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Gilbert Keith Chesterton
1874 - 1936
 

 


The English author, journalist, and artist Gilbert Keith Chesterton dedicated his extraordinary intellect and creative power to the reform of English government and society. In 1922 he converted to Roman Catholicism and became its champion.

On May 29, 1874, G. K. Chesterton was born in London. His father, gifted in many lines of amateur creativity, exerted no pressure on the boy to distinguish himself in either scholarship or athletics. Gilbert was a day boy at St. Paul's. The masters rated him as an under-achiever, but he earned some recognition as a writer and debater. From St. Paul's he went to the Slade School of Art, where he became a proficient draftsman and caricaturist; later he took courses in English literature at City College.

From art Chesterton drifted into journalism. He was vitally concerned with the injustices of Great Britain to its dependencies. He progressed from newspaper to public debate. He used logic, laughter, paradox, and his own winning personality to show that imperialism was destroying English patriotism. In 1900 he published his first literary works, two volumes of poetry.

In 1900 he met Hilaire Belloc, and in 1901 he married Frances Blogg. These events were two of the great influences in his life. From 1904 to 1936 Chesterton published nearly a dozen novels, the most important being The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). In 1911 Chesterton created the "Father Brown" detective stories. During his literary career he published 90 books and numerous articles. He poured out a wealth of lighthearted essays, historical sketches, and metaphysical and polemical works, together with such well-known poems as "The Ballad of the White Horse," "Lepanto," and the drinking songs from The Flying Inn. Among his major critical works are studies of Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906). Prodigiously talented, Chesterton also illustrated a number of Belloc's light works.

Chesterton spoke of himself as primarily a journalist. He contributed to and helped edit Eye Witness and New Witness. He edited G. K.'s Weekly, which advocated distributism, the social philosophy developed by Belloc. Chesterton's overriding concern with political and social injustice is reflected in Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1909), perhaps his most important work.

Throughout his life Chesterton was one of the most colorful and loved personalities of literary England. To his intellectual gifts he added gaiety, wit, and warm humanity that endeared him even to his antagonists. Shortly after his marriage he had purchased a home in Beaconsfield, where he died on June 14, 1936.
 


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Prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories. Along with George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and H.G. Wells, Chesterton was one the great Edwardian men of letters. Between 1900 and 1936 he published some one hundred books. Chesterton also gained fame for his series about the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared in 50 stories

"The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists." (from 'A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls', 1901)

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family. Edward, his father, whom Chesterton described as "serene, humorous and full of hobbies", was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and estate agents business of Chesterton. Marie-Louise, his mother, was of Franco-Scottish ancestry. Chesterton did not learn to read until he was over eight, but later he could quote whole passages of books from memory. One of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump of white fat." Chesterton studied at University College and the Slade School of Art (1893-96). At the age of sixteen he started a magazine called The Debater.

Around 1893 Chesterton had gone through a crisis of skepticism and depression. During this period he experimented with the Ouija board and grew fascinated with diabolism. In 1895 Chesterton left University College without a degree and worked for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902). Much of his early writings were first published in such publications as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G.K.'s Weekly. Chesterton renewed his Christian faith; also the courtship of his future wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, pulled him out of the crisis.

GREYBEARDS AT PLAY, Chesterton's first collection of poems, appeared in 1900. ROBERT BROWNING (1903) and CHARLES DICKENS (1906) were literary biographies, THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL (1904) was Chesterton's first novel, a political fantasy, and in THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY (1908) Chesterton depicted fin-de-siècle decadence. The protagonist, Syme, is a poet turned an employee of Scotland Yard, who reveals a vast conspiracy against civilization. The members of the secret anarchist gang are named for days of the week. Sunday is the most mysterious character who tells that since "the beginning of the world, all men have hunted me like a wolf - kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet." Sunday, the president of the Central Anarchist Coucil gives a simple advice about disguise: "You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless, a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb? Why then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool! Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then." Perhaps Chesterton had in mind the 'Bloody Sunday' of 22 January 1905, when the priest and double-agent Gapon, led the crowds to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburgh. A stage adaptation of the story by Mrs Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale was produced in 1926.

In 1909 Chesterton moved with his wife to Beaconsfield, a village twenty-five miles west of London, and continued to write, lecture, and travel energetically. Between 1913 and 1914 Chesterton was regular contributor for the Daily Herald. In 1914 he suffered a physical and nervous breakdown. After World War I Chesterton became leader of the Distributist movement and later the President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that private property should be divided into smallest possible freeholds and then distributed throughout society. In his writings Chesterton also expressed his distrust of world government and evolutionary progress. During the Boer War he took a pro-Boer standpoint. He was very popular radio lecturer, engaging in a series of debates with George Bernard Shaw. His younger brother, Cecil, died in 1918 and Chesterton edited his brother's the New Witness and his own G.K.'s Weekly.

"Observed Chesterton on seeing for the first time the sparkling bright light of Broadway: "How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read." (from The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1990)

In 1922 Chesterton was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thereafter he wrote several theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. "Existence is still a strange thing to me; and as a stranger, I gave it welcome", he wrote in AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1936). Chesterton received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities. In 1934 he was made Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield. His coffin, too big to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window to the ground. Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988.

Father Brown debuted in 'The Blue Cross' in the Storyteller (1910). To wider public the character became first known from Chesterton's book THE INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN (1911), a collection of twelve cases. The rest of the stories appeared in THE WISDOM OF FATHER BROWN (1914), THE INCREDULITY OF FATHER BROWN (1926), THE SECRET OF FATHER BEORN (1927), and THE SCANDAL OF FATHER BROWN (1935). In Autobiography Chesterton explained the passive character of his creation: "His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on." The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Innocence of Father Brown among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published (Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987). Before creating father Brown he had hailed in 'Defence of Detective Stories' this somewhat scorned genre of tales as "the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." Father Broen is gentle, quiet cleric, with ever-furled umbrella and round face, whose mission is to identify the culprit so that he/she might repent and save his/her soul. Among his opponents is the French jewel thief Flambeau, who reforms and becomes a London private investigator, and helps occasionally Father Brown. "Has it never struck you," Brown explains to Flambeau in 'The Blue Cross', "that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?" Father Brown was based on father John O'Connor (later Monsignor), Chesterton's friend, who in 1922 received the author into the Roman Catholic Church. John Dickson Carr used Chesterton as the model for his detective Dr. Gideon Fell.

In his verse Chesterton was a master of ballad form, as shown in his "Lepanto", published in 1911. His other works include plays, historical studies, essays, and biographies of such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Thackeray, George Bernard Shaw, and William Blake. Chesterton's subjects were very varied: the biography of Chaucer (1932) celebrated the Middle Ages, THE THING (1929), a collection of essays examined his own conversion to Roman Catholicism, TAKES OF THE LONG BOW (1925) propounded his social and political views.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008