Viewing G.K. Chesterton through a modern lens
G. K. Chesterton CNS photo

Seventy-five years after his death, the English convert author and journalist G.K. Chesterton remains a presence in Catholic circles.  

Many of his 80-odd books are in print, societies and journals exist to celebrate his memory, he and his ideas remain in play. 

Now comes the latest and possibly most significant evidence of this enduring interest — “G.K. Chesterton: A Biography,” by Oxford University theology professor Father Ian Ker (Oxford University Press, $65). At 747 pages, the book is as massive as his much-praised 1988 biography of another famous English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman. In Chesterton’s case, heft is suitable to the biography’s subject, who stood well over 6 feet and weighed close to 300 pounds. 

Does Chesterton merit this attention? Are he and his work of lasting importance or is he in the end simply a relic of a bygone era, now of interest mainly to a devoted but limited conservative audience? There are different opinions about that. 

British literary life

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born May 29, 1874, in London to respectable middle-class parents weakly attached to watered-down liberal Protestantism. In his youth, he and his younger brother Cecil dabbled in the occult, and the biography records a creepy encounter with a diabolist at the art school he attended. But Chesterton’s wife, Frances, was a devout adherent of the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism, and their marriage in 1901 drew him into the fold. 

But not, at least not quickly, into the Catholic Church. Although Chesterton was a resolutely orthodox Christian, he journeyed to Rome slowly — apparently for fear of upsetting his wife — and did not become a Catholic until July 30, 1922. Frances Chesterton soon converted, too. 

Meanwhile, Chesterton was writing — newspaper columns (first in the Daily News, then for three decades in The Illustrated London News), poetry, plays and books. The voluminous output included literary biographies of writers such as Charles Dickens and Robert Browning, religious apologetics and fiction (his Father Brown stories about a priest-detective are his best-known work in this line). 

He also edited his own weekly newspaper in which he promoted distributism, a socioeconomic system neither communist nor capitalist and highly critical of both. 

In his lifetime and also after his death, Chesterton was often linked with another convert Catholic writer and apologist, Hilaire Belloc. The two together were sometimes called the “Chesterbelloc.” But as a major figure on the British literary scene for more than 30 years, he counted many non-Catholics among his friends, including critics of religion such as playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelist H.G. Wells. After Chesterton’s death in June 1936, Shaw offered Frances Chesterton financial assistance if she needed it (she did not). The homily at his funeral was preached by another prominent convert and writer, Msgr. Ronald Knox. 

Stylistic shortcomings

Was Chesterton a great writer? At its best, his writing was pungent and forceful. To a Protestant critic of Catholicism, he once wrote: “After 2,000 years of compromises and concordats with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He [Christ] still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.” 

But cleverness could be his undoing. So, for instance, although he exhibited foresight (others did, too) in anticipating the resurgence of Islam, it was more clever than convincing to assign its key features to an accident of geography (“born in the desert”). 

As a stylist, Chesterton was a quasi-compulsive user of the linguistic device called paradox — a seeming contradiction that sheds light on a deeper truth. He said he employed paradox because life itself was paradoxical. For some readers, though, this addiction to paradoxes — which sometimes work and sometimes don’t — makes him easier to take in short doses and brief quotes (as in Father Ker’s fine biography) than in entire books, where the repeated use of paradox, passage after passage and page after page, grows distracting. 

As a religious thinker, he is vigorous and original — up to a point. But he is no theologian (and, to his credit, didn’t claim to be one), while his apologetical works understandably seem more suited to the time and place in which they were written than to the issues and exigencies of the present day. 

Bygone era

Whether intentionally or not, “G.K. Chesterton: A Biography” is a reminder of an era — in Great Britain and, for a while, also in the United States — when articulate, committed Catholics were intellectual celebrities who got a respectful hearing even in secular circles. Think of Belloc, Chesterton, Msgr. Knox, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in Britain, or of Thomas Merton, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy in the United States: The list is long and distinguished. 

But that was then. Now, in both Britain and America, an aggressively hostile secular culture extends the hand of welcome to “recovering Catholics” — people who have quit the Church and are happy to tell the world about it — while giving the back of its hand to believing Catholics, along with evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews.  

Here is a sad and shabby cultural shift for the worse that Chesterton would have skewered with indignant glee. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.