Comment Comment and Features

GK Chesterton was more prophet than jester

GK Chesterton reads on a bench in Brighton on October 30, 1935 (AP)

If you want to see the 9,250 manuscript pages of The Lord of the Rings, you have to go to Wisconsin. The biggest Keats collection in the world is in Harvard. Britain can be quite negligent of its literary geniuses, and until recently this has been shamefully true with regard to GK Chesterton. America is miles ahead of us in commemorating him: Ponchatoula, Louisiana has a Chesterton Square, with a life-size bronze statue of the man in the middle of it. London, the city he reimagined so vividly, has a couple of plaques.

But there is some good news for Chesterton researchers. In a large room at the Oxford Oratory, the trustees of the GK Chesterton Library have brought together a rather special collection of Chestertoniana. (Full disclosure: I’ve been to one trustees meeting, so I’m involved enough to declare an interest but not enough to have, you know, done anything helpful.)

Alongside editions of his writings, the library has books he owned, original drawings and doodles – many of them in the margins of the books – plus miscellaneous items such as his rosary, typewriter, and a set of Frances Chesterton’s figurines. (“My wife happens to have the … hobby of collecting tiny things, though some have charged her with inconsistency on the occasion when she collected a husband.”) Visits are currently by appointment only, but the library is fundraising with a view to becoming a fully fledged study centre, and an open day was held last month.

In a speech at the end of the open day, the main collector of the library’s treasures, Aidan Mackey, spoke about the “astonishing” revival of interest in Chesterton. People have never stopped reading Chesterton, Mackey observed, but in recent years his reputation has grown rapidly.

Michael Hurley, lecturer in the Cambridge English faculty and author of a study of Chesterton, agrees. “Chesterton has not only become more popular recently,” Hurley says, “he has also become more interesting.” Chesterton has often been simplified, Hurley argues, into a jester or a “counter-cultural foghorn”; the 21st century is discovering how complex he is, and how “engaging and pressingly relevant”.

One reason for the Chesterton revival, I think, is that he believed so fervently what most of us wish we could believe less hesitantly: that life is a thrilling adventure and humanity an abiding wonder. “If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.” He didn’t promise that the adventure would have a happy ending, but he refused to call life dull or trivial.

This side of Chesterton appeals to readers whatever their beliefs – though it is certainly open to Christians to point out annoyingly that he was able to take human lives so seriously because he thought they were created out of an infinite love; and it is open to Catholics to point out, still more annoyingly, that he thought it was a love story set partly in Rome. But Chesterton was famously non-sectarian: side-stepping the culture wars of his day, he had an exemplary talent for making his opponents into his friends. HG Wells told him in a letter that “if my atheology turns out to be wrong, I feel sure that I can pass into Heaven, if I wish, as a friend of G.K.C.”

For all Chesterton’s abstractedness, his mind fixed with delight on other people. “Affection,” he told a friend going through a difficult period, is “the most solid thing in the world.”

Chesterton thought one of the most troubling aspects of his era was the flight from human contact, routinely presented as an advance in technological sophistication. He would have been scornful, but unsurprised, at the news that the Henn-na Hotel in Sasebo, Japan will open next month with a staff composed mostly of robots.

“Sociability,” he wrote, “like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations”: the temptation was to run away into a safe private world. You can see why people call him a prophet.

But he would not have predicted this new study centre. Chesterton underrated his own abilities: he once turned up very late to give a poetry reading and sat in grumpy silence, unable to remember any of his verses. He only brightened up when there turned out to be a volume of Belloc in the room – “Ah, that’s real poetry” – which he could read out instead.

Moreover, Chesterton was suspicious of the culture industry. “Let us have no antiquarianism about Dickens,” he wrote, “for Dickens is not an antiquity.” He continued, in words you could apply to Chesterton himself: “Dickens looks not backward, but forward; he might look at our modern mobs with satire or with fury, but he would love to look at them. He might lash our democracy, but it would be because, like a democrat, he asked much from it.”

A Chesterton library is a wonderful thing, as long as we remember that his own books are alive and kicking.

Dan Hitchens is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (12/6/15).

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