBROOKE
THE CHELSEA PUBLISHING COMPANY
I 6 Royal HoslJital Road, Chelsea, London, S. W.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Q C If
1 q ote2
-: 1'v1 f? c.,
G. K. CHESTERT01\T
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Messrs. Speaight Ltd., London
Æ By PATRICK BRAYBROOKE
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
ARTHUR F. THORN
THE CHELSEA PUBLISHING COMPANY
16 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea
THE CURIYEN PRESS
PJ,zistoYlr, E.I J
I T is certain that up to a point in the evolution of Self
most people find life quite exciting and thrilling. But when
middle age arrives, often prematurely, they forget the thrill
and excitements; they become obsessed by certain other lesser
things that are deficient in any kind of Cosmic Vitality. The
thrill goes out of life: a light dies down and Rickers fitfully;
existence goes on at a low ebb-something has been lost.
From this numbed condition is born much of the blind
anguish of life.
It is one of the tragedies of human existence that the divine
sense of wonder is eventually destroyed by inexcusable routine
and more or less mechanical living. Mental abandon, the
exercise of fancy and imagination, the function of creative
thought-all these things are squeezed out of the conscious-
ness of man until his primitive enjoyment of the mystical part
of life is affected in a very serious way.
Nothing could be more useful, therefore, than to write a
book about a man who has done more than any other living
writer to stimulate and preserve the primitive sense of wonder
and joy in human life. Gilbert Keith Chesterton has never
lost mental contact with the cosmic simplicity of human
existence. He knows, as well as anybody has ever known,
that the life of man goes wrong simply because we are too
lazy to be pleased with simple, fundamental things.
We grow up in our feverish, artificial civilization, believing
that the real, satisfying things are complex and difficult to
obtain. Our lives become unnaturally stressed and tormented
by the pitiless and incessant struggle for social conditions which
are, at best, second-rate and ultimately disappointing.
G. K. Chesterton would restore the primitive joys of
wonder and childlike delight in simple things. His ideal is
the real, not the merely impossible. Unlike most would-be
saviours of the race, he seeks not to merge a new humanity
into a brand new glittering civilization. He would have us
awaken once more to the ancient mysteries and eternal truths.
He would have us turn back in order to progress.
Science makes us proud, but it does not make us happy.
Efficiency makes us slaves-we have forgotten the truth
about freedom. Success is our narcotic deity, and weans more
men into despair than failure; for, as G. K. C. has said,
, Nothing fails like Success. ' We have yet to rediscover the
spiritual health that comes with a clear recognition of the
part that life cannot be great until it is lived madly and wildly.
We have to learn all over again that grass really is green, and
the sky, at times, very blue indeed.
ARTHUR F. THORN
(Author of 'Richard Jefferies '),
Assistant-Director of Studies,
London School of Journalism.
T HIS book is the outcome of many and repeated re-
quests to the author to write it. While realizing the
difficulties involved, he feels that the opportunities he
has enjoyed give him at least some qualifications for the task,
for not only is he a kinsman of Mr. Chesterton, but also has
spent much time in his company.
The book aims to be a popular study of the Writer and the
Man. It is dedicated to lovers of the works of G. K. C. and to
the wider public who wish to know about one of the most
brilliant minds of the day.
46 Russell Square, WC. I
19 22 .
I THE ESSAYIST I
II DICKENS 15
III THACKERAY 29
IV BROWNING 4 2
V CHESTERTON AS HISTORIAN 57
VI THE POET 67
VII THE PLAYWRIGHT 7 6
VIII THE NOVELIST 79
IX CHESTERTON ON DIVORCE 9 0
X ' THE NEW JERUSALEM' 9 6
XI MR. CHESTERTON AT HOME 99
XII HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 10 5
XIII G. K. C. AND G. B. S. 113
XIV CONCLUSION 119
I T is extremely difficult in the somewhat limited space of
a chapter to give the full attention that should be given
to such a brilliant and original essayist (which is not always
an ipso facto of brilliant essayists) as Chesterton. Essayists
are of all men extremely elastic. Occasionally they are dull
and prosy, very often they are obscure, quite often they are
wearisome. The only criticism which applies adversely to
Chesterton as an essayist is that he is very often-and I
rather fear he likes being so-obscure. He is brilliant in an
original manner, he is original in a brilliant way; scarce1y any
thought of his is not expressed in paradox. What is orthodox
to him is heresy to other people; what is heresy to him is
orthodox to other people; and the surprising fact is that he is
usually right when he is orthodox, and equally right when he
is heretical. An essayist naturally has points of view which he
expresses in a different way to a novelist. A novelist, if he
adheres to what a novel should be-that is, I think, a simple
tale-does not necessarily have a particular point of view when
he starts his book. An essayist, on the other hand, starts with
an idea and clothes it. Of course, Chesterton is not an
essayist in the really accepted manner of an essayist. He is
really more a brilliant exponent of an original point of view.
In other words, he essays to knock down opinions held by
other essayists, whether writers or politicians. It would be
manifestly absurd to praise Chesterton as being equal to
Hazlitt, or condemn him as being inferior to J. S. Mill.
Comparisons are usually odious, which is precisely the reason
so much use is made of them. In this case any comparison is
G. K. CHESTERTON
not only odious; it is worse, it is merely futile, for the very
simple fact that there has been no essayist ever quite like
Chesterton, which is a compliment to him, because it proves
what everyone who knows is assured, that he is unique.
There are, of course, as is to be expected, people who do not
like his essays. The reason is not far to seek, as in everything
else people set up for themselves standards which they do not
like to see set aside. Consequently people who had read
Lamb, Hazlitt, Hume, and E. V. Lucas astutely thought
that no essayist could be such who did not adhere to the style
of one of these four. Therefore they were a little alarmed
and upset when there descended upon them a strange genius
who not only upset aU the rules of essay writing, but was at
the same time acclaimed by all sections of the Press as one of
the finest essayists of the day.
With the advent of Chesterton the essay received a shock.
It had to realize that it was a larger and wider thing than it
had been before. As it had been almost insular, so it became
international; as it had been almost theological in its ortho-
doxy, so it became in its cathoJicity well-nigh heretical. Which
is the best possible definition of a heresy? It is the expanding
of orthodoxy or the lessening of it. Thus Chesterton was a
pioneer. He gave to the essay a new impetus-almost, we
might say,a 'sketch' form; it dealt with subjects not so much
in a dissertation as in a dissection. Having dissected one way
so that we are quite sure no other method would do, he calmly
dissects again in the opposite manner, leaving us gasping, and
finding that there really are two ways of looking at every
question--a thing we never realize till we think about it.
I have in this chapter taken five of Chesterton's most
characteristic books of essays, displaying the enormous depth
of his intellect, the vast range of subject, the unique use of
paradox. Of these five books I have again taken rather neces-
sarily at random subjects depicting the above Chestertonian
attributes, with an attempt to give some idea of what it really
means when we say that he is an essayist.
That Chesterton's book of essays, entitled 'Heretics,'
should have an introductory and a concluding chapter on the
importance of orthodoxy is exactly what we should expect
to find. "[here is a great deal of what is undeniably true in
this book; there is also, I venture to think, a good deal that
is undeniably untrue. I do not think it is unfair to say that
in some respects Chesterton allows his cleverness to lead
him to certain errors of judgment, and a certain levity in
dealing with matters that are to a number of people so sacred
that to reinterpret them is almost to blaspheme.
I am thinking of the chapter in this book that is a reply
to Mr. McCabe, an ex- Ronlan Catholic, who, being a keen
logician, is now a rationalist. He accuses Chesterton of
joking with the things de profundzs.
Certain clergymen have also taken exception to Chester-
ton's writings on the ground of this supposed levity. It is
merely that he sees that the Bible has humour, because it has
said that ' God laughed and winked.' I do not think he in-
tends to offend, but for many people any idea of humour in
the Bible is repugnant, and this view is not confined to
In an absolutely charming chapter Chesterton writes
of the literature of the servant girl, which is really the
literature of Park Lane. It is the literature of Park I.Jane, for
the very obvious reason that it is probably never read there; but
the literature is about Park Lane, and is read by those who
may live as near it as Balham or Surbiton. What he con-
tends, and rightly, is that the general reader likes to hear
about an environment outside his own. It is inherent in us
that we always really want to be somewhere else; which is
fortunate, as it makes it certain that the world will never
come to an end through a universal contentment. It has
been said that contentment is the essence of perfection.
It is equally true that the essence of perfection is discontent,
a striving for something else. This, I think, Chesterton feels
when he says of the penny novelette that it is the literature
G. K. CHESTERTON
to 'teach a man to govern empires or look over the map of
Rudyard Kipling finds a warm spot in Chesterton's heart,
but he is a little too militaristic, which is exactly what he
is not. Kipling loves soldiers, which is no real reason why
he should be disliked as a militarist. l\1anya servant girl loves
a score of soldiers, she may even write odes to her pet ser-
geant, but she is not necessarily a militarist. Rudyard Kipling
likes soldiers and writes of them. He does not, as Chesterton
lays to his charge, 'worship militarism.' He accuses Kipling
of a want of patriotism, which is about as absurd as accusing
Chesterton of a love of politics. But when he says that
Kipling only knows England as a place, he is on safe ground,
because England is something that is not bound by the con-
fines of space.
Not being exactly a champion of Kipling, Chesterton
turns to a different kind of man, George Moore, and has
nothing to say for him beyond that he writes endless personal
confessions, which most people do if there are those who
will read them. But not only this, poor George Moore
, doesn't understand the Roman Catholic Church, he doesn't
understand Thackeray, he misunderstands Stevenson, he has
no understanding of Christianity.' It is, in fact, a hopeless
case, but it is also possible that Chesterton has not troubled
to understand George Moore.
Mr. Bernard Shaw is, so Chesterton contends, a really
horrible eugenist, because he wants to get a super-man who,
having more than two legs, will be a vastly superior person
to a man. Chesterton loves men. He tells us why St. Peter
was used to found the Church upon. It was because he ' was
a shuffier, a coward, and a snob-in a word, a man.' Even
the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Councils of Trent have
failed to find a better reason for the founding of the Church.
It is a defence of the fallibility of the Church, the practical
nature of that Body, an organization founded by a Man who
had Divine powers in a unique way and was God.
Presumably, then, the mistake of Shaw is that instead of
trying to improve man he wishes to invent a kind of demi-god.
Chesterton has a great deal to say for Christmas; in fact)
he has no sympathy for those superior beings who find
Christmas out of date. Even Swinburne and Shelley have
attacked Christianity in the grounds of its melancholy,
showing a lamentable forgetfulness that this religion was
born at a time that had always been a season of joy. Chester-
ton is annoyed with them, and is sure that Swinburne did not
hang up his socks on Christmas Eve, nor did Shelley. I
wonder whether Chesterton hangs up his socks on the eve
, Heretics' is a book that deals with a great number of
subjects universal in their scope. The writing is at times too
paradoxical, leading to obscurity of thought. There are splen-
did passages in this book, which is, when all is said, brilliantly
original, even if at times a little puzzling.
, Orthodoxy' is, I think, one of the most important of
Chesterton's books. The lasting importance of a book depends
not so much on its literary qualities or on its popularity, but
rather on the theme handled.
There are really two central themes handled in this book.
One is of Fairyland, the other is of the defence of Christianity;
not that it is either true or false, but that it is rational, or the
most shuffle-headed nonsense ever set to delude the human
race. The method of apology that Chesterton takes is one that
would cause the average theological student to turn white
wi th fear.
The theological colleges, excellent as they are in en-
deavouring to train efficient laymen into equally efficient
priests, usually assume that the best way to know about
Christianity is to study Christian books. It is the worst way,
because these books are naturally biased in favour of it. It is
better to study any religion by seeing what the attackers have
to say against it. Then a personal judgment can be formed.
G. K. CHESTERTON
This is, I feel, the method that Chesterton adopts in his
deep and original treatise, , Orthodoxy,' which is more than
an essay and less than a theological work.
The Chestertonian contention is that philosophers like
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have embarked on the suicide
of thought, and that a later disciple to this self-destruction
is Bernard Shaw.
In the same way these pseudo philosophers have attacked
the Christian religion, 'tearing the soul of Christ into silly
strips labelled altruism and egoism. They are alike puzzled
by His insane magnificance and His insane meekness.'
As I have said, the method to realize the worth of Chris-
tianity is to read all the attacks on it. This is what Chesterton
does. In doing so he discovers that these attacks are the one
thing that demonstrate the strength of Christianity. Because
the attackers reject it upon reasons that are contradictory to
each other. Thus some complain that it is a gloomy religion;
others go to the opposite extreme and accuse it of pointing to
a state of perpetual chocolate cream; yet again it is attacked
on grounds of effeminancy, it is upbraided as being fond of
a sickly sentimentalism.
Thus it is attacked on opposite grounds at once. It is
condemned for being pessimistic, it is blamed for being
optimistic. From this position Chesterton deduces that it is
the only rational religion, because it steers between the Scylla
of pessimism and avoids the Charybdis of a facile optimism.
Regarding presumably the early Church she has also kept from
extremes. She has ignored the easy path of heresy, she has ad-
hered to the adventurous road of orthodoxy. She has avoided
the Arian materialism by dropping a Gre
k Iota; she has not
succumbed to Eastern inRuences, which would have made her
forget she was the Church on earth as well as in heaven. With
tremendous commonsense she has remained rational and
chosen the middle course, which was one of the cardinal
virtues of the ancient Greek philosophers.
The Christian religion is, then, rational because attacked
along irrational grounds; the Church is also reasonable because
she has not been swayed by the attraction of heresy nor listened
to the glib fallacies of those who always want to make her
something more or something less.
The other and lesser contention of the book is the wisdom
of the land of the Fairies. This is, Chesterton feels, the land
where is found the philosophy of the nursery that is expressed
in fairy tales-tales that every grown-up should read at
Fairyland is for Chesterton the sunny land of common-
sense. It is more, it is a place that has a very defini te religion;
it is, in fact, really the child's land of Christ. Take the
lesson of Cinderella, says Chesterton; it is really the teaching
of the Prayer Book that the humble shall be exalted, because
humility is worthy of exaltation.
Or the Sleeping Beauty. Is it not the significance of how
love can bridge time? The prince would have been there to
wake the princess had she slept a thousand instead of a
Y et again the land of the Fairies is the abode of reason.
If Jack is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of
Jack. It is no good in Fairyland trying to prove that two and
two do not make four, but it is quite possible to imagine that
the witch really did turn the unlucky prince into a pig. After
all, such a procedure is not a monopoly of the fairies. Lesser
persons than princes have been turned into pigs, not by the
wand of a witch, but by the wand of good or bad fortune.
, Orthodoxy' is probably the sanest book that Chesterton
has ever written. It is, I venture to think, the work that
win gain for him immortality. It is a book on the greatest
of themes, the reasonableness of the Christian religion.
There have been many books written to attack the Christian
religion, equally many to defend it, but Chesterton has
G. K. CHESTERTON
made his apology for the religion on original grounds-the
contradictories of the detractors of it. 'Orthodoxy' goes alone
with Christ into the mountain, and the eager multitudes
receive the real philosophy of Chesterton.
The child who has eaten too much jam and feels that too
much of a good thing is a truism is rather like the philosopher
who, having studied everything, comes to the sad conviction
that there is something wrong with the world. The child
finds that large quantities of jam are a delusion; the philo-
sopher discovers that the world is even more wrong than he
thought it was.
Sitting in his study, Chesterton, looking out on the garden
which is the world, discovers that there is something wrong
with it, and it is caused by the machinations of the 1,500
odd millions of people who, like ants, crawl about its surface.
'What's wrong with the Wodd?' is the result, and a very
entertaining book it is. Like many other sociological treatises
it leaves us still convinced that the world is wrong, because
we don't know what we really want.
The pessimist is convinced that the world is a bad place,
the optimist is sure that it can be good. That is the point of
the book. Chesterton has his own ideas of what is wrong, and
he says so with astonishing paradox.
When this book was written, Feminism was demanding
votes, and, not getting them at once, became naughty, and
tied itself to the House of Commons or pushed policemen over.
Chesterton devotes a large section of this book to demanding
what is the mistake of Feminism.
, The Feminists probably agree that womanhood is undcr
shameful tyranny in the shops and mills. I want to destroy
this tyranny. They (the Feminists) want to destroy woman-
hood.' They do this by attempting to drive women into
the world and turn them away from the home. This is
what is wrong with the woman's world: they have it that
the home is narrow, that the world is wide. The converse
is the truth: woman is the star of the home. It is a pity
if she has to make chains--significant word-at Cradley
Education is not for Chesterton an unqualified success;
there is a mistake about it somewhere. In fact, there is ' no
such thing as education.' Education is not an object, it
is a ' transmission' or an 'inheritance.' It means that a
certain standard of conduct is passed on from generation to
generation. The keynote of education for Chesterton is
undoubtedly dogma, and dogma is certainly the result of a
At this present time there is a controversy about the use of
our public schools. Whenever a harassed editor in Fleet
Street cannot think what to put in those two spare columns,
he works up a 'stunt' on the use or otherwise of the public
schools. This is always exciting, as the public schools hardly
ever see the controversy, being blissfully immersed in the
military strategy of Hannibal or the political intrigues of the
Cæsars. Thus the controversy is conducted by those who
generally think that commerce is superior to Greek, money-
grubbing to good manners.
Even Chesterton must say something about these schools
that are the backbone of England. Unfortunately he thinks
that they are weakening the country, that the headmasters
'are teaching only the narrowest of manners.' But the pub-
lic schools 'manufacture gentlemen; they are factories for
the making of aristocrats.' If he is right, the more of these
schools there are the better it is for the country.
It is well that he is not averse to Greek. In these days the
classics are looked upon as waste of time. Political economy
and profiteering are more useful. As he says, a man of the
type of Carnegie would die in a Greek city. I am not sure
whether this is not unfair. The real use of Greek is that it
teaches culture. There is use in Plato's philosophy; it is quite
as useful as the knowledge acquired that results in peers
made, not born. I don't think Chesterton understands the
G. K. CHESTERTON
public schools at all well; they are both bad and good, but
at least they are very English.
He hasn't a great deal to say for Imperialism. Imperial-
ism is a very difficult ethic; it is not easy to say whether it
is a selfish or an unselfish policy.
Thus we may quite conceivably pat ourselves on the back
and say that, as English rule is good for natives, it is only right
that we should keep India; but we might find that an equally
good and more popular reason for doing so would be to
prevent anyone else having her. Thus our Imperial policy
is a little selfish and a little unselfish.
F or Chesterton, Imperialism is sOlnething that is both
weak and perilous. It is really, he contends, a false idealism
which tends to try and make people locally discontented,
contented with pseudo visions of distant realms where the
cities are of gold, where blue skies are never hidden by yellow
fog. But is it a false idealism? If it is, it is that conception
which has made men leave their homes in England to build
up the Imperial Empire which is the daughter of the Great
Imperial Island. The vision may not be always useful, but
Imperialism has done much to make England and Empire
Business is, according to Chesterton, a nasty thing that
will not wait. It hates leisure, it has no use for brotherhood,
it is one of the things that is wrong in the world-not, of
course, that business is wrong in itself, but the method. Thus
he disagrees that if a soap factory cannot be run on brother-
hood lines the brotherhood must be scrapped He would
have the converse to be better.
He contends that it is better to be without soap than
without society. As a matter of fact, society without soap
would be an abomination. Society without any brotherhood
would soon cease to be a society at all. Utopia is a little soap,
a little society, with a Ravouring of brotherhood in each.
Another and obviously good reason that the world is
wrong is that it is only half finished. This is a matter for
eÀtreme optImIsm; it is the one great thing that makes it
certain that the world will be found all right if it comes to
an end. That is, if it delays long enough for the Irish
question to be settled.
This is what Chesterton contends in this fine book, that
reforms are not reforms at all, rather the same things dressed
up in other clothes. Values are set up on fals
Women in trying to become emancipated are likely to become
slaves; the fear of the past is given over to a too delicate in-
trospection of the probable vices and virtues of generations
not yet born.
Ilnperialism is liable to a false idealism, drawing men from
Seven Dials to find Utopia in Brixton. The public schools
are weakening the country in some respects. Education is
not education at all; in fact, we really must start the wrong
world over again. I don't quite see where Chesterton pro-
poses we are to start, or exactly how, whether backwards or
forwards. Perhaps, as in ' Orthodoxy,' the middle course is
the happy and safe one.
'Tremendous TriRes' is a Chestertonian philosophy of
the importance and interest of small things. It is a remarkable
thing that we never see the things that we daily gaze upon.
Chesterton finds scope for all kinds of subjects in this book,
from a 'Piece of Chalk' to 'A Dragon's Grandmother.'
Provided we believe in dragons, there is good reason to
suppose that they have grandmothers. It is not so easy to
write a good essay on the subject. Chesterton does so with
great skill, and it makes it quite certain to be so intellectual
as to hate fairies is a piteous condition.
What he brings out in this particular essay is that what
modern intellectualism has done is to make 'the hero ex-
traordinary, the tale ordinary,' whereas the fairy tale makes
, the hero ordinary, the tale extraordinary.'
In this book of short essays it is only possible to take a few,
but care has been taken to attempt to show the enormous
G. K. CHESTERTON
versatility of Chesterton's mind. It has been said quite
wrongly that Chesterton cannot describe pathos. This is
certainly untrue. He can so admirably describe humour that
he cannot help knowing the pathetic, which is often so akin
to humour. I am not sure that this ability to describe the
melancholy is not to be seen in one of these essays that
narrates how he travelled in a train in which there was a
dead man whose end he never knew.
Perhaps there is nothing more interesting than turning out
one's pockets-all sorts of long forgotten mementoes cause a
lump in the throat or a gleam in the eye; but it is very annoy-
ing, on arriving at a station where tickets are collected, to find
everything that relates to your past twenty years of life and
be unable to find the ticket that makes you a legitimate rider
on the iron way. This is what Chesterton describes in a
One day, so Chesterton tells us in the 'Riddle of the
I vy,' he happened to be leaving Battersea, and being asked
where he was going, calmly replied to 'Battersea.' \Vhich
is really to say that we find our way to Brixton more eagerly
by way of Singapore than by way of Kennington. In a few
words, it is what we mean when we say, as every traveller
says at times, , Home, sweet home.' I fancy this is what Mr.
Chesterton means. It is a beautiful thought-a fine love of the
home, a strange understanding of the wish of the traveller
who once more wishes to see the old cottage before he
journeys' across the Bar.'
The sight of chained convicts being taken to a prison
causes Chesterton to essay on the 'filthy torture' of our
prisons, the whole system of which is a 'relic of sin.' Perhaps
he is right! But is it that the prisons are wrong, or is
it that society makes criminals? After all, convicts are chained
that they shall not endure a worse penalty for attempted
escape. At present prisons are as necessary to the State as
milk is to a baby; the thing against them is that they turn
criminal men into criminal devils.
At his home in Beaconsfield, ChestertoIl has a wonderful
toy theatre. He writes in this book a sketch about it.
This toy theatre has a certain philosophy. 'It can produce
large events in a small space; it could represent the earth-
quake in Jamaica or the Day of Judgment.' We must take
Chesterton's word for it. I am not convinced that the toy
theatre of Chesterton has added to philosophy; I don't think
it has made any remarkable contribution to thought, nor is
it, as he claims, more interesting and better than a West-
end theatre; but I do believe that in having amused a few
hundred children it has a place in the Book of Life-per-
haps near the name of Santa Claus.
While it is true that' Tremendous TriRes ' is not nearly
as important as some of the Chesterton books, it is true to
say that it is a remarkably pleasant book about small things
that are really tremendous when we come to study them.
'The Defendant' is, as the title suggests, a defence of all
kinds of things that are usually attacked by other people.
It takes a brave man to defend' penny dreadfuls.' Ches-
terton assumes this rôle. He defends them on their re-
markable powers of imagination. One has only to study
Sexton Blake to discover the intricate psychology of that
wondrous personality who can solve the foulest murder or
unravel stories that the divorce courts would quail before.
There is something to be said for the skeleton so long as he
doesn't come out of his cupboard. Chesterton defends skele-
tons. 'The truth is that man's horror of the skeleton is not
horror of death at all; it is that the skeleton reminds him that
his appearance is shamelessly grotesque.' But he sees no
objection to this at alL After all, he says, the frog and the
hippopotamus are happy. Why, then, should man dislike it
that his anatonlY without Resh is inelegant?
It is to be expected that Chesterton would write a defence
of baby worship, because they are so ' very serious and in con-
sequence very happy.' 'The humorous look of children is
G. K. CHESTERTON
perhaps the most endearing of all the bonds that hold the
Cosmos together.' Probably we are an agreed that the
defence of baby worship is a desirable thing; possibly it is the
only point upon which there is universal agreement with
'The Defendant' is a series of papers that are light, but
conceal a depth of thought behind them. They demonstrate
that there is something to be said for everything which may
be a slight solution of the eternal problem that theological
professors are paid to try and discover, the problem of evil.
It may be that there is really no such thing, but it would be
disastrous to these professors to discover this, so the dear old
problem goes on from year to year.
As an essayist, Chesterton is never dull: the philosophy
contained in his essays is not prosy. The only fault is that he is
at times so clever that it is a little difficult to know what he
means. But this really does not matter, as a shrewd critic of
one of his books In
de it public through the Press that
Chesterton did not know himself
7hat he n1eant. But I
wonder if he did realJy know?
I F there is fault to be found in Chesterton"s masterly
study of Charles Dickens it lies in the fact that in parts of
the book the meaning is not always clear, or, rather, it is not
always so at a first reading. Whether this may be justly
termed a fault depends largely upon what the reader of a
critical study demands.
If he desires that he shall read Chesterton superficially and
yet understand, he will be doomed to disappointment.
Perhaps of all writers Chesterton must be read with the head
between the hands, with a ficrce determination that the
meaning veiled in brilliant paradox shall be sought out.
Re is not only a keen critic, he is also a deliberate com-
mentator. The difference is fundamentaL The commentator
builds upon the foundation the critic has erected; he does
not merely state what he thinks about a book or character,
rather he explains the criticism already made.
This is the method adopted with regard to Dickens.
Chesterton has written a commentary on the soul of Dickens,
he has not in any strict sense written a biography; this was not
necessary; the difficulty of Dickens lies in the interpretation
of his work; his life, though having a great inRuence on his
writings, has been written so often that Chesterton has re-
frained from building on 'another's foundation.' In a word,
it is an intensely original work, far more than our critic's
companion book on Browning.
As was Browning born to a world in the throes of the
aftermath of the French Revolution, so was Dickens.
Chesterton lays great stress on the youth of Dickens; it is only
G. K. CHESTERTON
right that he should do this; the early life of Dickens was
probably responsible for the wonderful genius of his art. The
blacking factory that nearly killed the physical Dickens gave
birth to the literary Dickens. Dickens was, in fact, born at the
psychological moment, which is not to say that we are born at
the unpsychological moment, but that Dickens was born at a
time that allowed his natural powers to be used to the best
Chesterton feels this strongly. 'The background of the
Dickens era was just that background that was eminently
suitable to him'; it was a background that needed a Dickens
as much as the pagan world, with all its Greek philosophies,
had needed a Christ.
He begins his study of Dickens with a keen survey of the
Dickens period 'It was,' he says, 'a world that encouraged
anybody to anything. And in England and literature its
living expression was Dickens. It is useless for us to attempt
to imagine Dickens and his life unless we are able to imagine
his confidence in common men.'
I t is this supreme confidence in common men that was the
keynote to the wonderful power of Dickens in making
characters from those who were in a world sense undistin-
guished. On this position Chesterton lays great stress. It was
this, he thinks, that made him an optimist. It was the same
position that made Browning an optimist. It is the disbelief
in the Divine image in Man that makes the cynic and the
Swift hated men because they were capable of better things
but would not realize it. Dickens knew men were kings,
though ordinary men; the result was that he loved humanity.
I t is a queer point of psychology that with the same
such minds as Swift and Dickens came to the extremes of the
emotions of love and hate.
In some ways Dickens was more than a maker of books,
he was a maker of worlds; he tried to make' not only a book
but a cosmos.' This may be a curious and obscure kind of
clericalism that popularly expresses itself as an effort to run
with the hare and follow with the hounds, but is really an
heroic attempt to see both sides of the question, and is not
a cheap pandering after popularity.
Many critics have disliked Dickens because of this ten-
dency of universalism, a tendency liable to intrude on minds
of a giant intellect and a ready sympathy. Chesterton does
not think that Dickens was right in this attitude of universal-
ism, and says so with, I think, a certain amount of cheap
disdain. 'He was inclined to be a literary Whiteley, a
universal provider.' Really Dickens wanted to have a say
about everything, in which he is strangely like Chesterton.
The result of this was a result that meant the greatest
value: it meant and was' David Copperfield.' The book was
for Chesterton a classic, and it was so because it was an
autobiography. It is in this work that Dickens make') his
defence of the rather exaggerated situations in some of his
books, for in this book Dickens proves that his greatest
romance is based on the experiences of his own life. 'David
Copperfield is the great answer of a romancer to the realists.
David says in effect, "What! you say that the Dickens
tales are too purple really to have happened. Why, this is
what happened to me, and it seemed the most purple of all.
You say that the Dickens heroes are too handsome and
triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever
so handsome and triumphant as the head boy seemed to me
walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains
are too black. Why, there was no ink in the Devil's ink-
stand black enough for my own stepfather when I had to
live in the same house with him." ,
This is the point that Chesterton brings out so well. The
Dickens characters are not overdrawn because, though they
move between book covers, their originals have moved on
the face of the earth; they have Illoved with Dickens and he
has made them his own. His brilliant apology for this alleged
'overdrawing' is one of the most effective replies ever penned
G. K. CHESTERTON
to superior Dickens detractors. It is effective because it is
true; it is true because it is obvious that Dickens created that
which lay hidden in his own mind, the misery of his factory
It is, I think, with this view in mind that Chesterton pays
so much attention to that period of Dickens' life which he
spent in the blacking factory, with its crude noise, its blatant
vulgarity, its vile language that left the small boy Dickens'
sick, but with a sickness that discovered his literary genius.
The factory was the germ that made the great writer.
Chesterton is a true critic of Dickens because he has this
somewhat singular insight of seeing the importance of the
early miseries of Dickens' life with regard to their inRuence
on his literary output and his queerly favoured delineation of
common folks, the sort of people we always meet but hardly
ever talk about because we are foolish enough to think
I t is from the account of the early life of Dickens that
Chesterton gently leads us to the birth of the immortal Mr.
Pickwick, that supreme Englishman who is a byword
amongst even those who scarcely know Dickens. The birth
pangs of the advent of Pickwick was a sharp quarrel 'that
did no good to Dickens, and was one of those which occurred
far too frequently in his life.'
Without any hesitation for Chesterton, , Pickwick Papers'
is Dickens' finest achievement, which is a pleasant enough
problem if we happen to remember that he also wrote' David
Copperfield.' Possibly it is really unfair to compare them.
, Pickwick Papers' is not in the strict sense a novel; , David
Copperfield' is a novel even if it is an autobiography. At any
rate Pickwick was a fairy, and as fairies are pretty elastic he
probably was in that category of beings, but he was even more
a royal fairy, none other than the' fairy prince.'
In Pickwick, Dickens made a great discovery, which was
that he could write ordinary stuff like the 'Sketches by
Boz,' and also could produce Mr. Pickwick and write
'David Copperfield,' which was to say that Dickens dis-
covered he had a good chance of being the Shakespeare of
'It is in "Pickwick Papers" that Dickens became a
mythologist rather than a novelist; he dealt with n1en who
were gods.' That is, no doubt, that they became household
gods; in other words, as familiar as the characters of Shake-
There is one tremendous outstanding characteristic of
Dickens which Chesterton brings out with considerable
force. It is that above all things Dickens created characters.
It is almost as if the setting of his books were on a stage where
the environment changes but the essentials of the characters
The story is almost subordinated to the drawing of the
principal character; it is almost a modern idea of the psycho-
analytical kind of novel that our young novelists love to draw.
But still there is the great difference that the characters of
Dickens pursue there own way regardless of the trend of
events round them.
Naturally the modern novel is inferior to some of Dickens'
works, but they do not deserve the hard things Chesterton
says about them. Thus he remarks in passing that the
modern novel is 'devoted to the bewilderment of a weak
young clerk who cannot decide which woman he wants to
marry or which new religion he believes in; we still give
this knock-kneed cad the nanle of hero.'
This is, I think, unfair. The modern novel is very often still
a good healthy love tale; the hero is more often than not a
gentleman who has not the brains to be a cad; his trouble
about marriage is that he wants to marry the right woman
to their mutual well being; he is neither a cad nor a hero, but
an ordinary Englishman whom we need not walk half a mile
to see; he usually marries a girl who can be seen in any
suburb or at any church bazaar. I have dwelt on this at some
G. K. CHESTERTON
length, as Chesterton has a tendency to despise modern
novelists while being one himself.
At this period, when 'Pickwick' had once and for all
brought fame to Dickens, it will be interesting to see why
Dickens attained the enormous popularity he did. He was,
our critic thinks, a 'great event not only in literature but
also in historv.'
rs that Dickens was popular in a sense that
we of the twentieth century cannot understand. In fact, he
goes so far as to say that there are no really popular authors
This is probably not entirely true. When we sayan author
is popular we do not mean that necessarily, as Chesterton
seems to suggest, he is a 'best seller'; rather we call him
popular in the sense that a large number of people find pleasure
in reading him, even if the subject is not a pleasant one.
Dickens was popular in a different way: he was read by a
public who wished his story might never end. They not only
loved his books, they loved his characters even more. No
matter that there might be five sub-stories running along-
side of the main one, the central character retained the public
affection. His characters were known outside their particular
stories, and not only that, this was by no means confined to
the principal ones.
They were known, as Chesterton points out, as Sherlock
Holmes is known to-day. But even so there is again a dif-
ference. People do not speak of the minor characters of
Conan Doyle's ta]es as they do, for instance, of Smike.
It is now convenient to turn to the Christmas literature
of Dickens. I am convinced that Chesterton has very
badly misconstrued the character of Scrooge, that delightful
person whose one virtue was consistency.
A bove everything, Scrooge was consistent; he hated
Christmas as we hate anything that does not agree with our
temperament. Merry Christmas was nonsense to him
because he did not know how to be merry. He was a cold,
cynical bachelor, and at that, so far, was perfectly within the
law, moral and legal.
But Chesterton, by rather an unfortunate attempt to be too
original, has turned him into a filthy hypocrite who needed no
appearances of spirits whatever; for he says of Scrooge, , He
is only a crusty old bachelor, and had, I strongly suspect,
given away turkeys secretly all his life.'
When Chesterton says that Scrooge gave away turkeys
secretly all his life it is merely saying that the whole attitude
of Scrooge to life was a silly and unmeaning pose, which
makes him ridiculous, and robs the 'Christmas Carol' of all
its real worth, that of the miraculous conversion of Scrooge.
But, then, the actual story does not mean much for Chester-
ton: 'the repentance of Scrooge is highly improbable.' If it
is true that Scrooge really did give away turkeys secretly, then
it is quite obvious that Scrooge never did repent; he was past
it. But I fancy that Chesterton has erred badly here; he has
attempted without success to put a secret meaning into a
simple and beautiful story.
, Chimes' is, for Chesterton, an attack on cant. It was a
story written by Dickens to protest against all he hated in the
nature of oppression. Dickens hated the vulgar cant that only
helps to bring self-advertisement: the ethic that the poor must
listen to the rich, not because the rich are the best law-givers,
but because society is at present so constituted that no other
method can be adopted.
Dickens loved the attitude the poor always take to Christ-
mas; it is that attitude which is the proof that at its bedrock
humanity is extremely lovable. Chesterton is entirely in
agreement with Dickens on this matter. 'There is nothing,'
he says, , upon which the poor are more criticized than on the
point of spending large sums on small feasts; there is nothing
in which they are more right.'
Dickens did not in any way forget that the real spirit of
Christmas is to be found in the cheery group round the
G. K. CHESTERTON
blazing fire. 'The Cricket on the Hearth' is a pleasant tale
about all that we associate with Christmas, that very thing
that has made Hearth and Christmas synonymous; yet
Chesterton considers this one of the weakest of the Dickens'
stories, which is a surprising criticism for a writer who
really loves Christn1as as he does.
In a later period of Dickens, Chesterton informs us of his
brief entry into the complex and exciting world that has its
headquarters in Fleet Street. For a short period Dickens
occupied the editorship of the Dai
v News, but the environ-
ment was not a very congenial one. Dickens was unsettled
with that strange restlessness that seizes all literary men at
sorTIe time or other. This was the time that saw the publication
of ' Dombey and Son.' Chesterton thinks that the essential
genius found its most perfect expression in this work though
the treatment is grotesque. This book is almost, so our critic
thinks, 'a theological one: it attempts to distinguish between
the rough pagan devotion of the father and the gentler
Christian affection of the mother.'
The grotesque manner of treatment of this work was as
natural as the employment of the grotesque by Browning.
Dickens must work in his own wa v, in the manner that
suited his inmost soul; he could not be J made to write to order.
In a brilliant paradox Chesterton says of' Dombey and Son':
the 'story of Florence Dombey is incredible, although it is
true,' which is what many people feel about Christianity.
, Dombey and Son' was the outlet for that curious psychology
of Dickens which could get the best out of a pathetic incident
by approaching it from a grotesque angle. It came, as Chester-
ton points out in his own inimitable way, 'into the inner
chamber by coming down the chimney.' Which demonstrates
the ever nearness of pathos to humour, of the absurd to the
It will not be out of place to refer at this time to some of the
defects with which people have charged Dickens. Chesterton
does not agree with the critics on these points, but admits
that these charges have been levelled against Dickens. It
will be advisable to take one or two examples of these
There is that most popular thing of which Dickens is
accused, that of exaggeration. Many people are quite in-
credulous that there could ever have existed such a character
as Little Nell. Chesterton, however, thinks that Dickens
did know a girl of this nature, and that Little Nell was based
on her. Little Nell is not really more improbable than' Eric,'
the famous hero of Dean Farrar, and he was certainly based
on a living boy.
People who live in these enlightened days are piously
shocked at the amount of drinking described by Dickens.
Well-bred and garrulous ladies have shuddered at the scenes
described, and have declared that Dickens was at least fond
of the Bacchanalian element. So he was, but the reason was
not that he loved hard drinking, but that, as our critic
brings out, drinking was the symbol of hospitality as roast
beef is the symbol of a Sunday in a thousand English rectories.
As Dickens described the social life of England he could not
leave out its most characteristic feature and shudder in pious
horror that the red wine dyed old England a merry crimson.
It would be no doubt an exaggeration to call Dickens a
socialist. What he saw was that there was a mass of beings
that was called humanity, that the two ends of the political pole
were indifferent to this mass. The party to which a man gave
his allegiance did not matter as long as that party worked for
man's ultimate good. Chesterton is quite sure that Dickens
was not a socialist; he was not the kind that ranted at street
corners and dined in secret at the Ritz, nor was he of the kind
who said all men are equal but I am a little better. He was
a socialist in the sense that he hated oppression of any kind.
, Hard Times' strikes a note that is a little short of being
harsh. The reason that Dickens may have exaggerated
G. K. CHESTERTON
Bounderby is that he really disliked him. The Dickensian
characters undoubtedly suffered from their delineator's likes
About this time Dickens wrote a book that was unique
for him; it was a book that dealt with the French Revolution,
and was called' The Tale of Two Cities.' Chesterton does
not think that Dickens reaHy understood this gigantic up-
heaval; in fact, he says his attitude to it was quite a mistaken
one. Even, thinks our critic, Carlyle didn't know what it
meant. Both see it as a bloody riot, both are mistaken. The
reason that Carlyle and Dickens didn't know all about it was
that they had the good fortune to be Englishmen; a very good
supposition that Chesterton has still something to learn of
After all, the main point of' The Tale of Two Cities' is
the exquisite pathos of it. Whether its attitude to the French
Revolution is absolutely accurate does not matter very much
for the reader who is not a keen historical student.
With' Hard Times' and' A Tale of Two Cities' Dickens
has struck a graver note. This is peculiarly emphasized in
'Great Expectations.' This story is 'characterized by a
consistency and quietude of individuality which is rare in
Dickens.' It is really a book with a moral--that life in the
limelight is not always synonymous with getting the best out
of it. Really, the hero behaves in a sneakish manner. Probably
Dickens doesn't like him, and the writer is still on the stern
In 1864, so Chesterton tells us, Dickens was in a merrier
mood, and published' Our Mutual Friend,' a book that has,
as our critic says, 'a thoroughly human hero and a tho-
roughly human villain.' This work is 'a satire dealing with
the whims and pleasures of the leisured class.' But this is by
no means a monopoly of the so-called idle rich: the hard-
working middle and poorer classes have whims and pleasures
in a like manner, but have not so much opportunity in in-
dulging in them.
As I have indicated, the story is not the principal part of the
Dickens' literature; it is the drawing of characters to which he
pays so much attention. It will not be out of place at this
time to see what our critic has to say with regard to this
tendency of Dickens. It is an essential of Dickens, and is
therefore of vast import to any critique on him.
The essence of Dickens, for Chesterton, is that he makes
kings out of common men: those folks who are the ordinary
people of this strange, fascinating world, those who have no
special claim to a place in the stars, those who, when they
die, do not have two lines in any but a local paper, those who
are common but are never commonplace.
There is a vast difference between the common and the
commonplace, as Chesterton points out. Death is common to
all, yet it is never commonplace; it is in its very essence a
grand and noble thing, because it is a proof of our common
humanity; it gives the lie that the Pope is of n10re importance
than the dustman; it makes the busy editor equal to the
newsboy shouting the papers under his office windows.
The common man is he who does not receive any special
distinction: universities do not compete to do him honour, his
name is but mentioned in a smaH cricle. These are those of
whom Dickens wrote. 'It is,' says Chesterton, 'in private
life that we find the great characters. They are too great to
get into the public world.' They are people who are natural-
natural in a sense that the holders of high office never can be.
Dickens could only write of natural people, so he wrote of
common men: 'You will find him adrift as an impecunious
commercial traveller like Micawber; you will find him but
one of a batch of silly clerks like Swivel1er; you will find him
as an unsuccessful actor like Crumples; you will find him as
an unsuccessful doc
or like Sawyer; you will always find the
rich and reeking personality where Dickens found it among
Not only were the characters Dickens chose common men,
they were also' great fools,' because Chesterton will have us
G. K. CHESTERTON
believe that a man can be entirely great while he is entirely
foolish. It is no doubt in the spiritual sense so adn1irably
expressed in the Pauline Epistles, where 'foolish in the eyes
of the world but wise before God' is a condition that is of
, l\1r. Toots is great because he is foolish.' He is great
because he has a sou) that glorifies his weak and foolish body,
not that he is great because, ipso facto, he is foolish.
There is a great and permanent value in the writings of
Dickens. I cannot do better than quote our critic: ' If we
are to look for lessons, here at least are the last and deepest
lessons of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to
look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not
merely of the fixed figures of our life, the wife, the husband,
the fool that fills the day. Every day we neglect Tootses and
Swivellers, Guppys and J oblings, Simmerys and Flashers.
This is the real gospel of Dickens, the inexhaustible oppor-
tunities offered by the liberty and variety of man. It is when
we pass our own private gate and open our own secret door
that we step into the land of the giants.'
I t will now be convenient to consider the question of the
attitude of our critic to the' Mystery of Edwin Drood,' that
tale that has produced one of those literary mysteries that are
so dear to a number of folks of the kind \\)"ho \\)"ould be
disappointed were the problem to be finally solved. 'The
Mystery of Edwin Drood' was cut short by the sudden
death that fell upon Dickens on a warm June night some
half century ago.
For Chesterton the book' might have proved to be the
most ambitious that Dickens ever planned.' It is non-
Dickensian in the sense that its value depends entirely on a
story. The workmanship is very fine. The book was purely
and simply a detective story. 'Bleak House' was the nearest
approach to its style, but the mystery there was easy to
unravel. It was as though Dickens wished in ' Edwin Drood '
to make one last' splendid and staggering' appearance before
the curtain rang down, not to be rung up again until the last
, Yes,' says Chesterton, 'there were many other Dickenses,
'an industrious Dickens, a public spirited Dickens, but the
last one (that is Edwin Drood) was the great one. The wild
epitaph of lVlrs. Sapsea, " Canst thou do likewise?" should be
the serious epitaph of Dickens.'
I t is more than fifty years since Dickens died. What is the
future of Dickens likely to be? At least, Chesterton has no
doubt of the permanent influence of Dickens; he is as sure of
immortality as is Shakespeare. The kings of the earth die, yet
their works remain; the princes pass on but are not entirely
forgotten; writers write and in their turn sleep; but there is
that to which in every age we inscribe the word Immortal.
I t is enough to say that Dickens is immortal because he is
Dickens. There is a further reason, that he proved what all the
world had been saying, that common humanity is a holy
thing. To quote Chesterton: 'He did for the world what
the world could not do for itself.' Dickens' creation was
poetry-it dealt with the elementals; it is therefore permanent.
In final words he says, , We shall not be further troubled
with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their
sorrows and too clear for their delights. But we have a long
way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant; and
the passage is a long, rambling English road, a twisting road
such as Mr. Pickwick travelled.'
, But the road leads to eternity, because the inn is at the
end of the road, and at that inn is a goodly company of
common men who are immortal because Dickens made
them. Here we shall n1eet Dickens and all his characters,
and when we shall drink again it shall be from great flagons
in the tavern at the end of the world.'
What, then, is the essential part of Chesterton's study of
G. K. CHESTERTON
Charles Dickens? It is certainly not a biography; it is for
all practical purposes a keen study of what Dickens was,
what he wrote, why he wrote as he did, why he has a place
in literature no one else has.
There are faults in the book-it would be a poor book ifit
had none. At times I think Chesterton allows his genius to
overcome his critical judgment. Particularly is this so in his
strange misconstruction of the character of Scrooge. But
this merely demonstrates yet once more that Dickens, like
Christ, is unique, because no one has ever completely under-
The book is a tribute by a great writer to a greater writer,
by a great man to a great man, by a complex personality to a
complex personality; above all it is a tribute by a lover of the
things of the' doorstep' to a writer who has made the door-
step and the street the road to heaven, because the beings
who pass along have been made immortal.
When the critics of Dickens meet at the inn there will
be none more worthy of a place close to the Master Writer
T HERE are no doubt thousands of people who would
be annoyed to be thought the reverse of well read who
nevertheless know Thackeray only as a name. They
know that he was a really great English novelist-they may
even know that he lived as a contemporary of Dickens-but
they do not know a line of any of his works.
In lesser manner Dickens is unknown to very many people
of the present day who could tell you intelligently of every
modern book that is produced. The reason is, I think, one that
is not so generally thought of as might be expected.
It is often said that Thackeray and Dickens are out of date,
that they have had their day, that this era of tube trains and
other abominations cannot fall into the background of
lumbering stage coaches.
This is, I think, a profound and grave error. It is an error
because it presupposes that human interest changes with the
advent of different means of transport: that Squeers is no
longer of interest because he would now travel to Yorkshire
by the Great Northern Railway and would have lunch in a
luncheon car instead of inside a four-horse stage coach.
The fundamental reason that modern people do not read
these great authors is that they are not encouraged to do so.
The very best way to instil a love of Thackeray into the
modern world is to make the modern world read just so
much of him that its voracious appetite is sharpened to wish
In an altogether admirable series of the masters of litera-
ture Thackeray finds a place, and treatment of him is left
G. K. CHESTERTON
to Chesterton, who writes a fine introductory' Biography'
and then takes picked passages from his writings. This is,
I think, the most useful means possible of popularizing an
author. It requires a good deal of pluck in these days to sit
down and steadily pursue a way through a long book of
Thackeray unless it has been proved, by the perusal of a
selected passage, that riches in the book warrant the act of
courage in beginning the work.
In this chapter it will be convenient to pay special attention
to the introduction that is so ably contributed by Chesterton.
I t will only be possible to refer to the passages he has selected
from Thackeray, and the reader must judge of the merit of
the choosing. I t is one of the hardest things possible to choose
representative passages from a great writer. Shall he choose
those that display the literary qualities of the writer, shall he
choose those which depict his powers of drama, shall he select
those which bring out the hUlllour of the writer, shall he pick
at random and let the passage stand or fall on its own merits?
These are questions that must be faced in a work of the
nature of Chesterton's Thackeray. What the method has been
will, I hope, be clear at the end of this chapter.
It was Thackeray's expressed wish that there should be no
biography written of him, a position that might indicate
extreme modesty, colossal conceit, or distinct cowardice.
Whatever the reason, it has not been entirely obeyed, and
rightly. A man of the power of Thackeray cannot live without
the world being in some way better; it is only good that those
who never knew him in the flesh should at least know him
in a book. I t is not enough that, as Chesterton points out, he
, was of all novelists the most autobiographical,' which is not
to say that he wrote unending personal confessions with a
very large I, but rather that his books were drawn from the
experiences of his life, a field that is productive of the richest
Thackera y was born, we are told, in the year I 8 I I, so that
he was a year old when the world received two babies who
were like ten thousand other babies, except that they hap-
pened to be Browning and Dickens. It was the time when
the world trembled, because that mighty soldier Napoleon
stood with arms folded, waiting to strike, it knew not where.
It was the time when military genius reached its height,
a height that could be only br
ught low by one thing, and
that was an English General with a long nose and a cocked
Although Thackeray was born in Calcutta, he was as
English as he could possibly be. But he did not forget his
Eastern beginning. 'A certain vague cosmological quality
was always mixed with his experience, and it was his favourite
boast that he had seen men and cities like Ulysses.' Which is
to say that he had not only seen the world, he had felt it; if he
had not seen a one-eyed giant, he had at least seen a two-
His early life followed the ordinary life of a thousand other
boys born of Anglo-Indian parents; that was, he went to
school, where' a girl broke his heart and a boy broke his nose,'
and he discovered that the nose took longer to mend.
At Cambridge, Chesterton tells us, Thackeray found that
it was a quite easy thing to sit down and play cards and lose
LI,500 in an evening, a fact that very probably was more
useful to him than twenty degrees. Trinity College was the
Thackera y College: it has had no more famous son. I twas
said that Thackeray could order a dinner in every language
in Europe, which is to say he could have dined in comfort
in any restaurant in Soho.
From Cambridge, we learn, he made his way to the Bar,
and at the same time wrote articles in the hope that some
editor might keep them from the waste-paper basket. Chester-
ton tells us an interesting legend that about this time Thacke-
ray offered to illustrate the books of Dickens. The offer was
declined, which he thinks was 'a good thing for Dickens'
books and a good thing for Thackeray's.' Whether Thacke-
ray ever really did meet Dickens does not matter much; it is
G. K. CHESTERTON
at least picturesque; 'it affects the imagination as much as
the meeting with Napoleon.'
There has always been what is for Chesterton a silly
discussion-a controversy as to whether Thackeray was a
cynic. This was because he happened to write first about
villains, then about heroes; villains are always more interest-
ing than heroes, and not infrequently are much better
mannered. A cynic is a person who doesn't take the trouble
to find the motives for things, or he takes it for granted that
the motives are never disinterested ones. To say that Thacke-
ray was a cynic because he drew a large number of villains
is as untrue as to say Swift was a cynic because he wrote
satire. Thackeray wrote about villains because he wished to
also write about heroes; Swift was satirical because he had the
intelligence to see that his contemporaries were fools when
they might have been wise. The cynics are the people of
to-day who write books which attribute low motives to
everyone, which turn love into lust, which care not what
is written so long as it can be made certain that there is
nothing in the world which has not a hidden meaning.
The first appearance of Thackeray in literature was in
'Fraser's Magazine,' under the pseudo name of Michael
Angelo Titmarsh. It is on these unimportant papers that
Chesterton thinks was based the attack on Thackerav for
being a cynic. "
In passing, it is not necessary to say more than that
Thackeray's marriage ended in a horrible manner: Mrs.
Thackeray was sent to an asylum. 'I would do it over
again,' said Thackeray; which was a ' fine thing to say.' It
was really carrying out' for better or worse,' which often
enough really means for better only.
I t will now be well at once to plunge into the very heart
of Thackeray, that heart which beat beneath the huge, gaunt
frame. The two books which have made his name famous, and
what Chesterton thinks of them, must be now gone into.
'The Book of Snobs' was one of those literary rarities
that has genius in its very name. No one probably really thinks
himself a snob; everyone likes to read of one. Thackeray
brought snobbishness to a classic. There had been books of
scoundrels, there had been books of heroes, there had been
books of nincompoops, now there was a book of those people
who abound in every community, and who are snobs.
'This work was much needed and very admirably done.
The solemn philosophic framework, the idea of treating
snobbishness as a science, was original and sound; for snob-
bishness is indeed a disease in our Society.'
Unfortunately Chesterton is not nearly hard enough on
snobbishness. Were it a disease, it might be excusable as being
at times unavoidable; it is nothing of the sort, it is a deliberate
thing that undermines society mpre than anything; it is
entirely spontaneous, and flourishes in every community,
from the Church to the Jockey Club.
'Aristocracy does not have snobs any more than democracy';
bu t this 'Thackeray was too restrained and early Victorian
to see.' There are at the present day a great number of people
who will not see that Bolshevism is as snobbish as Suburbia,
that the poor man in the Park Lodge is as much a snob as his
master, who only knows the county folks. Snobbery is not
the monopoly of anyone set; even also is it, as Thackeray
says, , a mean admiration' that thinks it is better to be a
'made' peer than an honest gardener.
'The true source of snobs in England was the refusal to
take one side or the other in the crisis of the French Revo-
The title of 'Vanity Fair' was an inspiration. It gives
the ideas of the disharmonies that can be found in any market
place in any English market town on any English market
day. It brings out' the irrelevancy of Thackeray.' A good
motto for the book is, for Chesterton, that attributed to
Cardinal Newman: ' Evil always fails by overleaping its aim
and good by falling short of it.' Our critic feels that the
G. K. CHESTERTON
critics have been unfair to Thackeray with respect to their
denouncement of the character of Amelia Sedley as being
much too soft, whereas Chesterton thinks she was really a
fool, which is the logical outcome of being the reverse of hard.
But Amelia was soft in a very delightful way. She was
'open to all emotions as they came' -in fact, she was a fool
who was wise because she has retained her power of happiness,
while the hard Rebecca has arrived at hell, , the hell of having
all outward forces open, but all receptive organs closed.'
I t is necessary again to refer to the charge of cynicism that
is levelled against Thackeray. The mistake is, as our critic
points out, , taking a vague word and applying it precisely.' It
all depends upon what cynicism really means. 'If it means a
war on comfort, then Thackeray was, to his eternal credit,
a cynic'; 'if it means a war on virtue, then Thackeray, to his
eternal honour, was the reverse of a cynic.' His object is to
show that silly goodness is better than clever vice. As I have
indicated, the long and the short of the matter is that Thacke-
ray created a lot of villains, and has therefore been called a
cynic by those who don't even know what the word means,
or that there is a literary blessedness in the making of villains
to bring out the more excellent virtues of the heroes.
From these two monumental works that were original in
every way and might almost be called propaganda, Thackeray
passed on to a novel which bore the name of 'Pendennis.'
It was' a novel with nothing else but a hero, only that the
hero is not very heroic,' which makes him all the more
interesting, for it makes him all the more human.
But Pendennis is more than a man-he is a type or symbol.
He is 'the old mystical tragedian of the Middle Ages, Every-
man.' It is an epic, because it celebrates the universal man
with all his glorious failings and glorious virtues. The love
of Pendennis for Miss Fotheringay is a different thing to
the ordinary love of man for woman; it is rather the love
that is in every man for every woman. This is what I think
Chesterton means when he says' it is the veritable Divine
disease, which seems a part of the very health of youth.'
The Everyman of the Middle Ages was a symbol of what
man really was. Chesterton feels that every outside force
that came to Everyman had to be abnormal-for instance,
'Death had to be bony'-so he contends in' Pendennis' that
the shapes that intrude on the life of Arthur Pendennis have
aggressive and allegorical influences.
, Pendennis ' is an epic because it celebrates not the strength
of man but his weakness. In the character of Major Pen-
dennis, Chesterton feels that Thackeray did a great work,
because he showed that the life of the so-called man of the
world is not the gay and careless one that fiction depicts. It
is the religious people who can afford to be careless. 'If you
want carelessness you must go to the martyrs.' The reason
is fairly obvious. The worldling has to be careful, as he wants
to remain in the world; the religious man, of whom the martyr
was the true prototype, can afford to be careless; he is not
necessarily careless of life, but he can put things at their
proper value. The martyr facing the lions in the Roman
arena knew what life really was; the worldly woman spending
her life trying to be in the company of titled people has no
real idea of the value of it. It is the religious people who
know the world; it is the worldly people who know nothing
With the publication of ' Pendennis' the reputation of
Thackeray reached that position which is sought by all authors,
that of being able to write a book that should not, on pub-
lication, be put to the indignity of being asked who the writer
was. Thackeray was now in the delightful position of being
well established, a position that very often results in careless
and poor work. It has been said with some truth that once
a writer is established he can write anything he likes. This is
to an extent true, and such work may even be published and
fairly popular, but he will find sooner or later that his
influence is on the wane.
G. K. CHESTERTON
In the 'N ewcomes' Thackeray drew a character in
Colonel Newcome, to whom was given the highest of
literary honours, that of being spoken of apart from the
book-I mean in the way that people speak of Micawber
or Scrooge, almost unconsciously, without really having the
actual work in which the character appears in mind. Of
this book Chesterton says' the public has largely forgotten
all the N ewcomes except one, the Colonel who has taken his
place with Don Quixote, Sir Roger de Coverley, Uncle
Toby, and Mr. Pickwick.'
Chesterton feels that Thackeray at times falls into the
trick common to many writers, that of repeating himself, a
trick that is natural, as it does seem in some ways that the
human mind, like history, is apt to move in circles. The
reason was that in some way Thackeray became tired of
Barnes Newcome; the result was that from being a con-
vincing villain he develops into a stereotyped one, the type
who fires pistols into the air and is the squire's runaway son
so often found at the Lyceum.
If Thackeray' sprawled' in the Newcomes he atones for
this in ' Esmond,' if any atonement is needed for sprawling,
which is probably only that Thackeray felt that there is
nothing so elastic and sprawling as a human person, whether
he be a villain or the reverse.
For Chesterton, , Esmond' is in the modern sense a work
of art, which is to say that it was a book that could be read
anywhere. 'It had no word that might not have been used
at the court of Queen Anne.' It is a highly romantic tale,
but it is a sad story. It is a great Queen Anne romance; but,
, there broods a peculiar conviction that Queen Anne is dead.'
The whole tale moves round a complicated situation in
which a young man loves a mother and her daughter, and
finally marries the mother. This work is, for Chesterton,
Thackeray's 'most difficult task. It is difficult for the reason
that the situation of the tale is placed between possibilities of
grace and possibilities even of indecency. It is not hard to
write a graceful tale, it is easy to write a loose story; it is
extremely difficult to write a story that may by a stroke of
the pen be either beautiful or merely sordid. But Thackeray
manipulates the keys of the tale so that' it moves like music,'
an extremely apt metaphor, where harmonies can be made
disharmonies by a single note.
It is a strange fact that a sequel is seldom to be compared
to its forerunner: ' Tom Brown's Schooldays ' is of a school-
boy who is an eternal type; 'Tom Brown at Oxford' is a
poor book that does not in the least understand Oxford. The
fact is, I think, that an author cannot be inspired twice on the
same subject-the gods give but sparingly, their gifts do not
fall as the rains.
The sequel to 'Esmond' that Thackeray wrote, 'The
Virginians,' is an ' inadequate sequel,' which is not to say that
it is a poor book, but rather that it is an unnecessary one.
Yet, as Chesterton says, 'Thackeray never struck a smarter
note than when, in " The Virginians," he created the terrible
little Yankee Countess of Castlewood.' In the same way as
'The Virginians' was a sequel to 'Esmond,' so ' Philip' was
a sequel (also an inadequate one) to the' Newcomes.'
It is strange that in two things at least Thackeray's life
followed the same course as Dickens. Both occupied the
editorial chair: Dickens that of the Daily News, Thackeray
that of the G()rnhi// Magazine. Both left unfinished works:
Dickens that of' The Mystery of Edwin Drood,' Thackeray
that of ' Denis Duval.'
Thackeray's last work, , Lovell the Widower,' is 'a very
clever sketch, but as a novel is rather drawn out.' 'The
Roundabout Papers' make very pleasant reading. In one' he
compares himself to a pagan conqueror driving in his chariot
up the Hill of Coru, with a slave behind him to remind him
that he is only mortal.' In 1863, suddenly, Thackeray died,
seven years before Dickens also passed away.
Chesterton has in the space of a short introduction
given a very clear account of the chief characteristics of
G. K. CHESTERTON
Thackeray's works; it is no easy matter to give in a few
lines the essence of a great novel, and Chesterton is not
always the most concise of writers. It will now be con-
venient to take a few of the characteristics of Thackeray
and observe what he says of theIne
At once he is aware of the fact that there is no writer
from whom it is more difficult to make extracts than from
Thackeray. The reason is that Thackeray worked by
, diffuseness of style.' If he wished to be satirical about a
character he was not so directly; rather he worked his way
to the inside of the character, got to know all about it, and
then began to be satirical. This is what Chesterton feels
about the matter; it is no doubt the fairest way of being
satirical and the most effective. Many people and writers are
satirical without first of all demonstrating upon what grounds
they have the right to be so. Satire is a wholly laudable thing
if it is directed in a fair minded manner, but if it is only an
excuse for bitter cynicism it is altogether contemptible. Thus
he says of the Thackerean treatment of 'Vanity Fair,' 'he
was attacking "Vanity Fair" from the inside.' It comes to
this: if you want to make an extract from Thackeray
you must dive about all over the place to make apparent
irrelevancy become relevancy.
If the use of the grotesque was a strength of Browning
(as Chesterton contends against other critics), so in the case of
Thackeray that which some critics have held to be a weak-
ness-I mean his' irrelevancy '-is for our critic a strength.
It was a strength, because it was' a very delicate and even
cunning literary approach.' It is the perfect art of Thackeray
to get the right situation, not by an assumption of it, but by
so approaching it that there is no way out, which is arriving
at the situation by the fairest means possible.
, No other novelist ever carried to such perfection as
Thackeray the art of saying a thing without saying it. Thus
he may say that a man drinks too much, yet it may be false
to say that he drinks.' What he did was not to say that a man
had arrived at such and such a state, but rather that things
must change. If, as Chesterton says, Miss Smith finds
marriage the reverse of the honeymoon, Thackeray does not
say that the marriage is a failure, but that joy cannot last for
ever; that if there are roses there are also thorns. I t is an
admirable method, far better than saying a thing straight out.
I t is better to tell a man who is a cad that there is such a
thing as being a gentleman, than to tell him he is a cad.
In his later life Thackeray was inclined to imitate himself.
It is, I think, that the human brain is prone to move in circles.
In the case of Thackeray, as our cri
ic points out, in later days
he used his rambling style, and, as was to be expected, he rather
lost himself. 'He did not merely get into a parenthesis, he
never got out of it,' which is to say that as Thackeray got
older he inherited the tendencies of old age.
I have said earlier in this chapter that the charge against
Thackeray of cynicism was one that was founded on a false
premise. The charge that his irrelevancy was a weakness is
based on another false but popular premise, that the direct
method is always the best. It is usually the worst. It is the
worst in warfare, it is the worst in literature, but it is possibly
the best in literary criticism.
Thackeray had another quality that has laid him open to
adverse criticism; that is, his 'perpetual reference to the
remote past.' This repeated reference to the past maybe a
matter of conceit, or it may be that the influence of the past
is genuinely felt. The reason that, as Chesterton points out,
Thackeray referred so much to the remote past, was that he
wished it to be known that' there was nothing new under
the sun'; not even, as our critic says, 'the sunstroke.' Ches-
terton admits that at times Thackeray carried this tendency
to an excess; also Thackeray wanted to show that the oldest
thing in the world was its youth. Thus in writing of a
fashionable drawing-room in Mayfair, if he referred to some
classic, it was to ' remind people how many dlhutantes had
come out since the age of Horace.' It was quite a different
G. K. CHESTERTON
thing to the pompous bishop quoting Greek at the squire's
house to show that his doctor's degree, though an honorary
one, had some classical learning behind it, or the small boy
translating Horace to avoid the headmaster's cane. In the
case of the bishop and the schoolboy, the use of the classics
is, on the one hand, pomposity; on the other, discretion. In
the case of Thackeray it was a reverence for the past, that
it was a very large part of the present.
There are, then, roughly three main characteristics of
Thackeray: his irrelevancy, his rambling style, and his
frequent reference to the past. All these, Chesterton makes
it clear, are matters in which the strength of Thackeray lies.
Not that they are free always from exaggerations. Sometimes
Thackeray became lost in his irrelevancy, sometimes he
became almost unintelligible in his rambling style, now and
then his use of ancient quotation became irritating. 'Above
all things, Thackeray was receptive. The world imposed on
Thackeray, and Dickens imposed on the world.' But it
could not be put more truly than that Thackeray represents, in
that gigantic parody caned genius, the spirit of the English-
man in repose. 'This spirit is the idle embodiment of all of
us; by his weakness we shall fail, and by his enormous sani-
ties we shall endure.' This is the crux of the matter which
Chesterton brings out, that the weaknesses of Thackeray are
his strength. He loved liberty, not because it meant restraint
from law, but because he 'was a novelist'; he was open to
all the influences round him, not because he had no stand-
point, but because he could see merit in selection; he had
an open mind, but knew when to shut it.
The passages selected from the various works have been
chosen with care. It was evidently by no means an easy task.
The passage chosen to show Colonel Newcome in the' Cave
of Harmony' gives in one poignant incident his character;
the selection from 'Pendennis' does much the same. In
the passage from' Esmond' the story of the duel is a fine
selection; the chapter on 'Some Country Snobs' is an apt
choosing; the celebrated' Essay on George IV' demonstrates
Thackeray in a very different mood. The' Fall of Becky
Sharp,' taken from 'Vanity Fair,' has not been included
Of Thackeray's poems, Chesterton has included the most
significant, and not without due 'The Cane-Bottomed
Chair' finds a prominent place.
Enough has been said to show that Chesterton is not a
critic of Thackeray who has no discrimination in choosing
from his works. He knows what Thackeray was, wherein
la y his strength and weakness. He has added a worthy com-
panion to his fuller works on Browning and Dickens.
I T will be convenient for our purpose to adhere as closely
as possible to the order of Chesterton's book. It is a
hard task to do justice to Browning even in a long book;
the task is not simplified when, in a chapter, it is hoped to
give a criticism of an intricate criticism of Browning.
There are two ways to approach such a task: The first is to
take the book as a whole and write a review of it, which is a
method liable to a superficiality; the second is to take such a
work chapter by chapter, and to piece the various criticisms
into an ordered whole. This I have attempted to do. I make
no attempt to criticize the method of Chesterton's approach
to Browning, or his combination of the effect of his life on
his work; rather I wish to take what the critic says and
comment on his remarks.
There is undoubtedly a fundamental difference between
Browning and Dickens which is at once clear to any critic
of these two writers. Dickens was, as I have said in an
earlier chapter, born at the psychological moment. Browning
happened to be born early in the nineteenth century. I
cannot see that it would have mattered had he been born
at the beginning of the twentieth. His early life, unlike
Dickens, was normal, but it did not affect Browning ad-
versely. Had Dicken's life been uneventful, I think it not
improbable that his literary output would have been common-
place instead of, as nearly as possible, divine.
There is no particular account of Browning's family,
which was probably a typical middle-class family, which is to
say that they were, like many thousands of their kind, lovers
of the normal-a very good reason why later Browning should
have acquired a love for the grotesque, which many people
quite wrongly define as the abnormal.
The grotesque is a queer psychological state of mind; the
abnormal is an extreme kind of individualism that is probably
insane, provided the opposite is sane.
What is important, as Chesterton feels, is that we shall
get some account of Browning's home. It is in the home
that we can usually detect the embryo of future activity.
The germ, although sometimes hidden, is nevertheless there,
which is exactly why the commonplace home life of a genius,
before the public has discovered the fact, is interesting.
To quote our critic: ' Browning was a thoroughly typical
Englishman of the middle class,' and he remained so through
his Ii few
But this middle-class Englishman walking through the
streets of Camberwell, as the boys played in the gutters, was
Browning, not then the master poet of the Victorian Era,
but the young man who could' pass a bookstall and find no
thrill in beholding on a placard the name of Shelley. '
Browning found his early life in an age' of inspired office
boys,' an age that emerged from the shadow of the French
Revolution, that extreme method of optimism which Ches-
terton believes no Englishman can understand, not even
Carlyle himself: It was an optimism that was so, because it
held that man was worthy of liberty, which is to say that no
man is by his nature ever meant to be a slave.
While Browning was living his daily life in Camberwell,
Dickens was existing in the blacking factory; yet again it
was an age of the beginning of intellectual giants.
The Chestertonian standpoint with regard to the early
days of Browning is interesting. It is a ready acknowledgment
of the poetic instinct that was being slowly but surely nur-
tured in the heart of the unknown young man of Camberwell.
I t is in this early period of his life that Browning attempts
what Chesterton rightly describes as the most difficult of
G. K. CHESTERTON
literary propositions, that of writing a good political play.
This Browning essayed to do, and wrote' Strafford,' a play
that dealt with that most controversial part of history, the
time when kings could be executed in Whitehall under the
shadow of their own Parliament.
For our critic, Strafford was one of the greatest men ever
born with the sacred name of England on his brow. The play
was not a gigantic success, it was not a failure; it was, as was
to be expected, popular with a limited public, which is very
often one of the surest criterions of merit in a book or play.
The success of the play was sufficient to assure the public
that Browning had brains and, what was more unusual,
could put them to a good advantage.
Browning became then 'a detached and eccentric per-
sonality who had arisen on the outskirts; the world began to
be conscious of him at this time.'
In 1840 our critic tells us 'Sordello' was published. It
was a poem that caused people to wonder whether it was
really deep, or merely pure nonsense, a distinction some
people cannot ever discover in regard to Browning.
Of this poem, its unique reception by the literary world
lies in the fact' that it was fashionable to boast of not under-
standing,' which, as I have said, was an indication that it
might be termed extremely clever or extremely stupid. It
was not a poem, as has been held by some critics, that was a
piece of intellectual vanity. Browning was far too great a
man to stoop down to such mere banal conceit. The poem was
a very different thing. It was a creature created by the ob-
scurity of Browning's mind, which, as Chesterton thinks, was
the natural reaction for a genius, born in a villa street in
What is the explanation of this poem? What is its meaning?
Wherein lies its soul? These are questions every lover of
Browning has constantly to ask. Our critic supplies an
answer, an answer that is original, and is, I think, true-the
poem is an epic on 'the horror of great darkness,' that
darkness that strangely enough seems to attack the young
more frequently than the old.
That which is levelled against Browning, his obscurity, is
a very bulwark protecting a subtle and clear mind. This is
specially so with a poet who probably of all men so lives in
his own poetic world that he forgets his ideas, though clear
to himself, are vague to the world occupied with conven-
The real difficulty of ' Sordello ' lies in the fact that it is
written about an obscure piece of Italian history of which
Browning happened to have knowledge-the struggles of
mediæval Italy. This obscurity is not studied, as in the case
of academic distinction; it is natural. The obscurity of many
of the passages of St. John's Gospel is natural because the
mind of St. John dwelt on the 'depths,' as did Browning's
dwell on the grotesque. The result is the same. Each needs
an interpreter, each has an abundance of the richest philo-
sophy, each has an imprint of the Finger of God.
With all the controversy it has caused, , Sordello ' has had
no great influence on Browningites; its name has passed into
almost contempt. Chesterton has done much to give the
true meaning of this strange work. With his next poem
Browning spoke with a voice that, as our critic says, proved
that he had found that he was not Robinson Crusoe, which
is to say that he had found that the world contained a great
number of people. Despite the 1,500 millions amongst
whom we 'live and move and have our being' we are apt to
think that we alone are important, which is not conceit but a
mere proposition demonstrating that man is a universe in
himself while being but an infinitesimal part of the universe.
'Pippa Passes' is a poem which expresses a love of hu-
manity; it is an epic of unconscious influence which, no
doubt, Browning felt was the key to all that is best and noble
in human activity. 'The whole idea of the poem lies in the
fact that" Pippa Passes" is utterly remote from the grand
folk whose lives she troubles and transforms.'
G. K. CHESTERTON
Browning's poetry in the poetical sense was now nearing
its zenith. The' Dramatic Lyrics' were published in 1842,
possibly about the time that Dickens was returning from his
triun1phant i\.merican tour. These showed, Chesterton
thinks, the two qualities most often denied to Browning,
passion and beauty. They are the contradiction to critics, other
than ours, who regard Browning as wholly a philosophic
poet, which is to say a poet who wrote poetry not for its own
sake but for purely utilitarian purpose; not that poetry of the
emotions is not useful-it is on a different plane.
The poems were those that' represent the arrival of the
real Browning of literary history'; for in these he discovered
what was, for Chesterton, Browning's finest achievelnent,
his dramatic lyrical poems.
Critics have said that Browning's poetry jacks passion and
the most poignant emotion of human nature, love. Chester-
ton, on the other hand, considers that Browning was the
finest love poet of the world. It is real love poetry, because
it talks about real people, not ideals; it does not muse of the
Prince Charming meeting the Fairy Princess, and forget the
devoted wife meeting her husband on the villa doorstep with
open arms and a nice dinner in the parlour. Sentiment must
be based on reality if it is to have worth. This is the strong
point, for our critic, of Browning's love poetry.
The next work of ilnportance that came from Browning's
pen was the' Return of the Druses,' which shows Browning's
interest in the strange religions of the East, that queer phan-
tastic part of the world that gave birth to a Western religion
which has transformed the \Vest, leaving the East to gaze afar
off. This poen1 is, for Chesterton, a psychological one. I t is
an attempt to give an account of a human being; perhaps the
most difficult task in the world, because it can never hope to
solve all sides of the question. The central character of this
splendid poem is one 'Djubal,' a queer mixture of the
virtues of the Deity with the vices of Humanity. He is for
Browning the first of a series of characters on which he
displays his wonderful powers of apologizing for apparently
He attempted, to quote our critic, , to seek out the sinners
whom even sinncrs cast out,' which Christ always did, and
which His Church does not always do.
Again Browning turned his hand to writing plays, but he
was always a ' neglected dramatist' in the sense that he had
to push his plays; his plays did not push him.
His next play, , A Blot on the "Scutcheon," , is chiefly
interesting, as it was the occasion of a quarrel between its
author and that most eccentric of theatrical personalities,
Macready. The quarrel was, our critic points out, a matter
of money. But Browning failed to see this; he was a man
of the world in his poems, but not in his life.
It is interesting here to see what our critic says of Browning
about this period before we consider the question of his
marriage. 'There were people who caned Browning a snob.
He was fond of wealth and fond of society; he admired them
as the child who comes in from the desert. He bore the same
relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the
Pharisee-something frightfully close and similar and yet an
It has been left for Chesterton to give the truest definition
of a Pharisee that has yet been penned, becausc it is exactly
what every man feels but has never expressed in so brilliant
That Browning had faults Chesterton would be the last to
deny. Faults are as rnuch a part of a great man as virtues. The
more pronounced the fault, the more exquisite is the virtue,
especially in a man of the character of Browning, a character
that had a certain 'uncontrollable brutality of speech,' to-
gether with a profound and unaffected respect for other
Chesterton's chapter on Browning and his marriage is one
of the most homely chapters of the book; it gives the lie to
G. K. CHESTERTON
those critics who have glibly said that he has no way in which
to reach our hearts or cause a lump in our throats.
The very method of describing how a great man wooed a
great woman, how the two loved, married, and disagreed upon
certain matters, is one that has an essential appeal to the heart.
The exquisite description of the effect of the death of his wife
on Browning is pathetic by its very simplicity.
It is enough to say that Browning's marriage was a success-
ful one, which is not to say that it was entirely free from
certain disagreements. The domestic relations of great writers
and poets have not always been of the rosiest. Swift did not
make an ideal marriage-at least, not on conventional lines.
Milton had a wife who utterly misunderstood that her
husband was a genius. Dickens was not blessed with matri-
monial bliss. Shelley found faith in one woman hard.
But Browning and his wife had no disagreements on their
life interests. They were both poets, though of a different
calibre. What they really did not see eye to eye upon was
something which the human race is still much divided about.
This great point of difference was with regard to spiritualism.
Browning did not dislike spiritualism; he disliked spiritualists.
The difference is tremendous. Unfortunately many of the
interpreters of spiritualism have degraded it into a kind of
blatant necromancy which is in no way dignified or useful.
I t is entirely opposed to proper psychic research.
Miss Barrett had been an invalid. Therefore Browning
feared that spiritualism nlight have a really bad effect on his
wife. (He was sensible to put a stop to it.'
The theory, on the other hand, held by other critics of
Browning than Chesterton was that his dislike of spiri tualism
was fostered by a direct disbelief in immortality, which is as
absurd a statement as is possible to make. Spiritua]ism and
Immortality have no necessary connection whatever, though
to a certain extent Spiritualism is presumed on the belief in
a future life.
But this, as Chesterton points out, was not the reason for
Browning's position; it was entirely that Browning thought
, if he had not interposed when she was becoming hysterical
she might have ended in a lunatic asylum.'
As Browning spent so much of his life in Italy it will be
well to see what our critic considers he thought of that
country under the blue skies jutting on to the blue seas of
, Italy,' says Chesterton, , to Browning and his wife, was
not by any means merely that sculptured and ornate sepulchre
that it is to so many of those cultured Englishmen who live in
Italy and despise it. To them it was a living nation, the type
and centre of the religion and politics of a continent, the
ancient and Raming heart of Western history, the very Europe
Browning's life in Italy was more or less uneventful.
I t consisted of a conventional method-the meeting of
famous Englishmen visiting Italy, the writing of numerous
poems, the pleasant domestic life of a literary genius and his
There was only one thing that could break it, and it came
in 1861. Mrs. Browning died. 'Alone in the room with
Browning. He, closing the door of that room behind him,
closed a door in himself, and none ever saw Browning upon
earth again but only a splendid surface.'
During his wife's life Browning had planned his great
work, that of the' Ring and the Book.' In the meantime
came the death of his wife, and Browning moved on the
earth alone. Of this period of his life, shortly after the death
of Mrs. Browning, Chesterton gives us a clear picture.
, Browning liked social life, he liked the excitement of the
dinner, the exchange of opinions, the pleasant hospitality that
is so much a part of our life. He was a good talker because
he had something to say.'
One of his chief faults, according to our critic, was pre-
judice. Prejudice is probably an unconscious obeying of
G. K. CHESTERTON
instinct; it may even be a warning. Yet it can be and often
is entirely unreasonable.
BrowI;ing's prejudice was, Chesterton thinks, the type that
hated a thing it knew nothing about, a state of mind that is
comparatively harmless. What is dangerous is disliking a
thing when we know what it is. The prejudice of Browning
was synonymous with his profound contempt for certain
things of which he can on} y speak ' in pothouse words.'
About this period Browning produced' Prince Hohenstiel-
Schwangu, Saviour of Society.' This is 'one of the most
picturesque of Browning's apologetic monologues. ' It is
Browning's courageous attempt to allow Napoleon III to
speak for himself. Yet again Browning 'took in those sinners
whom even sinners cast out.'
Two years later, we are told, Browning produced one of his
most characteristic works, 'Night-cap Country.' It is an
elegant poem of the sicklier side of the French Revolution
and the more sensual side of the French temperament.'
This is the period in Browning's life when he produced
his most characteristic work. It was that time when he
was nearly middle aged, when the lamp of youth was just
flickering, and when the lamp of old age was about to be
Chesterton treats the whole of this period with a calm
straightforwardness that we are not accustomed to in his
writings. There is no doubt, I think, of all our critic's books,
that his work on Browning is the least Chestertonian, which
is not in any way to disparage it, but rather to state that the
book lnight have been written by any biographer who knew
Browning's works and had the sense to see that his cha-
ra,cteristics were such that many of his critics were unfair to
him. Chesterton will never allow for an instant that Brown-
ing suffered from anything but an evident 'naturalness,'
which expressed itself in a rugged style, concealing charity
in an original grotesqueness of manner.
It is now convenient to turn to Browning's greatest work,
'The Ring and the Book,' and see what Chesterton has to
say about it.
. Rumour is really distorted truth, or rather very often
originates from a different standpoint being taken of the same
thing. Thus a man may say that another man is a good
fellow but borrows money too often; another may say of the
same man he is a good fellow but talks too much; a third that
he is a good fellow but would be better without a moustache.
The essential man is the same, but his three critics make
really a different person, or, at least, each sees him from a
As Chesterton so finely points out, the conception of (The
Ring and the Book ' is the studying of a single matter from
nine different standpoints. In successive monologues Brown-
ing is endeavouring to depict the various strange ways a fact
gets itself presented to the world.
Further, the work indicates the extraordinary lack of logic
used by those who would be ashamed to be denied the name
of dialectician. Probably, thinks Chesterton, very many
people do harm in their cause, not by want of propaganda,
but by the fallaciousness of their arguments for it.
There have been critics who have denied to this work the
right of immortality. Chesterton is not one of these; rather he
contends such a criticism is a gross misunderstanding of the
work. F or our critic the greatness of this poem is the very
point upon which it is attacked, that of environment. For
once and all Browning has demonstrated that there are riches
and depths in small things that are often denied to what we
think is greater.
, It is an epic round a sordid police court case.' , The
essence of "The Ring and the Book" is that it is the great
epic of the nineteenth century, because it is the great epic of
the importance of small things.' Browning says, , I will show
you the relation of man to heaven by telling you a story out
of a dirty Italian book of criminal trials, from which I select
one of the meanest and most completely forgotten.'
G. K. CHESTERTON
I t is then that Chesterton sees that this poem is more than
a mere poem; it is a natural acknowledgment of the monarchy
of small things, the same idea that made Dickens believe that
common men could be kings-that is, in the same category as
the Divine care of the hairs of the head. It gives the lie to
the rather popular fallacy that events are important by their
size. It is once more a position that the stone on the hillside
is as mighty as the mountain of which it is only a small part.
Again, 'The Ring and the Book' is an embodiment of the
spiritual in the material, the good that can be contained in a
sordid story; it is the typical epic of our age, 'because it
expresses the richness of life by taking as a text a poor story.
It pays to existence the highest of all possible compliments,
the great compliment of selecting from it almost at random.'
There is a second respect, he feels, which makes this poem
the epic of the age. It is that every man has a point of view.
And, what is more, every man probably has a different point
of view at least in something.
, The Ring and the Book,' to sum up brieRy why Chester-
ton thinks so highly of it, is an epic; it is a national ex-
pression of a characteristic love of small things, the germina-
tion of great truths; it pays a compliment to humanity by
asserting the value of every opinion, it demonstrates that even
in so sordid a thing as a police court there is a spiritual spark;
in a word, it is an attempt to see God, not on the hill-tops or
in the valleys, but in the back streets teeming with common
I t is now time to turn to two qualities of Browning that
are full of the deepest interest, and which are dealt with by
Chesterton with the greatest skill and judgment. These two
qualities may be described as Browning as a literary artist
and Browning as a philosopher. For our purpose it will be
useful to take Browning as a literary artist first and see what
was his position. Philosophy is usually in the nature of a
summing up. The philosophy of a poet is best looked at
when the poet has been studied; therefore it is best to follow
Chesterton's order and take Browning's philosophical position
at the end of this chapter.
He feels that in some ways the critics want Browning to
be poet and logician, and are rather cross when he is either.
They want him to be a poet and are annoyed that he is a
logician; they want him to be a logician and are annoyed
that he is a poet. The fact of the matter is he was probably
Chesterton is convinced that Browning was a literary
artist-that is to say, he was a symbolist. The wealth of
Browning's poetry depends on arrangement of language. It
is so with all great literature: it is not so much what is said
as how it is said, in what way the sentences are formed so
that the climax comes in the right place.
For all practical purposes Browning was, our critic thinks,
a deliberate artist. The suggestion that Browning cared
nothing for form is for Chesterton a monstrous assertion. It
is as absurd as saying that Napoleon cared nothing for
feminine love or that Nero hated mushroon1s. What
Browning did was always to fall into a different kind of form,
which is a totally different thing to saying he disregarded it.
There is rather an assun1ption among a certain class of
critics that the artistic form is a quality that is finite. As a
matter of fact, it is infinite; it cannot be bound up with any
particular mode of expression; it is elastic, and so elastic that
certain critics cannot adjust their minds to such lucidity.
There is, our critic feels, another suggestion-that if
Browning had a form, it was a bad one. This really does not
matter very much. Whether form in an artistic sense is good
or bad can only be determined by setting up a criterion; this
is not possible in the case of Browning, because, though he has
many forms, they are original ones, which render them
impervious to values of good and bad.
Chesterton is naturally aware that Browning wrote a great
deal of bad poetry-every poet does. The way to take with
Browning's bad poetry is not to condemn him for it, but to
G. K. CHESTERTON
say quite frankly this poem or that poem was a failure. It is
by his masterpieces that Browning must be judged.
Perhaps, as he points out, the peculiar characteristic of
Browning's art lay in his use of the grotesque, which, as I
said at the beginning of this chapter, is a totally different
thing from the abnormal.
In other words, Browning was rugged. It was as natural
for him to be rugged as for Ruskin to be polished, for Swift
to be cynical (in an optimistic sense), for Chesterton to be
paradoxical. Ruggedness is a form of beauty, but it is a beauty
that is quite different from the commonly accepted grounds.
A mountain is rugged and it is beautiful, a woman is beautiful;
but the two features of the æsthetic are quite different. It is
the same with poetry. There is (and Browning proved it) a
, beautifulness' in the rugged; it is a sense of being' beauti-
Enough has been said to make it quite dear that Browning
was a literary artist; but, as Chesterton contends, an original
one. He did not confine himself to anyone form: his beauty
lay in the placing of the 'rugged' before his readers, the
method he used of employing the grotesque.
I t is now an excellent time in which to look at Browning's
philosophy and Chesterton's interpretation of it.
As it is perfectly true to say that every man has a point of
view, a position so admirably brought out by Browning in his
, Ring and the Book,' so it is also, I think, a truism that every
man has (not always consciously) a philosophy. A philosophy
is, after all, a point of view; it is not necessarily an abstract
academic position; nor is it always a well-defined attempt to
discover the ultimate purpose of things. It can be, and very
often is, a point of view really acquired by experience.
Naturally a man of the intellect of Browning would have
a philosophy, and he had, as our critic points out, a very
In his quaint way Chesterton tells us 'Browning had
opinions as he had a dress suit or a vote for Parliament.' And
he had no hesitation in expressing these opinions. There was
no reason why he should; at least part of his philosophy, as I
have indicated, lay in his knowledge of the value of men's
opinions-yet again brought out in 'The Ring and the
He had, so we are told, two great theories of the universe:
the first, the hope that lies in man, imperfect as he is; the
second, a bold position that has offended many people but is
nevertheless at least a reasonable one, that God is in some way
imperfect; that is, in some obscure way He could be made
This is, no doubt, a highly unorthodox position. Yet it is
a position that thousands have felt does m3.ke it plainer (as it
did to Browning)-the necessity of the Crucifixion; it was a
pandering to Divine jealousy.
These are, as Chesterton admits, great thoughts, and, as
such, are liable to be disliked by those Christians and others
who will not think and dislike anyone else doing so.
This strange theological position of Browning is, I think,
indicated in ' Saul.'
Chesterton usually does not agree with the other critics
about most things, but he does at least agree in regard to the
fact that Browning was an optimist. His theory of the use of
men, though imperfect, is as good an argument for optimism
as could well be found. Browning's optimism was, as our
critic says, founded on experience, it was not a mere theory
that had nothing practical behind it.
As I have said, Browning disliked Spiritualists; but that is
not, our critic thinks, the reason he wrote 'Sludge the
Medium.' What this poem showed was that Spiritualism
could be of use in spite of insincere mediums. It was in no
way an attack on the tenets of Spiritualism.
The understanding of this poem gives the key to other
poems of Browning's, as 'Bishop Blougram's Apology,' and
some of the monologues in 'The Ring and the Book';
G. K. CHESTERTON
which is, that' a man cannot help telling some truth, even
when he sets out to tell lies.'
This may be the right interpretation of these poems, but
I think Browning really meant that there is an end some-
where to lying; in other words, lying is negative and tem-
porary; truth is posi ti ve and eternal.
The summing up of Browning's knaves cannot be better
expressed than by Chesterton. 'They are real sOlnewhere.
We are talking to a garrulous and peevish sneak; we are
watching the play of his paltry features, his evasive eyes
and babbling lips. And suddenly the face begins to change and
harden, the eyes glare like the eyes of a mask, the whole face
of clay becomes a common mouthpiece, and the voice that
comes forth is the voice of God uttering his everlasting
] . ] , ..
so 1 oquy.
I t is the essence of Browning; it is the certainty that
however far distant there is the face of God behind the
If there is one characteristic about this study of Browning
it lies in the fact that it is a very clear exposition of a remark-
able poet. A man might take up the book knowing Browning
only as a name; he might well lay it down knowing what
Browning was, what he achieved, what his essence was. The
book is a n1asterly study-it Jays claim to our sympathies;
and never more so than when our critic describes that
moment when Browning, alone in the room, saw his wife die.
CHESTERTON AS HISTORIAN
T HE reason that Chesterton has written a history of
England is that he says no member of the public has
ever done so before. This is a thing to be supremely
thankful for if true; but it is entirely untrue, for the very
obvious fact that history has never been written by anyone
who is not a member of the public. Every historian is a
member of the public. Let him imagine he is not, let him
carry this imagination out to a logical conclusion, and he
will have a good chance of landing in a prison for failing
to pay the king's taxes.
The very best people to write histories are historians, but
they will never deal with history in a popular way. This
Chesterton laments. He wants a history that shall be about
the things that never ordinarily get into history. If he is
told about the charters of the barons, he wishes to hear of
the charters of the carpenters. This, he thinks, would make
history popular, that word which is always used to denote
something rather slight and superficial. He exclaims that
the people are ignored, whereas the historian really would
not be one at all if he was guilty of this charge.
The fact of the matter is) that the whole of the history of
England has been so misunderstood that Chesterton has
come to the rescue and has told us what really happened-in
fact, all we learnt at school was waste of time; poor Green
really wrote an anti-history of this country. The Romans
are not of the remote past; the whole of present-day England
is the remains of Rome, which is merely to say that our
civilization comes down from Rome, a statement that quite
G. K. CHESTERTON
able historians have hinted at now and again. No one for
an instant is so foolish as to think that the chief remains of
the Romans consist of the few broken-up baths and villas
up and down the country, when a splendid high road stares
them in the face.
Chesterton pays enormous attention to the Middle Ages.
They have, he thinks, been rather badly dealt with by
historians. Too much attention is, he contends, paid to the
time of the Stuarts onwards. Chesterton asks us to con-
template history as we should if we had never learnt it
at school. It is, of course, true that we do not learn the
essentials of our country in our schoolda ys. It is of no real
importance that William conquered Harold in 1066, but it
is of vast importance to know how he behaved as a con-
queror, a fact seldom taught. But if we forgot all the history
we ever knew, we should not be able to appreciate Chester-
ton's history, which aims to reconstruct all that we had
believed while pouring over Green in the fifth form.
Chesterton covers so much ground in this book, his treat-
ment is so intricate, his method so full of various peculiar
contentions, that the only possible method in a chapter is to
take some of the more important points he touches upon and
try and discover what he feels about them. It will be well to
realize at once that however he may differ from recognized
historians, his history loses all its meaning unless the standard
historians are known fairly well.
There are probably two tremendous turning points in
history-the one occurred at the moment that the fatal arrow
entered the eye of Harold at Senlac, the other when Henry
VIII set fire to the ecclesiastical faggots that ended in the
Reformation. That period which lay between them may
roughly be called the Middle i\.ges, which part of history
Chesterton thinks has been badly treated. Whether this is
so is a question that opens up a broader one: Has the history
of England ever received the attention it deserves? Has right
proportion been given to the most important events? Should
history be made popular in the modern sense of this much
misinterpreted word? These are questions to which no
adequate answer can be given in the space of a chapter, nor
is it within the scope of this book.
Chesterton is very annoyed to find that to possess Norman
blood is, to many people, a hall mark of aristocracy: 'This
fashionable fancy misses what is best in the Normans.' What
he contends, añd I think rightly, is that William was a
conqueror until he had conquered. Then England passed
out of his hands. He had wished it to be an autocracy;
instead, it developed into a monarchy-' William the Con-
queror became William the Conquered.' This is a line that
the ordinary historians do not appear to take, though I fancy
they imply it when they say that feudalism didn't exist in
the time of the Georges.
Perhaps one of the most picturesque parts of history is that
time when men looked across the sea and saw in the far
distance a huge cross that seemed to beckon as the voices
later called to Joan of Arc. The Crusades were a time when
wars were holy because they were waged for a holy thing.
Six hundred years, so Chesterton tells us, had elapsed since
Christianity had arisen and covered the world like a dust-
storm, when there arose 'a copy and a contrary: the creed
of the Moslems'; in a sense Islam was 'like a Christian
heresy.' Historians, so he thinks, have not understood the
Crusades. They have taken them to be aristocratic ex-
peditions with a Cross as the prey instead of a deer, whereas
really they were' unanimous risings.' 'The Holy Land was
much nearer to a plain man's house than Westminster, and
immeasurably nearer than Runnymede.' But I am not sure
that Chesterton has scored over the orthodox historians who
made a good deal out of the fact that Crusade had a close
affinity to Crux, which word meant a cross that was not
necessarily bound up with Calvary.
G. K. CHESTERTON
In dealing with the Middle Ages, he propounds the pro-
position that the best way to understand history is to read
it backwards-that is, if we are to understand the Magna
Charta we must be on speaking terms with lVlary. 'If we
really want to know what was strongest in the twelfth
century, it is no bad way to ask what remained of it in the
fourteenth.' This is a very excellent method, as it demon-
strates what were the historical events and what were the
mere local and temporary.
Becket was one of those queer people of history who was
half a priest and half a statesman, and he had to deal with a
king who was half a king and half a tyrant. Every schoolboy
knows about Becket, and delights to read of the wild ride
to Canterbury, which began with the spilling of Becket's
brains and ended with the spilling of the King's blood by
For Chesterton, Becket' may have been too idealistic:
he wished to protect the Church as a sort of earthly paradise,
of which the rules might seem to him as paternal as those of
heaven, but might well seem to the king as capricious as those
of Fairyland.' The tremendously suggestive thing of the
whole story of Becket is that Henry II submitted to being
thrashed at Becket's tomb. It was like' Cecil Rhodes sub-
mi tting to be horsewhipped by a Boer as an apology for
some indefensible death incidental to the Jameson Raid.'
Undoubtedly Chesterton has got at the kernel of the story
that made an Archbishop a saint (a rare occurrence) and an
English king a sportsman (a rarer occurrence).
But clever as Chesterton is in regard to this particular
story, the ordinary schoolboy would do better to stick to the
common tale of Becket that came on the hasty words spoken
by a hasty king; he will better understand the significance of
the whipping of the king when he can read history back to
the days when kings could not only not be whipped, but
could whip whom they chose, and put men's eyes out when
they used them to shoot at the king's deer.
A great part of the Middle Ages is concerned with the
French wars, those wars that staggered the English exchequer
and made the English kings leaders of armies. The reason
of these wars was, Chesterton tells us, the fact that Chris-
tiani ty was a very local thing. I twas more-i t was a national
thing that was bound up with England. 'Men began to feel
that foreigners did not eat or drink like Christians,' which is
to say that the Englishman began his contempt for the foreigner
which has resulted in nearly all our wars, and has made the
Englishman abroad a supercilious creature, and has made the
English schoolboy put his tongue out at the French master.
The French wars were something more than a national
hatred, they were a national dislike of foreigners, a dislike
that had its probable origin in the Tower of Babel. But this
was not the only reason of the incessant French wars-there
was a question of policy. France began to be a nation, and
'a true patriotic applause hailed the later victory of Agin-
court.' France had become something more than a nation;
it had become a religion, because it had as its figure a simple
girl who believed in voices, and took her part in the struggles
of a defeated country.
Chesterton's chapter is a fine understanding of the French
wars; it is an amplification of the mere skeletons of ordinary
history, and as such is very valuable.
From being a reasonable national dislike, the French wars
'gradually grew to be aln10st as much a scourge to England
as they were to France.' 'England was despoiled by her own
victories; luxury and poverty increased at the extremes of
society, and the balance of the better mediævalism was lost.'
It resulted in the revolt connected with Wat Tyler, a revolt
that' was not only dramatic but was domestic'; it ended in
the death of Tyler and the intervention of the boy king, who,
in swaying the multitude that was a dangerous mob, 'gives
us a Reeting and final glimpse of the crowned sacramental
man of the Middle Ages.'
From this period Chesterton tells us that a rather strange
G. K. CHESTERTON
thing happened-men began to fight for the crown. The Wars
of the Roses was the result. The English rose was then
the symbol of party, as ever since it has been the symbol of
an English summer.
Chesterton makes no attempt to follow the difficult path
that the Wars of the Roses travel, fron1 the military stand-
point, nor the adventures that followed the king-maker
Warwick and the warlike widow of Henry V, one Mar-
garet. There was, so he says, a moral difference in this
conflict that took the name of a Rose to fight for a Crown.
, Lancaster stood, as a whole, for the new notion of a king
propped by parliaments and powerful bishops; and York,
on the whole, for the remains of the older idea of a king who
permits nothing to come between him and his people. This is
everything of permanent political interest that could be traced
by counting all the bows of Barnet or all the lances of
The time when the Middle Ages was drawing near to the
Tudors is interesting, because of the riddle of Richard I I 1.
Chesterton's description of this strange king is full of fascina-
tion if also it is full of truth: 'He was not an ogre shedding
rivers of blood, yet a crimson cloud cannot be dispelled from
his memory. Whether or not he was a good man, he was
apparently a good king, and even a popular one. He antici-
pated the Renaissance in an abnormal enthusiasm for art and
music, and he seems to have held to the old paths of religion
He was indeed, as Chesterton says, the last of the mediæval
kings, and he died hard; his blood Rowed over an England
that did not know what loyalty was, a country that had
nobles who would fly from their king on the first sign of
danger; the Last Post of the old kings was sounding, and
Richard answered its challenge. His description of this
remarkable king is perhaps the best thing in the book,
and is certainly far better than the ordinary history that
attempts to give the character of a king in a couple of lines.
With the end of the mediæval kings we pass to a period
that is none other than the Renaissance, one of the most
important epochs in English history, 'that great dawn of a
more rational daylight which for so many made mediævalism
seem a mere darkness.'
The character of Henry VIII is one that is a veritable
battleground. He is attacked because he found a variety of
wives pleasing; he is condoned as a young man who promised
to be a great king. There are, as Chesterton points out,
two great things that intruded into his reign: the one was
the difficulty of his marriages, the other was the question
of the monasteries. If Henry was a Bluebeard, he was such
because his wives were not a fortunate selection. 'He was
almost as unlucky in his wives as they were in their husband.'
But the one thing that Chesterton feels broke Henry's
honour was the question of his divorce. In doing this he
mistook the friendship of the Pope for something that would
make him go against the position of the Church. 'Henry
sought to lean upon the cushions of Leo and found he had
struck his arm upon the rock of Peter. The result was that
Henry finished with the Papacy in the pious hope that it
had done with him; Henry became head of the Church that
was national, and soon Wolsey fell, to die in a monastery at
But this terrible king 'struck down the noblest of the
Humanists, Thomas More, who died the death of a saint,
gloriously jesting.' The question of the monasteries is one
that is solved by the simple statement that the King wanted
money and the monasteries supplied it. Is there any justifi-
cation for the crimes of Henry ? For Chesterton 'it is un-
practical to discuss whether Froude finds any justification
for Henry's crimes in the desire to create a strong national
monarchy. For whether or not it was desired, it was not
Chesterton in an original way has given a very clear
account of the difficulties of the reign of Henry VI I I, a
G. K. CHESTERTON
reign that had perhaps more influence on English history
than any other, a reign that showed what the licence of an
English monarchy could do and, what is of more importance,
what it could not, a reign that showed that the fall of a great
man could be so precipitate that the significance of it could
not be felt at the time, a reign that showed that the Pope was
something more than the friend of the English throne-he
was in matters of Church discipline its checkmate. This was
the time that England trembled at the devilry of a king and
rejoiced at the sun of a new learning that was slowly dis-
pelling the fog of the Dark Ages
It is usually assumed that Mary was a bad woman because
she burned people who were so unwise as not to be at least
officially Catholics. Historians have applied the word 'bloody'
to her, whereas the better word would be fanatic. 'Her
enemies were wrong about her character,' says Chesterton.
, She was in a limited sense a good woman.' If Chesterton
means she was a good Catho]ic he is right, if the burning of
heretics is a good thing for a Christian Church. But the
fortunate part of the whole affair was that not even burning
could restore the power of the Papacy in England in Mary's
time any more than the arrogance of the Roman Catholics
to-day can restore the Pope to London and unfrock the
Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary was a sincere fanatic, and
like most fanatics was an extremely ignorant woman; con-
sequently she could not see that the fire that burnt Cranmer
also burnt the last hope of England bowing to the Pope of
Rome. I cannot feel that Chesterton has in the least vin-
dicated the character of Mary.
Historians are apt to think that the days of Queen Eliza-
beth were those in which England first realized that she was
great. On the other hand, Chesterton is convinced that it is
in this period that' she first realized that she was small.' The
business of the Armada was to her what Bannockburn was
to the Scots, or Majuba to the Boers-.a victory that astonished
the victors.' The fact of the matter was that Spain realized
after the battle that the victory does not always go to the big
battalions, which the present Kaiser is no doubt writing in
his' Imperial' copybook to-day.
The' magnificance of the Elizabethan times has traces in
mediæval times and far fewer traces in modern times.' 'Her
critics indeed might reasonably say that in replacing the Virgin
Mary by the Virgin Queen, the English reformers merely
exchanged a true virgin for a false one.' If Elizabeth was
crafty it was because it was good she should be so. If she had
not been so, the history of England might have found Philip
of Spain on the English throne and Mary Queen of Scots a
worse menace in England, a menace that by the skill of
Elizabeth developed into a headless corpse. Had Elizabeth
had a different historical background, she n1ight have been
a different Queen; but, as it was, she dealt with it as only a
geni us could who had followed a maniacal Queen who
failed in everything she did.
From the times of Elizabeth, Chesterton moves on to the
age of the Puritans, those rather dull people who have always
been the byword for those who are more popularly known
as Prigs. 'The Puritans were primarily enthusiastic for what
they thought was pure religion. Their great and fundamental
idea was that the mind of man can alone directly deal with
the mind of God. Consequently they were anti-sacramental.'
Not only in ecclesiastical matters, they were in doctrine
Calvinistic-that is, they believed' that men were created to
be lost and saved,' a theological position that makes God a
Person who wastes a lot of valuable time. It was to a large
extent this belief in Calvin that made the Puritans dislike a
sacramental principle; it was, of course, quite unnecessary to
have one. If a man was either lost or saved, the need of any
human meditators was not felt.
I t is, of course, true, as Chesterton says, that 'England
was never Puritan.' Neither was it ever entirely Catholic,
neither has it ever been entirely Protestant. It is one of the
G. K. CHESTERTON
things to be thankful for that men have ever held different
religious opinions. I t would be the greatest mistake if ever the
Church was so misguided as to listen to the cries that come
for unity, a unity that could only be founded on the subordi-
nating of the opinions of the many to the opinion of the few.
I have said at the beginning of this chapter that Chesterton
has said that the Middle Ages have not had the historical
attention they deserve. Whether this is so is a question
that cannot be answered here. What we have to say is
whether this book is a valuable one. There are, of course,
many opinions expressed in it that do not take the usual
historical standpoint, or they have a more original way of
expression. I cannot feel that this book is the best of
Chesterton's works, not because it has not some very sound
opinions expressed in it, but rather because to understand
its import the ordinary histories must be well known.
It is perhaps a matter of an unsuitable title, 'A Short
History of England.' It would have been better to have
called it a ' History of the Histories of England, and the Mis-
takes therein.' It would be no use as an historical book in the
school sense, but as an original book on some of the turning-
points of English history it is valuable. Mr. Chesterton tells
US to read history backwards to understand it. This we may
well do if we have read it as fully forward as he evidently has.
þ; ONGST the many outstanding qualities of Ches-
terton there is one that is pre-eminent-his extraor-
dinary versatility. It cannot be said that this quality
is always an advantage; a too ready versatility is not always
synonymous with valuable work; especially is this so in
literary matters. There are quite a number of writers who,
without success, attempt to be a little of everything. This is
not the case with Chesterton; if he is better as an essayist
than as a historian, he is at least good as the latter; if he is
better at paradox than at concise statements, he can be, if he
chooses, quite free from paradox; ifhe excels in satire of a light
nature, he can also be the most serious of critics if the subject
needs such treatment.
It has often been said that a good prose writer seldom makes
a good poet. This may be to a certain extent a truism; the
opposite is more often the case; that a good poet is quite often
a poor producer of prose. There is a good reason for this: the
mind of a poet is probably of a different calibre to that of a
prose writer; a poet must have a poetical outlook on life and
nature; the tree to him is something more than a tree, it is
probably a symbol, but to a prose writer more often than not a
tree is merely a mass of bark and leaves that adorns the land-
Chesterton has written a great many poems, all of which
can claim to be poetical in the true sense, but he has
only written one really important poetical work. It is a ballad
that is important for two things; firstly, it is about a very
English thing; secondly, the style of the writing is nothing
G. K. CHESTERTON
short of delightful, a statement that is not true of all good
poetry. It has been said that Chesterton might well be the
Poet Laureate; at least, it is a matter for extreme joy that he is
not, not because he is not worth that honour, but because any-
thing that tended to reduce his poetical output would be a
serious thing in these days when good poets are as scarce as
reall y good novelists.
The poem that has established Chesterton for all time
as a poet is the one he has called with true poetical genius
'The Ballad of the White Horse.' There have been many
white horses, but there is The White Horse, and he lies alone
on the side of a hill down Wiltshire way, where he has watched
with a mournful gaze the centuries pass away as the horizon
passes away in a liquid blue.
The White Horse stands for something that year by year
we are forgetting, those quaint old English feasts that have
done so much to make England merry, and have made history
into a beautiful legend that bears the name of Alfred. Yet
the White Horse is falling into neglect. Theauthorof'Tom
Brown's Schooldays' lamented the fact that people Hew past
the White Horse in stuffy first class carriages; were he alive
now he would lament still more that English men and English
women can pass the White Horse without a glance up from
the novel they are reading bound in a Haring yellow cover.
But there is one great Englishman who will never do this, and
that is Chesterton; rather he writes of the White Horse, the
lonely horse that is worthy of this splendid poem.
In connection with the Vale of White Horse there are three
traditions-one, that Alfred fought a great battle there;
another, that he played a harp in the camp of the Danes; a
third, that Alfred proved himself a very bad cook who
wasted a poor woman's cake, a poor woman who would
willingly have sacrificed cakes every day to have the honour
of the king under her roof.
It is of these three traditions that Chesterton writes his
poem. Whether they may be historically accurate does not
much matter; there is no doubt that the Vale had something
to do with the King of Wessex, and popular tradition has made
the name of Alfred a national legend.
When Chesterton writes of the vision of the king he is no
doubt writing of his own vision of the events that led up to the
gathering of the chiefs. The Danes had descended on England
like a cloud of locusts; it was the time that needed a National
Champion, as time and again in the past the Israelites had
needed one. I t is one of the strange things of history that a
champion has always appeared when he was most needed.
The name of the Danes inspired terror; Wessex was
, For earthquake following earthquake
'Uprent the Wessex tree. . .'
The kings of Wessex were weary and disheartened: fire
and pillage had laid the countryside bare with that horrible
bareness that only lies in the wake of conqueror:
, There was not English armour left,
Nor any English thing,
When Alfred came to A thelney
To be an English king."
This was the vision that Alfred had, and he gathered the
disheartened chiefs to his side till, in victory, he could bear the
name of king.
In the wake of national champions there have ever
appeared popular tales demonstrating the human qualities of
these giants; if Napoleon could conquer empires, tradition
has never forgotten that he once pardoned a sentry he found
asleep at his post. If Wellington won the battle of Waterloo
by military genius, so popular hearsay has urged that he com-
manded the Guards to charge' La Grande Armée ' in cockney
terms. Around the almost sacred name of Alfred many and
G. K. CHESTERTON
various are the old wives' tales, among which the story of his
harp is not the least picturesque; it is one on which Ches-
terton expends a good deal of poetic energy.
From the gist of the poem it is evident that Alfred, in the
course of his \vanderings, came near to the White Horse, but
as though for very sorrow-
'The great White Horse was grey.'
Down the hill the Danes came in headlong Right and
carried Alfred off to their camp; his fame as a harpist had
pierced the ears of the invaders:
, And hearing of his harp and skill,
They dragged him to their play.'
'rhe Danes might well laugh at the song of the king, but it
was a laugh that was soon to be turned to weeping when the
king had finished his song:
, And the king with harp on shoulder
Stood up and ceased his song;
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
And the Danes laughed loud and long.'
There is in this poem a pleasant rhythm and a clearness of
meaning that is absent from much good poetry. Chesterton
has caught the wild romantic background of the time when the
King of England could playa harp in the camp of his ene-
mies; when he could, by a note, bring back the disheartened
warriors to renew the fight; when he could be left to look after
the cakes and be scolded when, like the English villages, they
were burnt. One of the most popular of the legends is the one
connected with Alfred and the woman of the forest. It has
made Chesterton write some of his most charming verse.
And Alfred came to the door of a woman's cottage and
there rested, with the promise that in return he would watch
the cakes that they did not burn.
- 'The good food fell upon the ash,
And blackened instantly.'
The woman was naturally annoyed that this unknown
tramp should let her cooking spoil:
'Screaming, the woman caught a cake
Y et burning from the bar,
And struck him suddenly on the face,
Leaving a scarlet scar.'
The scar was on the king's brow, a scar that tens of
thousands should follow to victory:
, A terrible harvest, ten by ten,
As the wrath of the last red autumn-then
When Christ reaps down the king.'
In a preface to this poem, with regard to that part which
deals with the battle of Enthandune, Chesterton says: 'I
fancy that in fact Alfred's Wessex was of very mixed bloods;
I have given a fictitious Roman, Celt, and Saxon a part in the
glory of Enthandune.'
The battle of Enthandune is divided into three parts. The
poetry is specially noticeable for the great harmony of the
words with the subject of the lines; it is one of the great
characteristics of Chesterton's poetry that he uses language
that intimately expresses what he wants to describe. He can,
in a few lines, describe the discipline of an army:
, And when they came to the open land
They wheeled, deployed, and stood.'
I t is perfect poetry concerning the machine-like move-
ments of highly-trained troops.
The death of an earl that occurs in a moment of battle: we
can almost see the blow, the quick change on the face from
life to death; we can almost hear the death gurgle:
, Earl Harold, as in pain,
Strove for a smile, put hand to head, .
Stumbled and suddenly fell dead,
And the small white daisies all waxed red
With blood out of his brain.'
72 G. K. CHESTERTON
Of the tremendous power of a charge, Chesterton can
give us the meaning in two lines that might otherwise take
a page of prose:
, Spears at the charge yelled Mark amain,
, Death to the gods of Death.'
Whether it be to victory or defeat, the last charge grips the
imagination, just as the latest words of a great man are re-
membered long after he has turned to dust. The final charge
of the Old Guard, the remnant of Napoleon's ill-fated army
at Waterloo, the dying words of Nelson, these are the things
that produce great poetry.
Some of the verses describing the last charge at Enthandune
are the finest lines Chesterton has so far written. I t will not be
out of place to quote one or two of the best-the challenge of
Alfred to his followers to make an effort against the dreaded
Danes, at whose very name strong men would pale:
, Brothers-at-arms,' said Alfred,
, On this side lies the foe;
Are slavery and starvation flowers,
That you should pluck them so?'
Or the death of the Danish leader, who would have pierced
Alfred through and through:
, Short time had shaggy Ogier
To pull his lance in line-
He knew King Alfred's axe on high,
He heard it rushing through the sky;
He cowered beneath it with a cry-
It spli t him to the spine;
And Alfred sprang over him dead,
And blew the battle sign. '
The last part of the poem is that which gives an account of
the scouring of the White Horse, in the years of peace:
, When the good king sat at home.'
But through everything the White Horse remained-
'Untouched except by the hand of Nature:
The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
U nwrought the work of man.'
'The Ballad of the White Horse' is in its way one of the
best things Chesterton has done: it is a fine poem about a very
picturesque piece of English legend, which mayor may not
be based on history. Poetry can, and very often does, fulfil a
great patriotic mission in arousing interest in those distant
times when Englishmen, with their backs to the wall, re-
sponded to the cry of Alfred, as they did when, centuries later,
the hordes of Germans attempted to cut the knot of Haig's
For hundreds of years Alfred has been turned to dust, but
the White Horse remains, a perpetual monument to the great
days when England was invaded by the Danes. 'The Ballad of
the White Horse' is a ballad worthy of the immortal horse that
will remain centuries after the author of the poem has passed
out of mortal sight.
In an early volume of light verse Chesterton wrote of the
kind of games that old men with beards would delight in.
, Greybeards at Play' is a delightful set of satirical verses in
which the ardent philosopher confers a favour on Nature by
being on intimate and patronising terms with her.
This dear old philosopher, with grey beard and presumably
long nose and large spectacles, is full of admiration for the
, I love to see the little stars
All dancing to one tune;
I think quite highly of the Sun,
And kindly of the Moon.'
G. K. CHESTERTON
Coming to earth, this same philosopher is full of friendly
relations with America, for- .
'The great Niagara waterfall
Is never shy with me.'
In the same volume Chesterton writes of the spread of
æstheticism, and that the cult of the Soul had a terrible
effect on trade:
, The Shopmen, when their souls were still,
Declined to open shops-
And Cooks recorded frames of mind
In sad and subtle chops.'
In a small volume of poems called ' Wine, Water, and
Song,' we have some of the poems that appear in Chesterton's
novels. They have a delightful air of brilliancy and satire,
about dogs and grocers and that peculiar king of the Jews,
N ebuchadnezzar, who, when he is spoken of by scholars,
alters his name to Nebuchadrezzar. We have but room for
one quotation, and the place of honour must be given to the
epic of the grocer who, like many of other trades, makes a
fortune by giving short weights:
, The Hell-Instructed Grocer
Has a Temple made of Tin,
And the Ruin of good innkeepers
Is loudly urged therein;
But now the sands are running out
F rom sugar of a sort,
The Grocer trembles, for his time,
Just like his weight, is short. '
The hymn that Mr. Chesterton has written, called (0
God of Earth and Altar,' is unfortunately so good and so
entirely sensible that the clergy on the whole have not used
it much; rather they prefer to sing of heaven with a golden
floor and a gate of pearl, ignoring a really fine hymn that
pictures God as a sensible Being and not a Lord Chief Justice
either of sickly sentimentality or of the type of a Judge
I t must be said that to many people who know Chesterton
he is first and foremost an essayist and lastly a poet. The
reason is that he has written comparatively little serious poetry;
this is, I think, rather a pity-not that quantity is always
consistent with quality, but that in some way it may not be
too much to say that Chesterton is the best poet of the day;
and I do not forget that he has as contemporaries Alfred
Noyes and Walter de la Mare.
The strong characteristic of his poetry, as I have said, is the
wealth of language; to this must be added the exceedingly
pleasant rhythm that runs as easily as a well-oiled bicycle. If
Mr. Chesterton is not known to posterity as one of the leading
poets of the twentieth century it will be because his prose
is so well known that his poetry is rather crowded out.
N EARLY eight years ago all literary and dramatic
London focused its eyes on a theatre that was known
as the Little Theatre. On the night of November 7th
the critics might have been seen making their way along John
Street with just the faintest suspicion of mirth in their eyes.
The reason was that the most eccentric genius of the day
had written a play, and it was to be produced that night, and
had the name of MAGIC, a title that might indicate something
that turned princes into wolves, or transported people on
carpets to distant lands, or might be more simply a play that
dealt with Magic in the sense that there really was such a
The play was a success-I could see that it would be at the
moment Mr. Bernard Shaw so forgot himself as to be inter-
ested in something he had not himself written. The Press was
charmed with the play and went so far as to say, with a gross
burlesque of Chesterton, that it was' real phantasy and had
soul.' Chesterton by his one produced play had earned the
right to call himself a dramatic author, who could make the
public shiver and think at the same time, an unusual com-
I rather fancy that Magic is a theological argument, dis-
guised in the form of a play, that relies for its effects on clever
conversation, the moving of pictures, and a mysterious person
who. I?ay have been a conjurer and may have also been a
When I say that the play is really a theological one, I do not
mean to say that it has anything to do with the Thirty-Nine
Articles, the Validity of the Anglican Orders, or even the
truth of the Virgin Birth; rather it is about an indefinable
, something' that is so simple that it is misunderstood by
The play turns upon five people who are thrown together
in a room that has a nasty habit of becoming ghostly at times.
The five people are a doctor who is a scientist, who does
not believe in anything not material being scientific; a vicar
who is a typical clergyman, who thoroughly believes in super-
natural things until they are proved, when he becomes an
agnostic; a young American who is a cad and a fool; a girl
who believes in fairies and goes to Holy Communion, which
is the one thing that depicts she has a certain amount of
sense; a duke who ends every sentence with a quotation from
Tennyson to Bernard Shaw.
These five people are influenced by a Pied Piper kind of
fellow who calls himself a conjurer, and is rather too clever for
Apparently the conjurer has been strolling about the garden
when he meets Patricia, who thinks he can produce fairies. In
due course the conjurer comes into the room, where he has
encounters with the various occupants, who don't believe in his
tricks; the conjurer is unlucky enough to meet the young
American cad Morris Carleon, who is really quite rude to the
conjurer and discovers (so he thinks) all the tricks except one
in which the conjurer turns the red lamp at the doctor's gate
blue. This so worries Morris that he goes up to his room with
a chance of going mad.
The others beseech the conjurer to explain the trick; he
does so, and says it is done by magic, which is the whole point
of the play, that we are left to wonder whether it was by
magic or by a natural phenomenon.
The conjurer gets the better of the parson, the Rev. Cyril
Smith, who believes in a model public house and the Old
Testament, and takes a good stipend for pretending to believe
in the supernatural.
G. K. CHESTERTON
The result of the whole matter is magic, by which we
presume the trick may have been done.
The play is in some ways a difficult one: we are left wonder-
ing whether or not Chesterton believes in magic; if he does,
then the conjurer need not have been so upset that he had
gained so much power of a psychic nature; if he does not, then
the conjurer was a clever fraud or a brilliant hypnotist.
One thing is quite certain, Chesterton brings out the weak-
nesses of the dialectic of the parson and doctor in a remark-
able way; he makes us realise that there are some things we
really know nothing about; if lamps turn blue suddenly it may
quite well be a 'Something' that may be magic and might
be God or Satan; anyhow, it cannot be eXplained by an Ameri-
can young man; it is of the things that the clergy profess to
believe in and very often do not.
It is, I think, undoubtedly a problem play, and I doubt
very much if Chesterton knows what was the agency that
did the trick, but I rather think that 'Magic' is a great play, not
because of the situations, but rather because the more the play
is studied the more difficult is it to say exactly what is the
lesson of it.
Magic is called a phantastic comedy; it might well be
called a phantastic tragedy.
T HERE is perhaps no word in the English language
which is more elastic than the word novel as applied
to what is commonly known as fiction. The word
novel is used to describe stories that are as far apart as the
Poles. Thus it is used to describe a classic by Thackeray or
Dickens, or a clever love tale by Miss Dell, or a brilliantly
outspoken sex tale by Miss Elinor Glyn, or a romance by Miss
Corelli, or a tale of adventure by Joseph Conrad, or a very
modern type of analytical novel by very modern writers who
are a little bit young and a big bit old.
I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that Chesterton
as a novelist carries the art yet a step farther and has added
elasticity to the word. It would, I think, be probably untrue to
say that Chesterton is a popular novelist; he is much too unlike
one to be so. That he is read by a wide public is not the same
thing; he has not the following of the millions that Charles
Garvice had, for the millions who understood him might find
Chesterton difficult. Really Chesterton is read by a select
number of people who would claim to be intellectual; very
up-to-date clergymen rave about his catholicity, high-brow
ladies of smart clubs delight in his knave whimsicalities, but
the girl in the suburban train to Wimbledon passes by on the
One of the characteristic features of Chesterton's novels is
his clever selection of titles that are by their very nature fit to
designate his original works. If in journalism nine-tenths of
the importance of an article depends upon its title, it is equally
true that the title of a novel is of the same import. Either
G. K. CHESTERTON
a title should give some indication of the nature of the book, or
it should beof the kind that makes us want to read it; this is the
case with regard to the Chesterton novels, their designations
are so phantastic that our curiosi ty is aroused. Thus' The Man
who was Thursday' gives no possible explanation of what it is
about, but it does suggest that it is interesting to know about a
man who was Thursday; 'The Flying Inn' may be a forecast
of prohibition or it may be a romance of the time when inns
shall Ry to the ends of the earth; , The Napoleon of N otting
Hill' leads us to suppose that perhaps there was a hidden
history of that part of London, that N otting Hill can boast of
a past that makes it worthy of having been a station on the
first London tube.
It is unsafe to prophesy any limit to the versatility of
Chesterton, but it is improbable that he could write an ordi-
nary novel; the reason is, I fancy, that he cannot write of the
ordina;-v emotions with the ease that he can construct
e situations. This is why I have said that, as a novelist,
Chesterton is not popular in the sense that he is read by the
masses (that word that the Church always uses to indicate
those who form the bulk of the community). As a novelist,
Chesterton stands apart, not because he is better than con-
temporary writers of fiction, but because his books are unlike
those of anyone else.
I have taken Chesterton's most famous novels and have
written a short survey of their character. They are not always
easy to understand-sometimes they seem to indicate al ternati ve
points of view; they teem with pungent wit and shrewd
observations, they are without doubt phantastic, they are in
the true sense clever.
'THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL'
At the time of the publication of this book the critics with
astounding frankness admitted that, while this was a fine book,
they had difficulty in deciphering what it meant. One, now a
well-known Fleet Street editor, went farther, and said that
possibly the author himself did not know what he meant-a
situation in which quite a number of authors have found
themselves, especially when they read the reviews of their
'The Napoleon of Notting Hill' is not an easy book to
understand: it may be a satire, it may be a serious book, it may
be a prophecy, it may be a joke, it may even be a novel! I
think that it is a little bit of a joke, in a degree serious-some-
thing of a satire, possibly a prophecy.
The main thing about the book is that a king is so unwise as
to make a joke, and an 0 bscure poet is more unwise in taking this
Royal joke seriously. Many who have laughed at monarchical
wit have found that their heads had an alarming trick of falling
on Tower Hill.
In' The Napoleon ofNotting Hill' we are living a hundred
years on, and we are to believe that London hasn't much
changed; a certain respectable gentleman has been made a king
for no special reason-a very good way of having a versatile
monarchy and a selection of kings.
Not far off in the kingdom of N otting Hill there resides a
poet who has written poems that no one reads. He is a romantic
youth, and loves Notting Hill with the love of a Roman for
Rome or of a Jew forWhitechapel. The new king, by way of
a joke, suggests that it would be quite a good idea to take
the various parts of London and restore them to a mediæval
dignity; thus' Clapham should have a city guard, Wimbledon
a city wall, Surbiton tolling a bell to raise its citizens.'
It so happens that the obscure poet, Adam Wayne, has
always seen in Notting Hill a glory that her citizens cannot see;
he determines to make the grocers and barbers of that neigh-
bourhood realise their rich inheritance. The new king, for
some reason, desires to possess Pump Street in N otting Hill,
and this gives the poet's dream a chance to mature; and he gets
together a huge army, with himself as Lord High Provost of
Notting HilL There are some frightful battles in the adja-
cent states of Kensington and Bayswater, and, after varying
G. K. CHESTERTON
fortunes, the Notting Hill Army is defeated, the Napoleon
becomes again the poet ofNotting Hill, while his citizens have
developed from grocers to romanticists, from barbers to
That there might be in the future a Napoleon of Notting
Hill is highly improbable, that London will ever return to the
pomp and heraldry of the Middle Ages is not at all likely; but
that in a hundred years N otting Hill will be different is quite
possible. If it is not likely that there will be fights between
Bayswater and Notting Hill, there may at least be battles in
the air unthought of; it may well be that its citizens in times of
peace will take a half-day trip, not to Kew Gardens or to
Hampton Court, but to Bombay and Cape Town.
One of the strangest complications that man has to face is
the criminal mind. It is so complex that no society has ever
understood it; very often it has not taken the trouble to try. No
method of punishment has stamped out the crin1inal; no re-
formers, however ardent, have freed the world from those
who live by violence, kill by violence, and are themselves
killed by violence. If crime is a disease, then to treat criminals
as wrongdoers is absurd. If every murderer is insane, then
hanging is nonsense; if a murderer is sane, then sanity is
capable of being more revolting than insanity.
, Manalive' may, perhaps, be called a philosophy of the
motive for crime; it may be a pseudo philosophy-at least it is
an entertaining one-which cannot be said about all serious
attempts at moulding the universe into a tiresome system, that
is uprooted generally by the next thinker. The book opens
with a very strong gale that ends with the arrival at a boarding
house of a man who can stand on his head and has the name of
Innocent Smith. He is somewhat like the person in the
, Passing of the Third Floor Back,' in that he revolutionizes the
household, who cannot determine whether he is a lunatic or
not; anyhow, he falls in love with the girl of the house.
Unfortunately, rumour-a nasty, ill-natured thing-has it
that Smith is a criminal. Evidence is collected, and a Grand
Jury inquire into the charges, which include Bigamy, Murder,
Polygamy, Burglary. It looks as if Smith is in for a very un-
comfortable time, and the wedding bells are a long way from
The second part of the book is concerned with these
charges and the conduct and motives of Smith. But Chesterton
is a clever barrister, and shows that the motives behind the
'crimes' are not only within the law, but are extremely useful
and throw a new light on criminology.
The crime of murder of which Smith is accused is one that
he is supposed to have perpetrated in his college days. It was
nothing less than firing at the Warden. The reason was not at
all that Smith wanted to murder the Warden, but, rather, to
discover if his theory of 'the elimination of life being de-
sirable' was a sincere one. It was not. As soon as the Professor
thought he might attain the desired bliss of death, he desired
more than anything that he might live. The fact, then, that
Smith pointed a pistol at his Warden was perfectly justifiable;
it had the eminently good principle of wishing to test a theory.
If Smith was a bigamist he was so with his own wife, only
that he happened to like to lIve with her in various places; ifhe
was a burglar, he was perfectly justified, because he merely
robbed his own house-in fact, he does not wish to steal, be-
cause he can covet his own goods. Chesterton, on these
grounds, acquits the prisoner.
At the end of the book another or the same great gale
springs up, and Smith, accompanied by Mary of the boarding-
house, disappears. Clever as Chesterton's explanations of the
crimes are, we shall not probably shoot at the Regius Professor
of Divinity at Cambridge in order to demonstrate to him how
desirable life really is; we shall not burgle our own sitting-room
for the mere excitement of it; we shall not flit with our wife
from Peckham to Marylebone, from Singapore to Bagdad, to
imagine that we are bigamists or polygamists; rather, we shall
G. K. CHESTERTON
sit at home and sigh that all crimes cannot be as easily settled as
those Chesterton propounds and shows are not crimes at all.
'THE BALL AND THE CROSS'
It is usually assumed that a theological argument is a
dull and prosy affair that has as its perpetrators either Pro-
fessors of Theology or Professors of Rationalism. It is, of
course, true that many Professors of Theology are dull, but
they do not usually argue about theology at all. Professors of
Rationalism are equally dull and are seldom happy when not
engaged on the hopeless task of trying to understand God
when they know nothing about Man and little about Satan.
'The Ball and the Cross' is a theological novel. It is, with-
out any doubt, the most brilliant of Chesterton's novels; it is
an argument between a Christian ass and a very decent
atheist. Atheists, if they are sincere, are on the way to be-
coming good Christians; Christians, if they are insincere, are
on the way to becoming atheists.
The book opens with a theological argument in the air
between a professor and a monk. This becomes to the
professor so wearisome that, with great good sense, he leaves
the monk clinging to the cross at the top of St. Paul's
Cathedral while he disappears into the clouds in his silver air-
Having successfully climbed into the gallery, the monk is
arrested as a wandering lunatic and taken off to an asylum.
Meanwhile, a great deal of excitement is agitating Ludgate
Hill, where an atheistic editor runs a paper that propounds
(with all the usual insults at Christ, which culminate in an
attack on the method of the birth of Christ) the creed of
atheism. A particularly slanderous attack on the Virgin
Mary results in an ardent Roman Catholic throwing a stone
through the blasphemer's window.
The result is that they are both brought up before the
magistrate, and the two men decide to fight a duel.
The whole book really, then, consists of a theological
argument between the two, interspersed with attempts to
settle their differences by a duel, which is always interrupted
at the crucial moment. Finally, after queer adventures, the
two arrive in a lunatic asylum, in which they are kept until the
place is burned down. It so happens that the chief doctor of
the place turns out to be Professor Lucifer, who had left the
monk clinging to the Cross at the top of the Cathedral. He is
burnt to death in an airship disaster, and the atheist and the
Catholic end their adventures.
'The Ball and the Cross' is very full of fine passages. It
presents the side of the atheist and the Catholic in a brilliant
manner. The chapter that describes the trial before the
magistrate has got the atmosphere of the police-court to per-
fection. Not less good is the Chestertonian satire of the com-
ments of the Press on the case, in which Chesterton makes
some pungent remarks about Fleet Street' stunts.' Perhaps
one of the best things in the book is the argument between the
French Catholic girl and Turnbull the atheist on the doc-
trine of Transubstantiation. This passage must be quoted;
it is one of the best arguments for the Sacrament that has been
written for those people who can see that (even in these
days) bread is a symbol for the Presence of the Life Giver, and
wine a symbol for the Presence of the Life Force.
, I am sure,' cried Turnbull, 'there is no God.'
'But there is,' said Madeleine quietly; 'why, I touched
His body this morning.'
, You touched a bit of bread,' said Turnbull.
f You think it is only a bit of bread,' said the girl.
'I know it is only a bit of bread,' said Turnbull, with
'Then why did you refuse to eat it?' she said.
If 'Orthodoxy' is the finest of Chesterton's essays,
, Browning' the best of his critical studies, ' The Ballad of the
White Horse' the best of his poems, there is, I think, little
doubt that this strange theological exposition, 'The Ball
G. K. CHESTERTON
and the Cross,' is the best of his novels. I t should be read by
all rationalists, by all self-satisfied Christians, by all heretics,
by those who are orthodox, and, above all, it should be read
by those millions who pass St. Paul's Cathedral and seldom if
ever give a thought to the' Ball and the Cross' that has made
the title of Chesterton's best novel.
'THE FLYING INN'
Chesterton is once more a laughing prophet in this
book, and he has as sad a state of things to prophesy as had
Jeremiah to the Israelites, those people who, ifit were not that
they find a place in the sacred writings, would be the most
silly and futile race of ancient history.
The scene of the story is England, and the last inn is there.
We are to imagine that the non-drinking wine dogma of Islam
has permeated England. It is a sorry state of things when-
'The wicked old women who feel well-bred,
Have turned to a teashop the Saracen's Head.'
The great charm of the book is the poetry that the Irish
captain recites to Pump, the innkeeper, the gallant innkeeper
who, against all opposition, keeps the flag Rying and the
flagon full. If the book is a little overdrawn it is, no doubt,
because the subj ect is slightly farcical; the arguments of the
Oriental are well put, and, if the discussion of the merits of
vegetarianism are a little wearisome, the poetry of a vege-
tarian is splendid:
'For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am at heart a vegetarian.'
Thus, if we observe queer manners at Eustace Miles we
shall know the reason.
No doubt the adventures of the last innkeeper in England
would be wonderful; there would be half-day trips to see him;
bishops would flock to gaze upon the last relic of a pagan
England; the Poet Laureate might so forget himself as to
write an 'Epicof the Last Innkeeper'; editors would be send-
ing lady reporters to give the feminine view of the finish of
drinking; publishers would fall over one another in their
eagerness to secure the' Memoirs of the Last Publican'; the
Salvation Army would put the last drunkard in the British
Museum as a prehistoric specimen; on the death of this
National Hero, the Dean of Westminster would politely offer
the Abbey for a memorial service, with no tickets for the best
Chesterton gives other adventures to this last innkeeper.
He is, we hope, a false prophet for this once. Were there to be
no beer perhaps not even the pen of Chesterton would be able
to describe the scenes that would take place in England.
'THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY'
Anarchy is a very interesting subject and is used to denote
very different things. I t may be something that puts a bullet
through a king with the insane hope of ending the monarchy;
it may be an act of a God-fearing Protestant clergyman when
he attempts to harry the Catholic5 by denying that the crucifix
is the proper symbol of the Christian religion; it may be the
act of God when a village is destroyed by an earthquake or an
island created by a seaquake.
'The Man who was Thursday' is about an anarchist, and
we are not sure whether Chesterton is not pulling our re-
spectable legs and laughing that we really believed the party
of desperadoes were real anarchists. The fact is, the book starts
in a highly respectable suburb that might be anywhere near
London and could not be far from it.
There are two poets strolling about under the canopy of a
lovely sky; one believes in anarchy, the other doesn't-the
one who does invites the one who does not to come with him
and see what anarchy is. This he does, and, after a good supper
of lobster mayonnaise, the two get down to a subterranean
cavern where are assembled half the anarchists of the world,
G. K. CHESTERTON
precisely six; they call themselves by the names of the week,
with a leader, who is met with later, Sunday.
Syme, the visitor, is appointed as a member, and becomes,
Thursday; he has a great many adventures, including breakfast,
overlooking Leicester Square, and gradually discovers that the
said anarchists, unknown at first to each other, are really
Scotland Yard detectives.
The only real anarchist is the poet who believed in it, whose
name is Gregory. He has the pious wish to destroy the world;
he may be Satan, if that person could ever pretend to be a poet.
What does Chesterton mean by this strange weird tale that
is almost like a romance of Oppenheim and is yet like an
old-world allegory? Is he laughing at anarchists that they
are but policemen in disguise? Is he saying that policemen are
really only anarchists? Or does he mean that the Devil
masquerades as the spirit of the Holy Day of the week
'Sunday,' or is 'Sunday' really Christ?
Chesterton calls this novel a nightmare; a nightmare is
usually a muddled kind of thing with no connections at all; it
is a dream turned into a blasphemy. The book may mean
several things; it is quite possible that it may mean nothing;
there is no need for a novel to mean anything so long as it is
readable. 'The Man who was Thursday' certainly is that,
but it leaves us with an uneasy suspicion that it is a very serious
book and at the same time it may be merely a farce.
Space does not permit us to more than mention Chester-
ton's two detective books, 'The Innocence of Father Brown'
and 'The Wisdom of Father Brown.' They are a highly
original series of detective tales. 'The Club of Queer Trades'
is a volume of quaint short stories full of Chesterton's genius.
Since Chesterton wrote these books an event has occurred
to him which may have a considerable effect on his writings.
His novels have always shown a Catholic tendency when they
have touched at all on religion. They have not, of course, the
propagandist setting of the works of Father R. H. Benson,
nor do they have a contempt for other Churches tnat so often
blackens the writings of Roman Catholic apologists.
The event is one that has occasioned the usual mistake in the
Press. They have said with loud emphasis, ' Mr. Chesterton
has joined the Catholic Church.' He has not; there is, un-
fortunately, no Catholic Church that he could have joined;
what he has done is to be received into the Roman part of the
This is a matter of importance to Chesterton; it is a
matter of far greater importance to the Roman Catholics. If
the Roman Church is wise she will not put her ban on Chester-
ton's writings-his intellect is far beyond the ken of the Pope;
his utterances are of more import than all the Papal Bulls.
She has secured, as her ally, one of the finest intellects of the
day, one of the best Christian apologists.
If, then, we have further novels from the pen of Chesterton
we shall expect them to have a Roman bias, but we shall hope
that they will not bear any signs that Rome has dictated the
policy that has made many of her best priests mere puppets,
afraid, not of the Church, but of the Pope, who often enough
in history has been a very ignorant man.
Of present-day novelists it is in no way fair to compare them
to Chesterton; 'some contemporary novelists are better than
he is, some are worse.' These are statements the writer of this
book has often heard; they are entirely unfair. Chesterton, as I
have said, stands apart; his works are for the most part symbolic.
This is their difficulty: anyofhis books may be the symbol for
several points of view with the exception of his religious
position, which is always on the side of Christianity, and, I
think, the Roman Catholic interpretation of it; his dialogue is
worthy of Anthony Hope, his dramatic power is intense, his
satire is never ill-natured, it is always cutting, his humour is
gentle, pathos is rare in his novels, he has never described a
woman, he is undoubtedly a philosopher, but he is not one who
is academic, above all he is the genial writer of phantastic tales
that are as wide as the universe.
CHESTERTON ON DIVORCE
I T may be somewhat arbitrary to proceed straight away
to nearly the end of Chesterton's 'Superstition of Divorce'
to find an argument that shows that he doesn't quite
understand what divorce aims at; but it is well, when
taking note of a book on an alleged abuse of modern society,
to also see that the writer has got hold of the right end of
the stick. It is no doubt unfortunate that many marriages
said to be made in heaven end in hell. Divorce may be a sign
that men have no reverence for marriage, it may equally be
an argument that they reverence it very much; but there is no
good reason for attributing to divorce only very low motives
and one of the lowest that can be found; consequently I have
started in the middle of this book.
In a chapter on the tragedies of marriage, Chesterton re-
marks that' the broad-minded are extremely bitter because a
Christian, who wishes to have several wives when his own
promise bound him to one, is not allowed to violate his vow at
the same altar at which he made it.' What most people who
wish for a divorce want is that they shall have, not several
wives, but one, who shall prove that Christian marriage is not
a horrible farce, that the words of the priest were not a miser-
able blasphemy. Chesterton has made a very big mistake ifhe
thinks that the exponents of divorce wish the Church to be a
party to polygamy; what they want is that the Church shall
show a little common sense and not rely on the tradition of
hotly disputed texts.
I think it is perfectly clear that Chesterton can see no good
in divorce at all. I have said it may be a very good argument
for those who wish to make marriage what it is said by the
Church to be-a Divine institution. Many people seek
divorce, not that, as Chesterton implies, they shall run away
with the wife of the man across the square, but that, having been
unlucky in a speculation, they wish quite naturally and quite
rightly to try again, to the infinite satisfaction of all parties.
If the Church does not agree that divorce is ever right, so
much the worse for that Divine institution; if the Church
is right in holding that marriages are made by God, then
civil marriages are not marriages at all, and there is no need
to worry about divorce, because the most ardent reformer
does not imagine that man can undo the Divine decree; on
the other hand, the Church never will face the fact that, if all
marriages in a church by a priest are Divine, then it is rather
strange that the result of them very often would be more
consistent with a Satanic origin.
I am dwelling at some length on this theological argument
because, though Chesterton does not base his case on that argu-
ment, he undoubtedly considers that divorce is against the
Church's teaching, and the Church to which he now belongs
would not allow him to think otherwise. Before I finally leave
this side of the question there is one other consideration that
must be faced. Whatever the texts in the New Testament
relating to divorce may mean, it is rather unfortunate that
they are attributed to a bachelor. Whether Christ had any
good reason for knowing anything about divorce is not an
irreverent one, but it is one that the Church must face to-day.
Another thing that Chesterton does not seem to realize
is that many people do not want divorce to marry again,
but to be free of a partner who is not one in the most superficial
sense of the word; at the same time a separation does not meet
the case, as it is always possible that a man or woman may wish
to take the matrimonial plunge again. Chesterton seems to
think it is amusing to poke fun at those who are sensible
enough to wish to make lunacy a sufficient ground for
divorce. 'The process' he says, 'might begin by releasing
G. K. CHESTERTON
somebody from a homicidal maniac and end by dealing with a
rather dull conversationalist.' He might have added, to make
the joke complete, or from some one who snores, or keeps cats,
or reads Bernard Shaw.
(To put it roughly,' says Chesterton, 'we are prepared in
some cases to listen to a man who complains of having a wife.
But we are not prepared to listen at such length to the same
man when he comes back and complains that he has not got a
wife. In a word, divorce is a controversy about remarriage;
or, rather, about whether it is marriage at all.' To a certain
extent Chesterton is right when he says that the controversy
about divorce is really about remarriage, but what he forgets
is, that for the hundreds who want divorce to be remarried,
there are thousands who want it to be unmarried. The reason a
man complains of having a wife is, of course, often that he
prefers a mistress; but it is equally true that another cause for
complaint is that his wife has for him none of the recognized
attributes of the normal state of wifehood.
I have always understood that in some sense Chesterton
was a journalist of the kind who is rather hard on journalism,
but I did not know until I read this book on divorce that he so
little understood newspapers and their writers. Commenting
on the fact that the Press is sensible enough to use divorce as a
news item, he says: 'The newspapers are full of an astonishing
hilarity about the rapidity with which hundreds of thousands
of human families are being broken up by the lawyers; and
about the undisguised haste of the "hustling" judges who carry
on the work.' I wonder if Mr. Chesterton ever reads the
leaders of certain papers, leaders which never fail to regret the
enormous amount of divorce there is. If it be true that there is
a great deal of news of divorce in the Press, it is because the
Press does not give news of an imaginary world that is a Utopia,
but of the dear old muddle-headed world as it is. Does
Chesterton fail to see that if the newspapers did not report the
Divorce Courts, the numbers of cases would increase from
thousands to millions. It is useless Chesterton sighing that
lawyers have become breakers of families; they have also
become restrainers of suicide. If the judges hustle, it is because
they are sensible enough to see that most of the divorces are
justifiable; when they have not been, they have not been slow
to say so.
Yet again Chesterton repeats the somewhat superficial argu-
ment against divorce that its obvious effect would be frivolous
marriage. The normal person on his or her wedding day
luckily does not think about anything beyond the supreme
happiness they have found at least at the time. It is lightly said
that the modern Adam and Eve think of the chances of divorce
before marriage whatever may be the cause of divorce after-
wards; at least it will be agreed that it is a failure of a particular
two people who thought that their lives together would be a
mutual happiness. Therefore, when Chesterton says that
divorce is likely to make frivolous marriages he is saying
that couples about to marry do so expecting it to be a failure.
If this be so, then the young men and women of to-day are
more hopeless than they are commonly made to appear by
correspondence about them in the papers. If, on the other
hand, every couple on marriage knew for a certainty that it was
'till death us do part,' it is more than likely that marriage
would be a thing that was abnormal, not normal. It might
even be that the Church would have to listen to reason, and
be disturbed over worse things than divorce, and whether she
should endeavour to take a Christian attitude to those who
had been unfortunate or indiscreet.
Chesterton is very concerned that the time will come when
(there will be a distinction between those who are married
and those who are really married.' This is precisely to state
what is Utopia. At present many people who are really married
arein the chains of slavery; the more who getoutofitthe better.
As the number of those whose marriages are a farce will gradu-
ally diminish, thus will divorce be a godsend. Divorce is, in
certain cases, a godsend, but the priests refuse to listen to the
G. K. CHESTERTON
Chesterton sketches at some length the nature of a vow.
He considers that Henry the VIII broke the civilization of
vows when he wished to have done with his wife. It is quite
possible that he did, but it is also possible that she did precisely
the same thing. The question in regard to our inquiry is:
Is the marriage vow entirely binding even when the other
party to the contract has broken it? The opponents of divorce,
amongst whom are Chesterton, will quite easily say that it is,
yet they cheerfully ignore the fact that in a marriage two
persons make a contract, and if one breaks it there is quite
a good reason that the vow made is no longer one at all.
I t is a very interesting question whether a vow should ever be
broken. Should Jephthah have broken the vow that sacrificed
his daughter? Should Herod have broken his vow that laid
the head of John the Baptist on a charger? Should two people
remain together when (if they have not broken their actual
vows) they have lost the spirit of them? The opponents of
divorce, who are so eager over the keeping of the marriage
vow, are they as eager that it shall be but a miserable skeleton?
Chesterton does not see any particular reason why the ex-
ponents should be anxious to secure easier divorce for the poor
man. I t is, he thinks, 'encouraging him to look for a new
wife.' If he has a wife who isn't one at all, the best thing for
him is to look for another who will prove to be so, otherwise he
will search for the nearest public-house and a cheap prostitute.
Surely it is better that it be granted his first marriage was a
failure and let him try decently for a better.
Of course, the most sensible plan would be to give divorce
for all sorts of small things; people would soon then tire of it.
Chesterton tells us that already in America there is demand for
less divorce consequent on the increased facilities over there.
In England there is demand for more. Let it be given freely
and the demand will soon cease. Why should our policy be
dictated by a celibate priesthood? Does Chesterton think that
people who hate one another are going to live together as
though they were the most ardent lovers? Does he consider
that it would be better to have no divorce and no marriage as a
consequence? Does he consider that ill-assorted couples will
make happy nations? Does he really consider that divorce
can destroy marriage? Does he consider that the newspapers
print the divorce cases because they have no other copy?
Chesterton's book is, I think, unfair on some points.
He considers divorce is a superstition; he holds that it is
pernicious from a social standpoint; he considers that it
encourages adultery; he considers that it is the breaking of a
vow; but has he ever seriously considered that if all divorce is
wrong, that marriage very often is the most miserable carica-
ture of Divinity possible? Has he thought what the state of the
country would be if no marriage could ever be broken or a fresh
matrimonial start made? If such a thing happened it might
make him write a book on the' Superstition of N on- Divorce.'
'THE N EW JERUSALEM'
T HERE are four ways of going to Jerusalem-the one
is to go as a pilgrim would go to Mecca; another is to
go as a tourist in much the way that an American
staying in Russell Square might start for a trip round London.
Again, it is possible to go to Jerusalem for yet a third reason,
that of wishing quite humbly to be in some way a modern
Crusader. There is yet a fourth way, which is to be made to go
for reasons that are called military and are really political.
'The New Jerusalem' is, above all, a massive book. It is
the record of a tour, and it is something more, it is an apprecia-
tion of the Sacred City on a Hill. It is, in a limited sense, a
philosophy of the Holy Land; it deals in a masterly way with
problems connected with the Jews; it is so unscholarly as to
insist that the scholars who refuse to call the Mosque of Omar
that at all are pedantic; it has a fine chapter on Zionism; it
describes Jerusalem, not so much as a city, but as an impression
that fastened itself on the mind of Mr. Chesterton.
There are some very fine passages in the book that deal with
the curious question of Demonology, that peculiar belief
which finds a place in the New Testament in the story of the
Gadarene swine, and who, Chesterton felt, might still be
found at the bottom of the Dead Sea-' sea swine or four-
legged fishes swollen over with evil eyes, grown over with
sea grass for bristles, the ghosts of Gadara
One of the most interesting chapters of this book is that
which is entitled' The Philosophy of Sightseeing.' There is,
of course, a philosophy of everything, of boiling eggs, of race-
horses, of the relations of space and time-in fact, Philosophy is
'THE NEW JERUSALEM'
a sort of Harrods, that sums up anything from a Rolls Royce
to a packet of pins.
To some people there must be almost something incongru-
ous in the idea of sightseeing in the Holy Land, yet it is prob-
able that of the crowds round the foot of the Cross, on which
was enacted the world's greatest blessing, a great part were
idle sightseers who, twenty centuries later, might have been a
bank holiday crowd on Hampstead Heath. Chesterton found
that there was a philosophy in sightseeing; he had been
warned that he would find Jerusalem disappointing, but he did
not. He could be interested in the guide who' made it very
clear that Jesus Christ was crucified in case anyone should
suppose that He was beheaded.' He could see that the' Christi-
anity of Jerusalem, after a thousand years of Turkish tyranny,
survived even in the sense of dying daily'; fascinating as
Chesterton found Jerusalem, much as he insists that the
'sights' of the city must be seen in their right perspective, yet
he has sympathy with the man who only 'sees in the distance
Jerusalem sitting on the hill and keeping that vision' lest
going further he might understand the city and weep over it.
Chesterton devotes a long and careful chapter to the
question of the Jews, of whom Christ was the chief; but,
notwithstanding, thousands of His so-called followers quite
forget this, and scarcely will admit that the Jew has a right to
live. The reason is, no doubt, that the Fourth Gospel uses the
word loudaw) in the sense of those who were hostile, con-
sequently many entirely orthodox Christians are anti-Jewists,
quite oblivious of the very reasonable request of St. Paul that
in Christ are neither Jew nor Gentile. This is, in brief, the
theological side of the vexed question of Zionism. Chesterton
makes it quite clear that he thinks it desirable that 'Jews
should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of
Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews,' which is
of course to say that the Jews should be a nation. But the fact
remains, do they wish to be so, and, if they do, is it necessary
G. K. CHESTERTON
to them, or even congenial, that it shall be in Palestine? It
is no way the province of this book to go into this question; it
has been enough to say that it is perfectly evident that
Chesterton desires for the Jew the dignity of being a separate
Is there any particular characteristic in this record of
Chesterton's visit to Jerusalem! Is it anything more than an
impression of a wonderful experience, when a great writer left
his home in Buckinghamshire and passed over the sea and the
desert to the city that is older than history and is now new?
I do not think that the book can be called more than a Chester-
tonian impression of Jerusalem, with an appreciation of the
vexed history of that strange city which is Holy. It does not
forget the problems in connection with Palestine, but it has no
particular claim to having said very much that was new about
the New Jerusalem. Yet it has avoided the obvious: it is not of
the type of book that is read at drawing-room missionary
meetings, which are more often than not written in a sur-
prised style, that the places mentioned in the Bible are really
I almost feel as if this book is somethingof a guide-book-in
fact, it was inevitable that it should be so. I rather fancy that
descriptive writing is for Chesterton difficult; it is a little
bit too descriptive, which is to say it is not always easy to
imagine the scene he is trying to describe. I am not sure that
the Jews will be Rattered to be told that Chesterton thinks they
are worthy of being a nation; it is slightly patronizing.
Y et the New Jerusalem is a book to read, but it is not of the
Holy City that St. John saw in the Revelation; it is of the New
Jerusalem of the twentieth century, which is very imperfect,
yet is Holy. It is a book of a city that was visited by God, Who
did not deem Himself too important to walk in its streets; it is
of a city teeming with difficulties; it is of a city that has felt
the iron hand of the conqueror; it is finally Jerusalem made
into a symbol by the hand of Mr. Chesterton.
MR. CHESTERTON AT HOME
T HERE is a very remarkable fascination about the home
life of a great man whatever branch of activity he may
adorn. Ifhe is an archbishop, it is interesting to know
what he looks like when he has exchanged his leggings for a
human dress; if he is a pork millionaire, we like to see whether
he enjoys Chopin; ifhe is a great writer, the interest of his home
life is intensified. F or the tens of thousands who know an
author by his books, the number who know him at home may
qui te well be measured by the score.
There is always an idea that a great man is not as others; that
he may quite conceivably eat mustard with mutton, or peas
\vith a spoon; that his conversation will be of things the ordinary
man knows nothing about; that he is unapproachable; that he is,
in short, on a glorified pedestal. This love of the personal is
demonstrated in the absurd wish people have to know about the
private doings of Royalty, it is shown in the remarkable fact
that thousands will hang about a church door to see the wedding
of some one who is of no particular interest beyond the fact that
they are in some way well known; it is again seen in the interest
that people display in those parts of a biography that deal with
the life of the public man in his private surroundings.
When I first knew Chesterton he was living in a Rat in
Battersea, a charming place overlooking a green park in
front and a mass of black roofs behind. Here Chesterton lived
in the days when he was becoming famous, when the inhabi-
tants of that part of London began to realize that they had a
great man in their midst, and grew accustomed to seeing a
romantic figure in a cloak and slouch hat hail a hansom and
drive off to Fleet Street.
G. K. CHESTERTON
Later, Chesterton moved to Beaconsfield, a delightful
country town, built in the shape of a cross, on the road from
London to Oxford. He has here a queer kind of house that is
mostly doors and passages, and looks like a very elaborate dolls'-
house; it is rather like one of the Four Beasts, who had eyes all
round, except that instead of having eyes all round it has doors
all round; and I have never yet discovered which is really the
front door, for the very good reason that either of the sides may
be the front.
In a very charming essay, Max Beerhobm, one of the best
essayists of the day, gives warning to very eminent men that
if they wish to please their admirers a great deal depends on
how they receive those who would pay them homage. He tells
us of how Coventry Patmore paid a visit to Leigh Hunt and
was so overcome by the poet's greeting-' This is a beautiful
world, Mr. Patmore' -that he remembered nothing else of that
interview. I remember one day it so happened that I had to
pay a visit to Anthony Hope. I knocked tremblinglyat his
door in Gower Street and followed the trim housemaid into the
dining-room. Here I found an oldish man with his back to
me. Turning round at my entrance he said, without any asking
who I was, 'Have a cigarette r' And this is all that I re-
membered of this visit.
The best way, according to Max Beerbohm, is for the visitor
to be already seated, and for the very eminent man to enter, for
'Let the hero remember that his coming will seem super-
natural to the young man.'
I cannot remember the first time I saw Chesterton,
whether he was seated or whether I was; whether his entrance
was like a god or whether he was sitting on the Roor drawing
pirates of foreign climes or whether he was wandering up and
down the passage. Chesterton is so remarkable-looking that
anyone seeing him cannot fail to be impressed by his splendid
head, his shapely forehead, his eyes that seem to look back
over the forgotten centuries or forward to those yet to come.
If there is one thing that is characteristic of Chesterton,
it is that he always seems genuinely pleased to see you. Many
people say they are pleased to see you, yet at the same time
there is the uncomfortable feeling that they would be much
more pleased to see you leaving. This is not the case with Ches-
terton: he has the happy advantage of making you feel that he
really is glad that you have come to his house. This is not so with
all great writers. Carlyle, ifhe liked to see a person, did not say
so; Tennyson did not always trouble to be polite; Swift would
receive his guests with a gloomy moroseness; Dickens was a
man of moods; conversation with Browning was not always
easy. Great men do not always trouble to be polite to smaller
What a wonderful laugh Chesterton has. It is like a clap of
thunder that suddenly startles the echoes in the valley; it is the
very soul of geniality. There is nothing that so lays bare a man's
character as his laugh-it cannot pretend. We can pretend to
like; we can pretend to be pleased; we can pretend to listen; we
can't pretend to laugh. Chesterton laughs because he is amused;
he is amused at all the small things, but he seldom laughs at a
I have often and often sat at his table. He talks incessantly.
There is no subject upon which he has not something worth
while to say. His memory is remarkable; he can quote poet after
poet, or compose a poem on anything that crops up at the table.
I do not think it can be said that Chesterton is a good listener.
This is not in any way conceit or boredom, but is rather that
he is always thinking out some new story or article or poem.
Yet he is a good host in the niceties of the table; he knows if you
want salt; he does not forget that wine is the symbol of hospi-
I t has been said that Chesterton is one of the best conversa-
tionalists of the day. Conversation is a queer thing; so many
people talk without having anything to say; others have a great
deal to say and never say it. Chesterton can undoubtedly talk
well; he has a knack of finding subjects suitable to the company;
though he does not talk very much of things of the day; he is
G. K. CHESTERTON
naturally mostly interested in books. Given a kindred soul
the two will talk and laugh by the hour.
Naturally, Chesterton has to pay the price of greatness:
he has visitors who will make any pretence to get into his
presence. But many are the interesting people to be found at his
home. I remember one day, some years ago, when Sir Herbert
Tree called to see him. I do not recollect what they talked
about, but the time came for the famous actor to go. The
last I saw of him was the sight of his motor-car disappearing
and Sir Herbert waving a great hat, while Chesterton waved a
great stick. I never saw Tree again. Not long after, the world
\vaved farewell to him for ever.
One of the most frequent visitors to his home is Mr. Belloc,
and it is said that he always demands beer and bacon. One day it
so happened that Mr. Wells came in about tea-time. He
seemed, it is said, gloomy during the meal, and finally the cause
was discovered! Mr. Wells also wanted beer and bacon. It was
forthcoming, and the great novelist was satisfied. I t is at least
interesting to know that on one point at least Belloc and Wells
are agreed-that beer and bacon are very excellent things.
No word of Chesterton's home life would be complete
without reference to his dog Winkle. Winkle was more than a
dog, he was an institution; he had the most polished manners-
the more you hurt him the more he wagged his tail; if you trod
on his tail he would almost apologize for being in the way. He
knew his master was a great man; he had a certain dignity, but
was never a snob. But the day came that Winkle died, and
was, I am sure, translated into Abraham's Bosom. Chesterton
has now another dog, but he will never get another Winkle.
Such dogs are not found twice. I am not sure, but I think one
day Winkle will greet Chesterton in the Land that lies the
other side of the grave.
I t is, I think, well known that Chesterton has a great
liking for children. He is often to be seen playing games with
them or telling them fairy stories; he is an optimist, and no
optimist can dislike children. He probably likes children for
the very good reason that he is quite grown up; it is no un-
common thing to see him sitting on the floor drawing pictures to
illustrate his stories. Which reminds me that Chesterton is a
remarkably clever artist. I would solemnly warn anyone who
does not like his books defaced not to lend them to Chesterton.
He will not cut them, he will not leave them out in the sun,
he will not scorch them in front of the fire, but he will draw
pictures on them. I have looked through many books at his
home-nearly all of them have sketches in them. I have not
the qualifications to speak of his art; I do not know whether he
can be considered a great artist; I do not know whether it is a
pity that hé does not do more drawing; I do not know whether
he can really be called an artist in the modern sense at all-but
I do know that at his home there are many indications that he
likes drawing, especially sketches of a fantastic nature.
Chesterton does nearly all his work in his little study, a
sanctum littered with innumerable manuscripts. He, like
most authors of the day, dictates to a secretary, who types what
he says. It is, I think, in many ways a pity that so many
authors type their manuscripts; for not only are they machine-
made, they have not the interest that they should have for
posterity. What would the British Museum have lost if all the
manuscripts had been typewritten! Chesterton's written hand
is extremely elegant. At one time I believe he used to write
his own manuscripts. The typewriter is, after all, but one
more indication that we live in times when nothing is done
except by some kind of machinery; all the same, I could wish
that even if typewriters are used famous authors would keep
one copy of their writings in their own hand.
It is remarkable the amount of work that Chesterton gets
through. He has masses of correspondence, he has articles to
write, books to get ready for press, and yet he finds time to
help in local theatricals, to give lectures in places as wide apart
as Oxford and America (and what is wider in every way than
those two places?), that mean all that is best in the ancient world
G. K. CHESTERTON
and all that is best in the modern. He can also find time to take
a long tour to Palestine to find the New Jerusalem, that city
that Christ wept over, not because it was to be razed to the
ground, but because its inhabitants were fools.
What are the general impressions that a stranger visiting
Chesterton would get? He would, I think, be impressed by
his genial kindliness; he would be amazed by his extraordinary
powers of memory and the depths of his reading; he would be
gratified by the interest that Chesterton displays in him; he
would be charmed by the quaintness of his home. That
Chesterton has humour is abundant by his conversation; that
he has pathos is not so apparent. I am not perfectly sure
that he can appreciate the things that make ordinary men sad.
It has been said that he is not concerned with the facts of
everyday life; if he is not, it is because he can see beyond
them-he can see that this is a good world, which makes him
a good host; he can look forward across the ages to the
glorious stars that shine in the night sky for those who are
optimists, as Chesterton is, and are great men in their own
HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE
I N a very admirable discussion on the word' great,' in his
study of Dickens, Chesterton remarks that 'there are a
certain number of people who always think dead men
great and live men small.' The tendency is natural and is
entirely worthy of blame. If a man is great when he is dead,
then he was great when he was alive. It is but a re-echo of
much of the folly talked during the war, when we were so
credulous as to believe that every dead soldier was a saint and
every live one a hero. Then, when the war was over, these
hero worshippers quietly forgot that the soldiers had been
heroes, put up stone crosses to the dead, and did little to remove
the crosses from the living.
There are a number of quite well meaning people who will
say, without much thought, that Chesterton is a great man,
and if you ask them wh y, they will answer, ' He is a great wri ter,
he is a great lecturer, he must be great; look at the times he
appears in the Press, look at the wealth of caricature that is
displayed on him.' No doubt these are good reasons in their
way, but they rather indicate that Chesterton is well known in a
popular sense; they are not a true indication that he is great.
The public of to-day is inclined to measure greatness by the
number of times a person appears in the newspapers, it
seldom realizes that greatness is, above all, a moral quality, not
a quantity; the fact that a person is in front of the public eye
(very often a blind eye) is no indication of true greatness. If
it was, then of necessity every Prime Minister would be a
great man, every revue actress would be a great woman, every
ordinary person would be small.
p 1 0 5
G. K. CHESTERTON
I t is one of the most difficult things possible to determine
what is the place a writer takes in literature. It does not make
the task easier when the writer is not only alive but is still a
comparatively young man in the height of his powers. A pure
and simple biography cannot always determine with any
satisfaction its subject's literary standing. Critical studies of
classic authors do not usually give any preciseness about the
exact niche the subject fills.
Literature is one of the most elastic qualities of the day, of
human activity; it cannot be bound by rules, yet has a more
or less artificial standard, which is, perhaps, an imaginary line
which has style on the one side and lack of style on the other.
Yet there is a further difficulty: it is in no way fair to award
an author his place in literature entirely by his style, nor is it
fair to literature to disregard it.
I have anticipated in earlier chapters some of what must
be said in this, but it is not, I think, out of place to attempt to
write of the literary qualities of Chesterton and of his place
in contemporary literature. With regard to his position
in respect of former writers I must say something, but it
would not be wise to give any comment of what may be the
permanent place of Chesterton in the world of books. He has,
I hope, many years of literary output in front of him. It cannot
be ignored that his reception into the Roman Catholic Church
may greatly inRuence his future writings; it is too soon to
make any effort to predict whether his writings will stand the
test of time, whether he will be popular in a hundred years or
whether he will have the neglect that has attended some of the
greatest of authors.
There is a question that must be faced. Has Chesterton a
place in literature at all, if, as is the usual thing, we have to
compare him with contemporary writers, or is it that he has
such a unique place that it is impossible to compare him to any
living writer? Probably, although it is not necessary, it is best
to compare Chesterton with some of the greatest writers of the
day, and see why it is that he is worthy of a place in the
HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 107
foremost rank. There are, at the present day, a great number
of writers who would appear worthy of a foremost place in
literature. Those I have chosen have been selected because,
in a sort of vague way, people couple them with the name of
Chesterton. They are, I think, H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw
and Hilaire Belloc.
I do think that all these writers have a unique place in con-
temporary literature. Perhaps, of the three, Wells is the
greatest, because there is possibly no greater thing than a
scientific prophet who is also a brilliant novelist. If Belloc
and Shaw are smaller men it is because they deal with smaller
At the present day Chesterton does occupy in contemporary
literature a place that no one else does. He is, in a sense, a
Dickens of the twentieth century; he is something more, he
may even be a prophet. Of course Chesterton has not the
enormous following that Dickens had at the height of his
powers, but he has that kind of monumental feeling in the
twentieth century that belonged to Dickens in the nineteenth:
he is typical of this century, being an optimist when ordinary
men are pessimistic. As in the nineteenth century Dickens
made common men realise their greatness when they them-
selves felt immeasurably small, so Chesterton makes great
men feel small when they are really so.
But in another sense he cannot really be compared to
Dickens. Dickens undoubtedly was a delineator of supreme
char'!-cters. I do not think it can be said that any of the charac-
ters of Chesterton would ever be known with the knowledge
with which Mr. Pickwick is known. Dickens was not in any
sense an essayist; Chesterton is one in every sense. Dickens
was a man who really cared very much that all kinds of oppres-
sion should be put down; Chesterton, no doubt, cares also, but
he rather imagines that things ordinary people quite rightly call
welfare work are but forms of slavery. If Dickens hated
factories it was because he had hateful experience of them; if
Chesterton hates factories it is because he thinks they destroy
G. K. CHESTERTON
family life and the home. I have attempted to suggest that
Dickens and Chesterton are alike as regards their being monu-
ments of their respective centuries. I have also suggested that
they are extremely unlike. Yet I can think of no writer of
the nineteenth century who, in ideal, is so near to Chesterton
as Dickens; but that at the same time they are also so far apart
is but another indication that to place Chesterton in regard
to the past is almost impossible.
One thing that Chesterton is not, is an Eclectic; if he
is an original thinker, it is because he can see that though
black is not really white there is no particular reason why it
should not be grey; if Notting Hill can boast of forty fried fish
shops he does not see any reason why it could fail to produce
a Napoleon. If a party of Dons are sitting round a table dis-
cussing how desirable is the elimination of life, he see
is a perfectly good ethic for one of the undergraduates to test
the theory by brandishing a loaded pistol at the warden's head.
If, as a novelist, he is different to all his contemporaries, it is
because he has discovered that the word novel sometimes
means something new, sometimes something original, very
often something extremely old.
Yet another difficulty for finding an exact niche for Ches-
terton lies in the fact that he is a bit of everything, and, what is
more, these bits are very big and makea large kaleidoscope. He
is a theological professor who is so entirely sensible that the
public hardly discovers the fact; he does not wear a cap and
gown, and quote quite easily from all the Fathers of the ancient
Church. He does not apologize for Christianity by reading
Christian books. Rather to learn the Christian standpoint he
discovers the tenets of Rationalism; he writes a theological
philosophy that might be a discussion between Satan and
Christ and puts it into a novel; he writes a dissertation on
Transubstantiation and puts it into a tale of anarchy that is so
untheological that it mentions Leicester Square and lobster
mayonnaise; he is a historian who not only writes history but
understands it; he does not consider that William conquered
HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 109
England, but that England conquered William; he says the
best way to read history is to read it backwards; he is a his-
torian who does not consider the most important facts are the
dates of kings who lived and died.
It has been said that Chesterton is the finest essayist of the
day. It would be perhaps fairer to say he is like no living
essayist; if he is not a finer essayist than Dean Inge, he is at
least as good; he may not be so academic, but he is as learned;
if he has not quite the charm of Mr. Lucas he is at least more
versatile. His essays sparkle with epigrams, they are full of
paradox. He has said that Plato said silly things and yet was
the wonder of the ancient world. He can lament that H. G.
Wells has come to the awful conclusion that two and two are
four, and at the same time be thankful that not even in fairy-
land can two and two make five; he can state quite calmly that
the weakness of Feminism is that it drives the woman from the
freedom of the home to the slavery of the world; he can make
priggish clergymen, who accuse him of joking and taking the
name of the Lord in vain, bite their words by eXplaining that
to make a joke of anything is not to take it in vain. As an
essayist, Chesterton stands apart from his contemporaries. Of
older essayists I can think of none who could in any way be
said to have a similarity to Chesterton.
One of the most interesting things about Chesterton is his
position as a poet. I have said, in an earlier chapter, that he
might have been the Poet Laureate. I have ventured to say
that if posterity did not place him among great poets it would be
because he had given more attention to prose. The particular
question of Chesterton as a poet opens up a more general one,
which is something in the nature of a problem. Would the
great classic poets of the last century have been as great if they
had not written so much poetry? Had Tennyson written but
two long poems; had Browning never written anything but
short lyrics; had Wordsworth been content to write few
poems, provided these had been an indication of the best work
of these particular poets, would posterity have granted them
G. K. CHESTERTON
imn10rtality? Will Chesterton go down to posterity as a poet
on account of his fine achievement in his' Ballad of the White
Horse, 'or will people forget him because he has not written
more? I am rather afraid this may be so. Posterity, it is true,
likes quality, but it likes it better with quantity.
But I feel that I am dealing with what I had said it would
be well to avoid-anything to do with the future of Ches-
terton. What is Chesterton's position as a poet to-day? He
is, I think, one of the finest of the day; he has a fine sense of
humour in poetry; he has great powers of recasting scenes of
long-forgotten centuries; he has a fine musical rhythm; but he
has not, I think, pathos. I think it is a pity that he does not
write epics on events of the day; he might easily find the Poet
Laureate's silence an inspiration; he might write another great
poem; it might be better than anymore novels.
It is difficult to say whether or not Chesterton is a play-
wright. His one play was a fine one about a fine subject, but
I do not think it had the qualities that would be popular in an
ordinary theatre in London. There is a certain suggestion of a
problem about it which is a little obscure. We are not sure
whether Chesterton is in earnest or joking: it has not probably
sufficient action to suit this century, that wishes aeroplanes to
dash through the house on the stage, or two or three people to
meet with violent deaths in three acts. It is in the nature of a
discussion and might be almost anti-Shavian; it would be
absurd to attempt to place Chesterton among contel11porary
dramatic authors, but it is not too much to predict that he
might quite easily soon be very near the front rank.
Byhis critical studies of Browning, Dickens,andThackeray,
Chesterton has proved that there was a great deal more to be
said about these classic authors than the critics had seemed to
,think. Chesterton seldom agreed with those who had written
before. What they had considered weaknesses he had con-
sidered strength; what he had considered weakness they had
considered strength. Possibly no author had been written
about more than Dickens, yet there remained for Chesterton
HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE III
to add much that was vital. No poet had been more mis-
understood than Browning; no poet had been more attacked
for his grotesque style; no critic has written with the under-
standing of Browning as has Chesterton. In taking extracts
from Thackeray, Chesterton has shown a fine appreciation of
that novelist's best work.
It is a difficult thing for a great writer to be a great critic.
He is liable to be either condescending or supercillious; he is
liable unconsciously to judge all standards by his own; he is
likely to be rather intolerant of any opinions but his own; it is
easier for a great critic to be a great writer. In the case of
Chesterton, because he is a great and original writer he has
a brilliant critical acumen that probes deep into the minds of
other authors and sees what is stored there in a way that other
critics have, perhaps, failed to see, not because they did not
choose to look for it, but rather because, almost without
knowing it, critics who set out to be critics exclusively are
liable to work rather too much by a fixed rule.
I t is, I hope, now apparent how difficult it is to say where
exactly Chesterton finds a place in literature. Is it as an
essayist? Is it as a novelist? Is it as a historian? Is it as a critic?
If it is as a novelist, then it is as a writer of peculiar phantasy;
if it is as an essayist, it is as a brilliant controversialist; if it is
as a historian, it is as a unique critic of history; if it is as a critic,
it is as a broad-minded one of not only past great authors but
of current events.
I do not know of any writer who is so difficult to place.
Wells can quite well be a fine novelist and prophet; Bernard
Shaw can easily be called a playwright and a philosopher;
Galsworthy is a serious novelist and a playwright who takes
the art with proper regard for its powers of social redress;
Sir James Barrie is a mystical writer with a message. There
are fifty novelists who are interpreters of manners and prob-
lems of the twentieth century. But Chesterton is not like
any of these. He is not in any sense a specialist; he is really a
general practitioner with the hand of a specialist in everything
G. K. CHESTERTON
he touches except divorce. In a word, he is that thing in
literature that occurs once or twice in every century-an epic.
He is the laughing, genial writer of the twentieth century
who, in everything he does, earns the highest of all literary
honours-to be unique.
G. K. C. AND G. B. S.
I T would be a very interesting problem to try and discover
how it is that Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George
Bernard Sha w ha ve come to be known so familiarly as
G. K. C. and G. B. S. If any of my readers can suggest a
solution of this, I hope they will let me know; because, if I
calmly headed this chapter G. K. C. and J. M. B. I do not
think that anyone would guess that I was attempting to com-
pare Chesterton to James Matthew Barrie unless I told them.
It would be really quite amusing to do all comparisons by this
initial method; we might find in the Hibbert Journal an
article on the need of Episcopacy headed H. H. Dunelm and
Frank Zanzibar, which would be quite simply the Bishop
of Durham and the Bishop of Zanzibar on Episcopacy; or, for
a rest. we might turn to the Daily Herald and find 'J. R. C.
attacks L. G.,' which would be quite simply that Mr. Clynes
did not see eye to eye with the Premier that a Coalition
Government was a national asset.
If we refer to the past, it is not easy to suggest anyone who
might be known by initials. Charles Dickens was never known
as C. D.; Thackeray, when he wrote his 'Essay on the Four
Georges' was probably not known as W. M. T. on the Four
Georges; but if Chesterton writes a book on America, the
Press affirms that there is a new book on America by G. K. C.,
or we pick up a morning paper and find a large headline on
'G. B. S. on Prisons,' and everyone knows who it is. But put a
headline, 'Randall on Divorce,' and it is not seen at once that
the Archbishop of Canterbury has been addressing the Upper
House on a matter of grave ecclesiastical import.
G. K. CHESTERTON
There is a saying about some people being born great,
others having that state thrust upon them, others as having
achieved it. There is no doubt that Chesterton was born to be
great, so no doubt was Shaw, but they went about it in a differ-
ent way. The public caught hold of the remarkable person-
ality of Chesterton and scarcely a day passed that the Press did
not either quote him or caricature him; on the other hand,
Shaw caught hold of the public, annoyed its susceptibilities,
held it in supreme contempt, raved at it from the stage and
platform, and the public, amazed at his cleverness, received
him as the rude philosopher who looked a genius, talked like a
whirlwind, said that he was greater than Shakespeare, said he
was the Molière of the twentieth century, and posed until it
was expected of him.
But Chesterton does not pose. If he comes to lecture on
Cobbett and talks for three-quarters of an hour on how his
hat blew off, it is not a pose, it is the natural inconsequence of
Chesterton on the platform. If Shaw is invited to a dinner and
writes that he does not eat dinner and does not care to see
others doing nothing else, he is posing; but, if so, it is because
he is expected to do so.
On almost every subject Shaw and Chesterton disagree; yet
they are both men who, in some way, attempt to be reformers.
Shaw proceeds by satire and contempt; Chesterton proceeds
by originality and good nature, except on the question of
divorce, which makes him very angry, and, as I have said,
uncritical. Shaw chastises the world and is angry; Chesterton
laughs, and, in a genial way, asks what is wrong; and, having
found out, attempts to put things right. Shaw would rather
have a new sort of world with a super-man.
Shaw and Chesterton approach reform from two different
ways. Chesterton suggests them by queer novels and para-
doxical essays; Shaw puts his ideas into the mouthpieces of
those who are known as Shavian characters; he interprets his
theories by the Stage, therefore his sermons reach tens of
thousands who would not read him if he preached from a
G. K. C. & G. B. S.
pulpit. Thus, if he wants to show that there are no rules
for getting married, he puts the problem into a play and wants
an extension of divorce; Chesterton, on the other hand,
believes that marriage is Divine and that divorce is but a
superstition. If Shaw believed that the home narrowed life,
was a domestic monarchy, meant a loss of individuality between
husband and wife, Chesterton, far from agreeing to this pro-
position, takes the opposite view that it is the home which is
large and the world which is small and narrowing. Probably
neither is quite right. For some people the home is narrowing,
for others it is the place that affords the widest scope; for some
the world is narrow, for others the world is extremely broad-
o broad that they never are able to get free from its
With regard to religion, whatever opinions Chesterton may
hold-as he is now a Roman Catholic-they are no longer of
interest. Shaw, on the other hand, is much too elastic a man to
imagine for a moment that religion is a thing that is necessarily
bound up with an organization which is mainly political; he
is not so credulous as to believe that the spiritual can fall verti-
cally to earth because a man kneels before a bishop and be-
comes a priest. Rather he had a much better plan. He
started by being an atheist, the best possible foundation for
subsequent theism. From this he became an lmmanist,
which is that God is in some way dispersed throughout the
If there is one thing upon which we may say that Shaw and
Chesterton are identical, it is in the strange fact that neither of
them has, I think, ever described an ordinary lover-the sort
of person who is nothing of a biological surprise, the kind of
person who woos on a suburban court in Surbiton or Wimble-
don and marries in a hideous red brick ch urch to the cheerful
accompaniment of confetti and the Wedding March. I do not
think either of them can really enter into the ordinary emotions
of life. They could neither of them write, I fancy, a really
typical novel-that is, a tale about the folks who do the
G. K. CHESTERTON
conventional things. Chesterton always sees everything upside
down. If the man on N otting Hill sees it as a bustling area,
Chesterton sees it as a place upon which a Napoleon might
fall. Shaw, on the other hand, could not write of ordinary
things because he is usually contemptuous of them. If Ches-
terton thinks education is a failure it is because the conven-
tional method irritates him; Shaw considers that education
does not educate a man, it 'merely moulds him.'
I am not sure that Mr. Skimpole, in his brilliant study of
Bernard Shaw, is quite correct when he says' the whole case
against Chesterton, of course, is that he is a Romantic.' Why
is it a something against him that he chooses to be an idealist?
Because, says Mr. Skimpole, 'he does not seem to have
grasped the fact that the most important difference between the
Real and the Ideal aspects of anything is that while the Ideal
is permanent and unchangeable as an angel, the Real requires an
everlasting circle of changes.' I am rather afraid Mr. Skimpole
is talking through a certain covering that adorns his head.
Cannot he see that very often the ideal is nothing less than the
real? It is no case against Chesterton that he is a Romantic
so long as the fact is duly recognized. If he considers certain
institutions are permanent which may be said to be ideal (for
instance, that marriage is a sacrament), he is just as likely to be
as right as is Mr. Shaw when he contends that marriage must
be made to fit the times, even if it be granted it is a Divine
If Shaw is unable to see that most earthly things have a
heavenly meaning, as Chesterton does, it is so much the worse
for Shaw and so much the better for Chesterton. If Chesterton
is a dangerous Romantic who likes Fairyland, at least Shaw is a
dangerous eugenist who wants a super-man, and I am not
sure that the fairies of Chesterton are not more useful than the
ethics of Shaw; there is no doubt that they are less grown up.
If Shaw is a philosopher, he is not one of this Universe; he is of
another that shall be entirely sub-Shavian. If Chesterton is a
G. K. C. & G. B. S.
philosopher, it is because he can see this universe better upside
down than Shaw understands it the right way up.
In fact, the difference between Shaw and Chesterton may,
I think, be something like this. They are, as I have said, both
reformers, but Chesterton wishes to keep man as he is essenti-
ally, and gradually make him something better. Shaw wants to
have done with man and produce a super-man. In this way
Shaw admits the failure of man to rise above his environment.
Chesterton not only thinks he is able to, but tries to prove it in
his writings. Thus, if a man is an atheist he can show that he
is in time capable of becoming a good theist, but Shaw if he
allows some of his characters to be in hell, gets them out of it
by attempting to make them strive for the super-man. For
Chesterton, Man is the Super-Man; for Shaw, the Super-Man
is not Man at all.
In fact, this no doubt is the reason that Shaw is really a
pessimist and Chesterton an optimist.
There is, I think, little doubt that Chesterton is a far more
important man than Shaw. He has the facility for getting hold
of the things that matter; he is never ill-natured; he does not
make fun of other people. Much as the writer admires the
wit and brilliancy of Shaw, he cannot help feeling that Shaw
is a rather cynical personality; Shaw loves to laugh at people,
he is inclined to make fun of the martyrs. They were
possibly quite mistaken in their enthusiasm, but at least they
were consistent. I do not feel convinced that Shaw would
stand in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and keep his ideals if
he knew that it would involve being eaten by lions that came
up Regent Street, as the martyrs faced them centuries ago in
Rome, but I have little doubt that Chesterton would remain in
Piccadilly Circus if he knew that he would be eaten unless he
denied that marriage was a Divine institution.
In a word, Shaw bases his Philosophy and Plays on a con-
tempt for all existing institutions. Chesterton bases his
Writings and Philosophy on genial good nature and a respect
I I 8
G. K. CHESTERTON
for the things that are important. Therefore I think that
Shaw has not made such a permanent contribution to thought
as Chesterton certainly has; even if it is only in showing that
the Christian religion is reasonable.
T HERE was a time in history when the ancient world
searched in vain for the truth. It produced men of the
type of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; they were great
philosophers who looked at the world in which they lived and
asked what it meant. Was it material? Was it spiritual? Was
it temporary? Was it eternal? Men were dissatisfied. And
about that time a greater Philosopher came in the wake of a
star, and men called Him Christ.
It is the twentieth century, and the Man the ancient world
called Christ founded the religion which His followers were to
take to the ends of the earth. Yet men are still dissatisfied;
philosophers look out of their high-walled windows and watch
the modern world, which goes on; men die and are forgotten;
creeds spring up for a day and pass; writers produce books, and
in their turn pass away.
Of this century Chesterton is one of the great thinkers. I tis,
I think, a mistake not to take him seriously. Ifhe is phantastic,
there is a meaning behind his phantasy; ifhe laughs, the world
need not think that he is frivolous. He is a prophet, and he
has honour in his own country.
Chesterton is still a young man; he is young in soul and
body. Like Peter Pan he does not grow up, yet he is a famous
man; he has written great books, he has written fine poems,
he has written brilliant essays, but he has never written a book
with an appeal to an unthinking public that reads to kill
thought. I wonder whether Chesterton would write a
, Philosophy for the Unthinking Man'? I think he is the one
G. K. CHESTERTON
man of the day who could do it, and I think it might be his
I have attempted in this book to draw a picture of the
works of Chesterton. They are not easy to deal with; they
may mean many things. I have not attempted to forecast the
future of Chesterton, strong as the temptation has been, but
I have endeavoured to place before those who know Chesterton
what it is they admire in him; and for those who only know
him as a name, I hope that this book may induce them to read
the most arresting writer of the day, who is known in every
country as the Master of Paradox, which is to say that he is
the Master of the Temple of Understanding.